There is no louder wake up call than crossing the threshold into middle age. Turning 40, according to cancer specialist Dr David Agus, is when we begin to question our mortality and take stock of our sedentary, desk-bound lives – and rightly so, given that in our fourth decade we put on weight more easily, get insufferable hangovers, take longer to get fit and recover from injury more slowly. “This is when we begin to listen to our bodies and avoid the things we know to be bad for us,” he says.
All is not lost, thankfully, even if you have spent the past few years sitting on the sofa drinking wine. If we live more healthily and exercise regularly, we can enjoy a longer fuller life. “Disease is often a problem in our fifth, sixth and seventh decades and we can do much to prevent it during our 40s,” Dr Agus says.
Life is against us, though, as we reach this midpoint. Our 40s, according to Dr Muir Gray, author of Midlife: Look Younger, Live Longer, Feel Better, are our most challenging decade to date – we’re the “sandwich generation” juggling parenting, aging parents and our careers. “The adventurer Bear Grylls lives a very low risk life compared to those who commute, sit at a desk and stare at a screen,” he says. “All these cause stress and inflammation, which decrease the quality and length of our lives.”
Drink full fat milk
Particularly after exercise, as this can help combat the reduction in muscle mass associated with getting older, especially once you’re in your 50s. It also contains calcium, which is essential for bone health.
Avoid short cuts
Supplements are not only expensive but they can have detrimental effects on your health, warns Dr Agus. Calcium supplements, for example, can increase prostate cancer risk in men. “It’s simple – eat real food to stay healthier,” he says.
You are not a cow
Research suggests that those who graze are at greater risk of diabetes. “We weren’t made to eat all the time, and if we do our bodies become resistant to insulin,” Dr Agus says. Avoid eating in front of the television, use smaller plates and put all biscuits and cakes out of sight, says Dr Gray. “Eat slowly, putting your knife and fork down between every mouthful.”
Say no to shiny packets
Artificial ingredients from sweeteners to the chemical preservatives in most processed foods accelerate ageing and lead to inflammation and cell death, according to nutritionist Dr Josh Axe (DrAxe.com). David Marshall, a personal trainer and author of fitness guide Bodydoctor, suggests eating food that requires plenty of chewing with no E-numbers. “If it can be added, it should be avoided,” he says.
Inflammation caused by the microbial activity in our gut can cause ageing, particularly of the skin, says Liz Earle, author of The Good Gut Guide. “The healthy bacteria and lactoferrin found in plain live yoghurt can dramatically improve our levels of skin-friendly flora, which in turn leads to smoother, clearer skin, especially for those prone to adult-onset acne or rosacea”.
Drink coffee – yes, you can – and tea
While too much caffeine is dehydrating and increases inflammation, there is nothing wrong with coffee in moderation – caffeine is thought to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and it can also enhance physical performance; personal trainer Marshall suggests a cup before exercise. Meanwhile teas such as rooibos, black, green and white teas, and oolong teas contain antioxidants thought to combat the ageing process.
Swap red meat for organic white meat, butter for olive oil and go easy on carbs, says Dr Gray, who also recommends purple foods, which contain polyphenols associated with a longer life, and pulses and lentils. Dr Axe suggests we add turmeric to our diets, which is thought to fight inflammation, arthritis, depression and pain, while Earle recommends almonds and sunflower seeds for their skin-plumping properties.
It’s not fat that makes you fat…
… it’s sugar, according to Marshall. Sugar also promotes a process called glycation, which damages cells and causes wrinkles. “This doesn’t just mean avoiding sugary muffins and chocolate bars but also simple carbohydrates such as white rice and potatoes, which are also sugars,” he says.
Tame your tippling…
You don’t have to give up booze entirely, says Dr Gray, but it is sensible to have alcohol-free days as you age. His rule is one day a week in your 40s, two in your 50s and so on. “I’m in my 70s and I feel much better if I have four days without alcohol,” he says.
… and don’t get drunk
Not just because you look more stupid the older you are but because too much alcohol leads to a bad night’s sleep. “It’s a question of working out how much you can drink and still sleep through the night and then never drinking more than that,” says Dr Agus. “I know that if I have one and three quarters glasses of wine I am fine, but we all metabolise differently.”