How healthy are you for your age? In your 20s you may consider yourself to be immune from age-related illness and disease, but by your 50s are all too aware of the risks that come with advancing years. Yet every decade presents lifestyle issues that could put your future wellbeing at risk and men should never rest on their laurels, however old or young you look and feel.
Here, with the help of leading experts, we find out where your health focus should lie as the years tick by:
By the age of 21, your body is set up for life in terms of organ and skeletal maturity. Any additional weight you gain after 21 will be body fat which is unhealthy,” says Roy Taylor, professor of medicine and metabolism at Newcastle University.
Two years ago, the latest GROWING UP in Ireland survey, conducted by a consortium of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin, asked 5,191 20-year-olds how they had fared in aspects of their lives since they were last interviewed at 18 years old, found that levels of overweight/obesity had risen from 27% at age 17/18 to 36% by age 20. Almost one in ten young men were classified as obese in their early 20s.
The same survey also reported that about 21% of male Irish 20-year-olds experienced relatively high levels of stress – enough to cause significant depression symptoms - with financial strain and the pressures of still living at home among their anxieties. More than one fifth of young men also experienced higher than normal levels of daily stress.
Provided you are not obese at this age, you should aim to maintain your 21-year-old body weight for life. “Keep up any good habits and ditch any bad ones as early in life as you can – including stopping smoking, cutting down on alcohol intake and getting your five-a-day. Add some interval training to your exercise regimen to boost cardiovascular fitness and burn calories," says personal trainer Matt Roberts and author of (Bloomsbury).
“It can be anything to get your heart pumping so cycling, swimming, running — or even walking. Push as hard as you feel able for 15 seconds and aim for six intervals per session, putting in 90% of your maximum effort with whatever recovery you need from 40 seconds to two minutes between bursts.”
Also, try daily meditation - it doesn’t need to be complicated. Steven Leveys, a neurologist and neuroscientist who is head of the GIGA Consciousness Research Unit and Brain Clinic at the University of Liège in Belgium and author of(Bloomsbury), suggests simply breathing in deeply through your nose, making sure your stomach is inflated and your chest is filled with air, then holding your breath for the count of four before exhaling for a count of four.
“This stimulates the vagus nerve, an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system that carries signals to and from the brain, and will have a soothing effect on your mind,” he says.
Testosterone levels, which peak during puberty and young adulthood, plateau for a few years, then start to decrease by about 1% a year from the age of 30. “Testosterone plays a key role in protein synthesis and also encourages the production of growth hormones that maintain and build muscle mass,” says nutrition therapist Ian Marber and author of(Piatkus). “In addition, as testosterone levels fall, fat storage tends to increase.”
From the mid-30s you will also begin to lose muscle mass through a process known as sarcopenia which, along with rising levels of inactivity due to long working hours during this decade, can all contribute to pounds of fat creeping on around the middle. “It matters because muscle is far more efficient than fat in terms of using the energy that is generated from the food you eat,” Marber says.
Gaining fat around your middle is never good news and is a sign that fat is also building up around organs, like the liver and pancreas. And type 2 diabetes strikes at a lower BMI in men than women which is the reason why more than 56% of adults with diabetes are male.
It’s easy for alcohol intake to creep up in this decade and recent research by the Health Research Board (HRB) showing that, in Ireland, men aged 25-34 years are more likely to be classed as hazardous drinkers.
If you do nothing to offset muscle decline, you may have lost 90g of muscle by your mid-40s, so start lifting weights and moving more.
Don’t think you are too young to get diabetes or metabolic-related disorders. Standing up regularly was shown to significantly reduce blood sugar and insulin levels in one study at the University of Leicester involving 435 people at risk of developing metabolic disorders because they had excess fat around the midsection and were either overweight or obese.
Simply standing up for five minutes every half an hour reduced the rise in sugar levels by 34% (compared with a 28% reduction for walking) although the more intense the exercise the better. Insulin concentrations fell by 37% when people spent their five minutes walking compared with 20% when they stood still.
Shifting hormones means that fat starts to settle in the danger zone around your midriff. You may see the early signs of a paunch, a risk factor for heart disease and strokes, and of moobs, hormonally influenced fat deposits in the chest area.
“Your body becomes more sensitive to sugars from your 40s onwards which exacerbates the accumulation of middle fat,” says Matt Roberts.
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, this increased central obesity can raise blood cholesterol levels, increase blood pressure and put men at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
“More than twice as many men as women in the 45-54 year age group have circulatory disease that is associated with so many health problems,” Marber says.
Cut down on added sugar and avoid processed and refined foods. “Make a concerted effort to eat more wholegrains and leafy greens,” says Marber.
