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When your body turns against you

Ageing brings with it biological changes that can, at times, prove to be frustrating. Cindy Williams has practical ways to address these changes to ensure we maintain optimal health and an active lifestyle.

Talk to most people over 40 and you will hear the same comments time and again: “I just can’t eat, drink, run, stay up all night, read the fine print like I used to…”.

Youth is forgiving but after 40-something years of moving, breathing, digesting and gravity, our body starts to show signs of wear and tear. We’d expect it with any other machine. But most of us are still shocked when our body can’t keep up with what we think it should do. Some desperately grasp at supplements or surgery to retain their youth, while others passively resign themselves that their bulging tummy and shrinking calves are just part of getting old. Ageing happens. But how fast it happens is up to us.

Wrinkled skin

Why it happens

As we get older, our sub-cutaneous fat diminishes so there’s less padding under the skin. Collagen, which gives support and shape to our face, also reduces. If we’ve spent too much of the last 40 years stressed, smoking, or in the sun, we will probably notice those wrinkles a whole lot sooner.

What to do

  • Collagen, keratin and elastin are all important for healthy skin, and are all made from protein. Make sure you’re eating enough protein but remember, more is not better. Excess protein won’t give you more collagen – it’s stored as fat more likely around the tummy than under cheekbones.
  • Collagen also contains silicon. Foods high in silicon include whole grains, oats, cucumber skin, citrus, the stringy bits of rhubarb, celery, asparagus and mango.
  • Vitamin C is essential for making collagen. Eat plenty of citrus and kiwifruit.
  • Drink plenty of fluids such as water and tea as dehydration results in sunken eyes and saggy skin.
  • Always wear moisturiser and sunscreen.

Middle-age spread

Why it happens

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Hormones, heredity and lifestyle choices are the culprits. For women, the years leading up to menopause see a gradual drop in oestrogen levels. Oestrogen encourages fat to be stored around the hips and thighs but with less oestrogen, fat tends to accumulate around the tummy. Women transform from ‘pears’ to ‘apples’ – just like men. The extent to which this happens depends partly on heredity. But increased hours spent sitting in front of a screen or in the car can also play a part in middle-age spread.

What to do

  • Swap psychological stress for physical stress. Juggling the demands of work and family often cause mental and emotional stress – which does little for good health. A little physical stress is what we need. But take it easy: don’t race out for a five-kilometre run after months of inactivity – you will likely tear a tendon. Thirty minutes of walking, cycling or other moderate exercise most days is enough to help keep that middle-age spread in check.
  • Studies have linked regular exercise to slower ageing. The theory is that exercise keeps our telomeres long. Telomeres are a protective cap on chromosomes – something like the plastic tip on shoelaces that stop it unravelling. When a cell divides the telomeres get shorter and shorter until they become so short the cell can no longer divide. Ageing is the result of cells reaching the end of their telomeres and dying. A study of around 2500 people found that those who exercised an average of 199 minutes per week (roughly the equivalent of 30 minutes a day) had longer telomeres, making them up to 10 years younger at the cellular level than those who exercised just 16 minutes a week. More research, however, may be needed: it could just be that people who exercise have other healthy lifestyle habits that keep their telomeres longer.
  • The worst thing for a spreading waistline is long periods of sitting, says a recent report by researchers at AUT, Auckland. So cycle to work, take the stairs, walk to your colleague’s office rather than email, buy take-out coffee and walk while you talk, enjoy the vacuuming, dusting, weeding and sweeping. These activities all burn kilojoules and use muscles.
  • Eat a little less. It’s a simple equation: move less, eat less. There’s no need to go on a diet, just eat a little less at dinner (try using a smaller plate) and have one slice of cake or one square of chocolate rather than two.

Failing memory

Why it happens

In our forties, forgetting where we put the keys is more likely a case of brain overload and stress rather than the onset of dementia. It’s reassuring to remind ourselves that even those younger than us routinely forget where they left things.

What to do

  • Exercise, socialise, stretch the brain with crosswords, Sudoku and learning new things, and focus on one task at a time.
  • Add brain food to your diet. Blueberries are the ‘brain’ berry. Researchers at Tufts University, US, found that rats fed blueberries actually grew new brain cells. These blueberry eating rat brains also cleared up damaged proteins that interfered with nerve signals.
  • Eat purple, blue and red plants. The colour comes from anthocyanins which act as antioxidants preventing damage in the brain. Try berries, plums, purple grapes, beetroot and eggplant.
  • Eat omega-3 to combat inflammation in the brain. Include fish, walnuts, flaxseed, oats, spinach, silver beet and canola oil.
  • Eat turmeric. The yellow colour of turmeric is from curcumin, a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Add turmeric to curries, rice and mince meals.

Deteriorating eyesight

Why it happens

At around the age of 40-45, we start pulling our head back while peering at the paper or brochure held at arm’s length. It’s called presbyopia – it’s normal and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. From adolescence, the lenses in our eyes slowly thicken and become less flexible making it more difficult to focus.

What to do

  • Visit the optometrist regularly to monitor eye health and any vision changes.
  • Buy reading glasses if necessary.
  • Eat plenty of yellow and dark green fruit and vegetables such as corn and spinach. These are rich in lutein and zeazanthin – anti-oxidants which accumulate in the retina and thought to be important for eye health.

Loss of muscle strength

Why it happens

As our body ages, it gradually loses muscle – the number and size of muscle fibres shrink. The less muscle we have, the less energy we burn and the less food we need to supply our energy needs. If we keep eating the same amount, the excess will be stored as fat. Depressing isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. We can stop, and even reverse this muscle loss at any age. A 50-year-old who regularly strength trains will be stronger than a 30-year-old who does no training.

What to do

  • Do strength training. Strength training helps preserve and build muscle mass. It helps keep calcium in the bones, maintains a higher metabolic rate so we’re less likely to gain weight, and gives us a good posture. Having strong muscles also means we’re less likely to injure ourselves. Whether it’s push-ups, pull-ups and squats at home, carrying light weights when you walk or a programme at the gym, muscle-building exercise is critically important. It’s never too late to start.

Creaky, aching joints

Why it happens

Aching joints could be the start of osteoarthritis. This wearing out of the cartilage which acts as a shock absorber between bones is common in people over 45 years old. Again, heredity plays a part, or aching joints may be caused by being overweight, a past injury or long-term over-use – or the ache may simply be stiff or weak muscles.

What to do

  • Strengthen and stretch. It is critically important to keep muscles and tendons strong and supple.
  • If overweight, lose weight to relieve stress on the joints.
  • Buy good shoes to cushion feet.
  • Get properly diagnosed. See a doctor, physiotherapist or sports physician. Aching joints can be a symptom of other diseases or even depression. The doctor may suggest taking anti-inflammatory medication to temporarily relieve swelling and pain – but it doesn’t fix the problem. Many people swear by glucosamine supplements. After trying everything else, the specialist may recommend surgery to repair or replace the worn out part.


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