There are lots of things that get worse as we age, from eyesight to reaction time, but I am delighted to say that there are also things that get better.
And there are plenty of older people out there showing what is still possible, from the Rolling Stones, who next week begin another worldwide tour (Mick Jagger is 78), to Anneka Rice, 63, who’s about to reprise her action role in a new version of Challenge Anneka.
But there are also scientifically proven reasons to celebrate getting older.
I used to be really sensitive to grass pollen, so much so that at this time of year I would have found it impossible to go walking in the fields without taking antihistamines.
But as I get older (I’m now 65), my hay fever has got better to the extent that I can now go into the fields without using the medication, or sneezing.
There are lots of things that get worse as we age, from eyesight to reaction time, but I am delighted to say that there are also things that get better
And this seems to be true for quite a number of those with allergies.
A few years ago, researchers at University Hospital in Lund, Sweden, followed up on a group of more than 4,000 people, ranging in age from 20 to 59, who had allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the inside of the nose, triggered by pollen, dust or mould).
Over the eight-year study period, as the older participants got older, one in five stopped having allergic attacks.
No one knows why some allergies get better with age but it may be because the immune system becomes less powerful as we get older, so your immune response to some allergens also reduces.
You sweat less
Another thing I’ve noticed is that I sweat less than before. That’s because, as we get older, our sweat (or eccrine) glands become smaller and less active.
This was first demonstrated in 1987 in a study by Pennsylvania State University in the U.S., where older (aged 52 to 62) and younger women (aged 20 to 30) were asked to walk briskly on a treadmill in a hot, dry environment.
The older women, though working just as hard, sweated a lot less, which the researchers attributed to ‘an age-related structural alteration in the eccrine glands or surrounding skin cells’.
So one advantage of getting older is less sweaty T-shirts. As we also know, it’s the reaction of bacteria with sweat that causes body odour, so you’ll need less deodorant.
But bear in mind that we sweat for a reason — it helps us cool down — so you’re also more likely to overheat when you’ve over 50.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that I sweat less than before. That’s because, as we get older, our sweat (or eccrine) glands become smaller and less active
Here’s another reason for me to be cheerful at 65: I experience far fewer hangovers.
Admittedly, that’s mainly because I drink less. Yet a recent Dutch study, published in the medical journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, found that even when older people drink as much as youngsters, they report less severe hangovers.
Based on the hangover experiences of 761 drinkers, aged between 18 and 94, the researchers concluded that the amount people drank, not surprisingly, was the best predictor of who would suffer most. But they also found that ‘hangover severity declines with age, even after controlling for the amount of alcohol consumed’. This could be because we become more tolerant to alcohol’s effects — but researchers also suggest that it may be due to older people’s higher pain threshold, at least to short-term pain.
Brain imaging studies suggest that older people have reduced connections in pain-sensing areas of the brain, which could help with hangovers but, sadly, we also have less activity in the parts of the brain that help switch off chronic, long-term pain.
Another form of headache, migraines, also become less common as we get older.
A few years ago, the Gothenburg Migraine Clinic in Sweden published a study looking at patients with an average age of 55 over a 12-year period. During that time, 29 per cent of the migraine sufferers stopped having migraine attacks, while the rest had less frequent and milder episodes.
This is because as we age our brains shrink and the loss of certain signalling pathways may in turn reduce the risk of a migraine attack.
Happier . . . and kinder
Based on surveys where people are asked to score themselves on questions such as, ‘how satisfied are you with your life?’ and ‘how happy did you feel yesterday?’ —where 0 is ‘not at all happy’ and 10 is ‘completely happy’? — it’s clear that happiness and life satisfaction follow a U-shaped curve.
Most people report being pretty happy in their teens, then things go downhill until we hit rock bottom at the age of 50.
After that, we typically start to become happier and more satisfied with life until we reach old age, when things taper off. This pattern probably reflects the fact that when we’re young we believe anything is possible, but with age we realise that many of our dreams aren’t going to come true.
By the time we hit our late-50s, we’ve realised that real happiness comes from friends and family and not necessarily career success or making more money.
This could also explain why research shows that older people report being less stressed and less likely to dwell on the negative side of life.
They also become more empathic. In a study published in 2019, researchers at Michigan State University found that empathy — the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings — increased with age, particularly after the age of 40.
So along with free bus passes, these are just some of the perks of ageing. But if you want to age well then you also have to work at it.
That means lots of walking to strengthen your heart and lungs; some resistance exercises (press-ups and squats) to preserve your muscles and bones; eating a Mediterranean-style diet and turning your hand to new hobbies because this a proven way to keep your brain in shape.
And the sooner you start the better. As U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once said: ‘Old age is like everything else.
‘To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.’
Ten days or so after getting Covid for the first time, my wife Clare and I are fully recovered. The thing I was most worried about was getting long Covid, so it was reassuring to see a recent large study showing that vaccines (we’re triple vaxxed) not only cut your risk of hospital admission and death by more than 80 per cent, if you get infected, but also halved the chance you will develop long Covid.
Being just a bit boring is not so bad…
I’m an introvert and a bit of a geek, and I worry I might come across as rather boring, particularly in social situations.
So I read with interest recent research from Exeter University on the beliefs people have about who is, or isn’t, boring.
Perhaps not surprisingly, accountants and people in tax or data entry roles were seen as doing the most boring jobs — being a journalist, a health worker or working in the ‘performing arts’ was seen as far more exciting.
‘Boring’ hobbies included sleeping, watching TV and bird watching; while reading, walking the dog and gaming all got the thumbs up.
This may look like yet another mildly interesting survey that confirms widely held beliefs, but Dr Wijnand Van Tilburg, a psychologist who carried out the study, says these sort of negative stereotypes can be destructive.
He points out that if someone is seen as dull, ‘this can lead to social ostracisation and increase loneliness leading to a negative impact on their lives’.
Many people who might, initially, come across as boring are probably just shy or introverted. So do give them the benefit of the doubt.
The final frontier in selfies
These days people will take and share photos of almost anything, so it was almost inevitable someone would get round to taking photos of poo.
But this has nothing to do with a trend on Instagram, and everything to do with helping patients share information with their doctor.
When I was at medical school, we were introduced to The Bristol Stool Scale, from type 1 (‘separate hard lumps, like nuts’) to type 7 (‘entirely liquid’). Knowing the shape, form and consistency can help with diagnosing digestive problems.
But now researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in the U.S. have developed a phone app to analyse stool photos — and studies suggest the app is as good as ‘well-trained gastroenterologists’ at evaluating samples. I look forward to giving it a go.