Do more resistance training to keep weight gain at bay. “This can be any exercise that places increased demand on your muscles and/or central nervous system, so can involve weights but also includes exercises such as press-ups, burpees and single-leg squats, which move your body against its own weight,” Roberts says.“It helps to maintain muscle mass, boosts declining male hormone levels and increases metabolic rate so that weight gain is harder.”
Two years ago an international study that looked at health data from 123 countries reported in thethat Irish men ranked second for prevalence of hypertension, at 56%.
If you have hypertension, you are also more prone to stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.
“Carrying more fat than you could mean you have a 43% chance of developing high blood pressure,” says Marber. “Cholesterol is also likely to be raised if you are overweight, as are blood glucose levels, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes.”
Years of wear and tear coupled with weight gain are often a recipe for painful joints and gout, an inflammatory condition, is also more common in men of this age who need to lose weight.
Think about brain health if you haven’t already. Cognitive decline and all forms of dementia increase with age and risk factors include a high alcohol intake, smoking, raised blood pressure and cholesterol levels and a poor diet that lacks nutrients.
Reduce red meat intake if you haven’t already. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends an upper intake of red meat on now more than two or three days a week.
“Aim to eat no more than 90g (cooked weight) of red meat a maximum of four times a week although less and less often is better,” says Marber. “A 90g portion of meat equates to three small slices, each of which is about the size of half a slice of bread.”
Most Irish adults also consume too much salt, an average of 10g a day which the FSAI says is “well in excess of physiological requirements” and raises the risk of hypertension long term. Aim to reduce your intake to the recommended upper limit of 4g salt per day by cutting down on ready meals, salty snacks and added salt.
Drink more green or black tea which is rich in flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory properties shown to help maintain blood flow to the brain, offering protection against vascular dementia that is caused by blockages that deprive the brain of oxygen.
Marber says we should also eat more fibre, “aiming for 30g a day”, which will help keep the gut healthy, waistlines trim and might offer additional protection against memory loss. “You find fibre in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains,” he says.
Brain foods are also essential. In a recent study, researchers from the University of Iowa looked at how specific foods influence cognitive acuity later in life. Eating cheese was found to be by far the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems and green’ leafy vegetables were also essential.
“Red wine’s high antioxidant and resveratrol content which means that it has been shown to have some protective effects for the brain and that it may offer some protection against Alzheimer’s’ disease and dementia,” says Marber. “However too much of any sort of alcohol has detrimental effects for the brain and you can get the same antioxidant benefits from drinking non-alcoholic red grape juice.”
According to the Health Research Board, men aged over 65 in Ireland tend to drink less overall than younger men and yet one-third of those who do drink are hazardous drinkers, with more than 40% of men aged over 65 engaging in monthly binge drinking. If that’s you, cut down and aim for at least three or four alcohol-free days each week, says Marber, as a high alcohol intake is associated with a raised risk of certain types of cancers and with cardiovascular disease.
Around 3,500 men in Ireland are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year making it the second most common cancer to affect men after skin cancer and men in their 60s plus, particularly those who have a family history of the disease, are at a greater risk for developing it.
Then there’s heart disease. “The average age of a first heart attack for men is 65 compared to 72 for women,” Marber says.
Diminishing eyesight can become a problem often down to age-related macular degeneration (AMD) which causes progressive deterioration of the central area of the retina. It is described by the charity Fighting Blindness as “the most the common cause of sight loss in people over the age of 50 in Ireland”.
Diminishing balance also becomes an issue. In research at Manchester Metropolitan University, researchers showed that young adults can easily stand on one leg, eyes closed, for 30 seconds, whereas the average 70-year-old manages only four to five seconds.
Don’t overdo your intense exercise and factor in recovery between any hard gym sessions. “Do some walking, stretching, foam-rolling as it helps with the production of the hormones that help us to stay fit and strong,” Roberts says.
Pick up your walking pace - walking faster in middle age was shown to improve physical and cognitive health by a team from Duke University, the University of Otago and Kings College London.
One study showed that people in their 60s and 70s attending t’ai chi classes performed better in balance tests than those who had spent the same number of weeks learning ballroom dancing. But if you do nothing else, standing on one leg with eyes closed as you brush your teeth will lead to improvements.
A study of people in their 50s and 60s by the Medical Research Council in Britain showed that those who could stand on one leg for ten seconds with their eyes closed were the most likely to be fit and well in 13 years’ time whereas if they managed only two seconds, they were three times as likely to die before the age of 70.
The European Food Safety Authority has recognised that vitamins C and E, zinc, selenium and copper contribute to the protection of the body’s cells from oxidative stress which may play a key role against the development of AMD.
“Lutein and zeaxanthin, found in leafy green vegetables and foods such as kiwis, grapes and egg yolks, will help to protect macula cells, but if you eat anything for your eyes, it should be kale which is an excellent provider of eye-healthy nutrients,” Marber says.