The Elixir of Life has been discovered in Oxford. Or, to be precise the Elixir of Healthy Life, because what matters to most people is not living to 118 or 142 – two of the promises made by researchers – but living better for longer and minimising the time when we are dependent on others for the simplest tasks, like getting to the toilet on time.
It is now known that what happens to us as we live longer should not just be assumed to be caused by ageing which is a normal biological process. The ageing process affects everyone from about forty on, but by itself does not cause major problems until the late nineties.
We now know that there are three inter-related causes of the problems that occur more frequently as people live longer:
- Loss of fitness, physical and mental
- Disease, much of which is preventable and the disability that results is usually complicated by accelerated loss of fitness and these two processes are caused by - Pessimistic and negative beliefs and attitudes; ageism
We also know what can be done to live better for longer. The evidence is strong that at any age we need to focus on:
- Getting fitter, both physically and mentally
- Working with the NHS to ensure the effective prevention and management of disease, and the accelerated loss of fitness that often follows the onset of disease.
- Understanding what is happening to you and around you so that you can be more positive and believe that action, engaging with others, particularly with a social purpose can reduce the impact of what most people think is the effect of ageing.
The evidence is strong that we can prevent and delay dementia, disability, frailty and the need for long term care as summarised in Increase your Brainability and Reduce Your Risk of Dementia (Muir Grey, Larry William Chambers, Charles Alessi, Oxford University Press 2019). The means of doing this are by promoting activity; physical, cognitive and emotional. Although we obviously need to get housebound people out of their homes more often, the Internet allows us to support activity when people are on their own. In addition to the traditional risk factors of midlife – smoking, diet and inactivity for example – people with limited mobility due to multimorbidity develop a new set of risk factors; lack of purpose, depression, isolation, and loneliness.
What is needed is for everyone to become more active:
- activity to be done in groups for increased emotional wellbeing
- the groups to have a social purpose wherever possible, for example to raise money for Cancer Research or to promote tree planting by the Wildlife Trust to mitigate climate change
- for the groups to compete with one another
- for the groups to encourage inter-generational learning
Oxford is at the leading edge of this work, not only because of its universities but also because a number of Oxford organisations are developing key resources. For example, Rovr Systems is developing virtual reality for people in care homes or who are housebound to enable stimulating activity in groups. Learning with Experts has developed a learning programme for living longer better, because the Oxford Elixir of Health Life is consumed through learning, not out of a bottle.
Age UK and Active Oxfordshire are leading work to transform how we think about living longer and the evidence is clear: people can live longer better. They can increase health span and compress the period of dependency. We need a cultural revolution. The fire is lit in Oxford and here is the flag
Muir Gray is the Director of the Optimal Ageing Programme