February 4, 2016

In many countries around the world, there is concern that the population is aging. Similarly in Singapore, by the year 2030, it is estimated that the percent of Singaporeans aged 65 years or older will make up 19% of the population ( Inter-Ministerial Committee on Ageing Report. (1999) Ministry of Community Development: Singapore). Older people are more likely to get chronic diseases, which are associated with reduced quality of life and increased cost of health care. And yet, research has shown that poor health is not inevitable as we grow old. And though a long, healthy life is partly good genes, there are effective lifestyle practices that can allow us to maintain a good quality life and remain independent longer with advancing years.

face and hands of beautiful woman

The three populations in the world with the largest percent of centegenarians, or people living beyond 100 years of age provide us with important lessons. Residents of these three locations- Okinawa in Japan; Loma Linda in California, USA; and Sardinia in Italy are more likely to live beyond 100 years of age and are less likely to develop chronic diseases such as heart disease or cancer, thus allowing them to live long and healthy lives (Buettner D, The Secrets of Long Life. National Geographic Magazine, 2005). As the article summarizes, the common factors in the lifestyles of these three populations and that therefore likely contribute to longevity are 1) having a sense of community belonging such as those that you get by surrounding yourself with friends, families and neighbors, 2) finding a sense of purpose, 3) getting daily exercise, and 4) having frequent, small and well-balanced meals.

Though this formula may sound simple, many find the most difficult parts to be getting daily exercise and having a well-balanced diet. Its not that easy with our busy Singaporean lives. Here are some key points:

Exercise: Before you start, check with your doctor if you are over 50 years old and are not used to regular exercise. There is no doubt that regular exercise and physical activity are beneficial no matter how old you are. Not only has it been associated with delaying or preventing the onset of diseases like heart diseaseor diabetes, it can also improve your mood and give you more energy. The US National Institute on Aging recommends 30 minutes of exercise or activity most days of the week. It doesn’t need to be 30 minutes all at once, it can be spread out during the day. Exercises like Tai chi may be particularly good because it improves balance. No matter what age you are, joining a gym may be a good idea. It is also important to do strength exercises to build your muscles because these exercise can help prevent falls that can lead to hip fractures (or broken hips). Don’t forget to stretch- this is important to keep you flexible.

Good Nutrition: The Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) Healthy Diet Pyramid provides guidelines for Singaporeans on how to eat a balanced diet. If you have a computer, the HPB has numerous tools online that can help you count calories, analyze your recipes, and even guides you how to go food shopping so that you focus on healthy choices. If you don’t have access to a computer, you can group the foods you eat into 1) rice and whole grain foods, 2) fruits and vegetables, 3) protein such as meat and fish, and 4) Fats, oils, salt and sugar, with the latter two categories being less in amount you consume than the first two. Make sure you drink plenty of liquids like water, juice, milk and soup. Consume fiber, which comes from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, brown rice and whole grains. Fiber helps problems like constipation, and also lowers cholesterol and blood sugar.

What about Dietary Supplements?

Supplements are “over the counter” substances that do not require prescription. The most common supplements are vitamins and minerals. The best way to get vitamins and minerals is by eating the recommended servings of food types as described above. If you are unable to eat a balanced meal, talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement. The label on the supplement bottle should indicate the amount a supplement countains relative to the suggested daily intake. For example, a folic acid intake of 100% of recommended daily value means that the supplement will give you the total amount that you need each day.

What about Growth Hormone, does this prevent aging?

Our body makes hormones which are important chemicals that signal our cells to perform certain functions. These functions include maintaining blood pressure and blood sugar levels, help with bone formation, and also allow children to grow taller. As we age, there is a natural decline in certain hormones. There are proponents for hormone supplementation, particularly to slow down the aging process. However, according to the US National Institute of Aging, which has been conducting clinical studies on this topic, the evidence supporting this is weak. One of the most recently discussed hormones is the use of Human Growth Hormone (hGH) because some individuals are using it for anti-aging. The only way to take hGH is through injections, and some people spend money to receive these treatment because of claims that it boosts stamina and strength. But little is known about the long-term risks of this controversial treatment. Indeed, as stated by the National Institute of Aging, though some studies suggest that hGH can increase muscle mass, it doesn’t seem to impact on muscle strength. In addition, side-effects have been seen with the use of growth hormone , including the development of diabetes and heart failure.

In summary, there are simple ways to remain healthy and disease-free as we age. Talk to your doctor about interventions that are proven by clinical studies, and not those that are simply fads or trends. Finally, take advantage of the internet to evaluate treatments yourself. Consult the Health Promotion Board’s website (www.hpb.gov.sg) or the United States’ National Institute of Aging for up-to-date information on which treatments and approaches are proven.