Exercise and satisfying relationships are the secrets to good health in later life | Ageing

Enjoying satisfying relationships with partners, family, friends and work colleagues and exercising at least once every month could boost your physical and mental health in old age, two studies suggest.

Globally, people are living longer and every country in the world is experiencing growth in the size and proportion of older people in their population. The number of those aged 80 or older is set to triple between 2020 and 2050, to reach 426 million.

Now, two new research papers in specialist journals published by the British Medical Journal have shed new light on what behaviours in middle age might help improve our chances of enjoying good health later in life.

The first study found that satisfying relationships with partners, relatives, friends and colleagues are linked to a lower risk of accumulating multiple long-term conditions in old age.

The less satisfying these relationships are in your 40s and 50s, the greater the risk of having several illness later in life, the research suggests.

Mounting evidence indicates a link between strong social networks and good health and wellbeing in older age, but until now it’s not been known if these connections might lower the risk of multiple long term conditions or multimorbidity.

The study examined data from almost 8,000 women in Australia who were free from 11 common long-term conditions and aged 45 to 50 when the study began in 1996. Every three years they reported their satisfaction levels with their partners, family members, friends and work colleagues.

They were tracked for 20 years to see if they developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, osteoporosis, arthritis, cancer, depression or anxiety.

Those who reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their social relationships had double the risk of developing multiple conditions compared with those who reported the highest levels of satisfaction, the researchers found.

Similar results were found in each different type of social relationship, according to the results published in the General Psychiatry journal.

While the study included only Australian women, meaning the findings might not be applicable to men or other cultures, the findings had “significant implications” for health, the researchers from the University of Queensland said.

The results highlight “the benefits of starting or maintaining high quality and diverse social relationships throughout middle to early old age”, they explained.

“Second, at the community level, interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions.

“Third, at the country and global levels, social connections should be considered a public health priority in chronic disease prevention and intervention.”

A second study found that regular physical activity at any age is linked to better brain function in old age, and maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood seems to be best for preserving mental acuity and memory and staving off conditions such as dementia.

Even taking up exercise in your 60s for improving cognitive function than doing nothing at all, suggests the research led by University College London and published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

The study examined data from 1,417 people about how much exercise they did over four decades. Surveys were carried out five times throughout adulthood, when people were aged 36, 43, 53, 60 to 64, and 69.

Cognitive tests, plus those looking at processing speed and memory, were carried out once people hit 69. Those who were physically active at least one to four times a month in all five separate surveys performed the best on the tests.

“The greatest cognitive effect was seen for those who stayed physically active throughout their life,” said lead author Dr Sarah-Naomi James. “The effect is accumulative, so the longer an individual is active, the more likely they are to have higher later-life cognitive function.”

Dr Susan Mitchell, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the study showed that it was “never too late to start getting active”, and how important it was “to try and maintain this throughout our lifetime”.

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