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The 5 minute 'Health' read - Ageing: recent research (January)

I read a fair amount of research and thought some people might be interested in recent studies that I've found helpful.  I plan to write a brief approximately 1,200 word (5 minute read) blog post pretty much every week, highlighting helpful material that has emerged in the previous couple of months.  I'll rotate through six topic areas ... Lifestyle, Positive Psychology, Relationships, Ageing, Psychedelics, and Meditation.  I also plan to write occasional posts where I go into more detail about particular related subject areas. 

I'm 'cheating' a little this week and rather than writing about individual recently published research studies, I'll discuss the "cutting edge" Healthy Ageing overview provided by the recent interview ... the Stay Young Special ... with Professor Andrew Steptoe.  This is an extended (38 minute) version of Dr Michael Mosly's excellent Just One Thing health podcasts.  The programme's website comments: "In this Stay Young Special, we hear from Professor Andrew Steptoe, Head of Behavioural Science and Health at University College London, who leads the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).  We hear the top tips that Professor Steptoe swears by to keep youthful. How can having a sense of purpose keep you genetically young? Why can feeling younger make you physically youthful? And how can your social life keep you in your prime?"

Andrew Steptoe is the 'real deal'.  Over 1,300 research papers have emerged so far from the 20 years of ELSA project, which he leads.  See, for example this (60+ page) downloadable 20th anniversary report Ageing better? Life over 50 in the 21st century or this moving 6-minute YouTube video with the great Michael Marmot, an iniator of ELSA (and so much else), saying "There's huge variation.  Why is it that some people age gracefully, energetically, joyously and others are in this dismal picture, and everything in between?  And then crucially, understanding the causes of those differences, that's what ELSA has been doing these 20 years."

Well, I guess most of us would like to "age gracefully, energetically, joyously" ... I certainly would.  So what are the top five tips that Andrew Steptoe, current lead of ELSA, would share about 'staying young(er)', because they are definitely worth listening to.  His five tips are ... 1.) Find purpose in life.  2.) Keep close to your family and friends.  3.) Get a good night's sleep.  4.)  Age 'disgracefully' (in other words don't get sucked into unhelpful 'ageing stereotypes'), and 5.) Stay curious, for example by engaging in 'cultural' activiites!  Let's have a quick glance at each of these areas.  

1.) Find purpose in life.  Over the years, I have written so much about the importance of this area, although I have often classified the territory as 'Meaning' rather than 'Purpose'.  It spills over too into Autonomy and Intrinsic Motivation.  Going to this website's Tag Cloud and clicking on Meaning brings up pages of material ... not least a series of great quotes, for example the Hasidic rabbi Susya's remark "When I get to heaven, God will not ask “Why were you not Moses?”.  He will ask “Why were you not Susya?  Why did you not become what only you could become?" and another old favourite of mine, T. E. Lawrence's "Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was but vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."  There is also the blog post (one in a series of four) titled Purpose in life: how do you score on the questionnaire & why does it matter? and the course I put together How to live well - a shared exploration.

2.) Keep close to your family and friends.  Mm ... the importance of this area both for wellbeing and for mortality risk has become more and more widely recognised over the years ... see for example the recent book The good life: lessons from the world's longest study on happiness with its description " ... this landmark book reveals the simple yet surprising truth: the stronger our relationships, the more likely we are to live happy, satisfying and overall healthier lives."   This concurs with the statement by Robin Dunbar, Oxford emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology: "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness."  It comes from his 2018 paper "The anatomy of friendship" and he is not claiming poetic licence, but is making his assertion as an evidence-based fact.  Looking more closely at what he's written, it becomes apparent that he is using the term "friendship" to cover close relationships in general ... in couples and families as well as in non-genetically related friendships.  But maybe all this isn't such a new finding ... we have Epicurus many centuries ago stating "Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship."  And we can change our situation with relationships.  In some ways it's like 'gardening' ... working regularly on keeping the plants/people in our 'relationship garden' well watered & fed.  Adding new plants as needed/wanted ... often through meeting new people through shared activities & interests ... and other through opportunities.

3.) Get a good night's sleep.  And I would extend this encouragement to sleep well to living more healthily overall ... yes sleep, and also exercise, diet and staying clear of alcohol/tobacco & other substance abuse.  The sleep injunction is valid but needs to be personalised.  In another recent extended Just One Long Thing special, Michael interviews Professor Russell Foster - Director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford - for a Sleep Special.  The first of Prof Foster's top tips for sleep is "Don't obsess about the mythical eight hours of sleep.  It's an average and the National Sleep Foundation tells us that a perfectly healthy range is from six hours to ten & a half, maybe even eleven.  So it's finding what your sleep needs are ... these sorts of instructions, almost demands - you must get eight hours of sleep - generate huge anxiety and what we've got now is 'sleep anxiety' and people will feel terrified that they won't get the sleep that they've been told that they need rather than listening to their own sleep and individual needs ... that's why it's so important for us to work out what our individual sleep needs are, and of course they change as we age.  The question you should ask yourself is "Do you feel you can perform at your peak during the day?"  And we all know when we're not firing on all cylinders ... it's not really rocket science."  Prof Foster also comments "The great enemy of sleep is anxiety.  Most of us don't have a sleep problem at all.  It's dealing with the anxiety that can perturb our sleep-wake cycle."




More to follow ...



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