I apologise if this appears to take the form of a health and fitness page in this newspaper. But, as I know a number of my friends will comment, why not, for once, write with some practical advice instead of quoting a lot of poetry or trying to solve the problems of these tumultuous times – which is about as useful as murmuring a warning in the middle of an overpowering hurricane.
This year, Toronto, where I spent a few months, hosted the 14th global conference of the International Federation on Ageing. As an 85 year-old, the conference was of special interest to me – although I have to admit that I am not so much one of the ageing as much more one of the already aged.
Experts in the field, many of them quite young, gathered from all quarters, offered advice, based on extensive research, not so much on how to add years to one’s life as to how to add life to one’s years. Adding a bit more time of decrepit, brain-fogged old age to life by heroic medical interventions wasn’t the objective.
Here then are some of the main conclusions of the Toronto conference:
• Be positive. Resist ageism, which is an under-recognised form of prejudice. Value the benefits of being older and therefore better at many things in life.
• Check health regularly. Keep vaccinations up to date – particularly remember that shots for flu, shingles and pneumonia are now available and essential to protect against illnesses that are especially dangerous for older people.
• Get enough sleep – not less than seven hours in a day. Sleep unclogs and helps dispose of waste in body and brain. Sufficient sleep improves alertness and clarity of thought.
• Keep active. Move more. Exercise so that the heart quickens. This improves muscle strength, agility and mobility, bone and metabolic health, every good thing really.
• Even into very old age, surprisingly, the brain, that most astonishing of all creations, continues to develop neurons and multiply neural connections, if one keeps it challenged constantly. Try new books, the latest films and music, the pursuit of hobbies or part-time jobs, discussions with family and friends, memory training, or simply taking an interest in local and world events.
• Stay socially involved. Slowing down shouldn’t mean bowing out. Maintain interest in family events and contacts with friends.
• Be especially careful of the eyes. The eyes tend to be neglected in monitoring health but vision is closely linked to the main determinants of well-being in older people – risk of falling, social connectedness, depression or anxiety, the ability to do ordinary tasks and enjoy visual entertainment and sport. The good news is that most eye problems that emerge as one gets older – cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetes-related damage – are successfully treated when caught early.
• Proper nutrition is all-important for good health and vitality in body and brain. Home cooked meals are absolutely better than indulgence in processed and fast foods. And it is perfectly possible to enjoy eating and drinking (in moderation) while following the rule for a wholesome meal: half vegetables and fruit, quarter protein, the rest whole grain – not all the time but very much most of the time.
• Read the great poets. Read Gerard Manley Hopkins. Read William Blake. Read Derek Walcott and Martin Carter. Read them all. They will do your soul good. And as you get older, the soul gets more important. Read the great poets.
Well, no, that last resolution wasn’t actually passed at the Conference. But it should have been.
You have been advised. Pay attention. It is not just a question of avoiding and combating sickness and decline late in life. It is about retaining the physical and cognitive ability to engage in life actively and creatively. There is absolutely no reason why three score and ten should not be considered just another staging post in the contribution a man or woman makes to family, friends, community and country.