To age well, keep your mind and body active

Physical and mental fitness is key to staying healthy into old age

Betty Maher (102): “I would advise people to keep active and have a hobby” Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times

Betty Maher (102): “I would advise people to keep active and have a hobby” Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times


If all the advice on healthy ageing could be encapsulated into one short sentence, it would be to “keep your mind and body active”.

Even people suffering with chronic conditions such as arthritis and some forms of dementia are encouraged to engage in activities that stimulate their mind and body – to help prevent their symptoms getting worse. “It’s all about trying to bat away frailty by maintaining strength, mobility and fitness as much as you can through exercise. The aim is to keep moving,” says Ruth McCullagh, lecturer in physiotherapy at the School of Clinical Therapies in UCC.

McCullagh recommends two types of exercise – aerobic exercise for the heart and lungs and strengthening/conditioning exercises to keep the muscles strong. “After the age of 40, the muscles start to weaken and after the age of 50, it’s important to do strengthening exercises. Strengthening exercises help to prevent falls because if you have stronger legs, you are less likely to fall,” she explains. Strengthening exercise includes gym classes, hill-walking, cycling, golf, tennis and swimming.

And any of these exercises become aerobic when they get the heart pumping faster and the breath moving faster in the lungs. “The key with all exercise is to do what you enjoy – whether that’s walking, swimming, going to an over 55s exercise class, gardening, playing golf or tennis, and the social element of exercise is important too,” she adds.

There is growing awareness among health professionals that people are sitting for very long periods of time – whether at desks in offices, in their homes or even in nursing homes and hospitals. “We all have to start breaking up sedentary behaviour by taking a short walk every hour. For older people in their own homes, it can be difficult to get up out of low, comfortable chairs but it’s important to do so,” says McCullagh.

Cognitive fitness

The second component of healthy ageing is keeping your mind active. Dr Annalisa Setti, cognitive psychologist and lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology at UCC, says good cognitive fitness is about using your attention and memory to solve everyday issues as you age. “When you are young, healthy and fit, most things are obvious but as you age, it can become less obvious to consider things like knowing whether you have all the correct ingredients in the house to cook a meal,” she says.

Dr Setti recommends simple things like going out to meet friends, reading a newspaper or book and discussing it with someone else, playing cards, doing crochet or crosswords. “There is no one recipe but it’s all about keeping your mind active by doing things that you enjoy. Having a certain amount of challenge in the activity is also important,” she says.

Having a negative view of ageing can impact on your own ageing, according to Dr Setti. “We really need to step out of the idea that when you are older, it’s all about decline. It’s also detrimental to see older people as a separate group. If you think about it, ageing is something that faces all of us in 20 or 30 years’ time.”

Dr Setti says it’s important to realise that people can learn new things when they are older. “My own parents – who live in Italy – have learned how to use Skype and tablets so that they can see and talk to their grandchildren in Ireland. Now, they use the internet for other things too and they are in their 80s.”

Betty Maher

Betty Maher (102) welcomes me into her sitting room with a bright smile and a cheery demeanour. She looks at least 20 years younger than her years and was, until seven years ago, a daily walker, a daily Mass-goer and a frequent visitor to the National Concert Hall for lunchtime concerts.

“I’m feeling fine and if I had another leg, I’d be even better,” she jokes. Complications during surgery to install a pacemaker in 2011 led to open heart surgery and amputation of her right leg. Her son Joe subsequently took early retirement from his job to become her full-time carer. “I do have another carer who comes in every morning to help me shower and get dressed,” she says. Maher exercises twice a day to keep her blood circulating and muscles strong in her working leg. She reads The Irish Times and books, does crosswords and watches television in the evening.

Maher says moderation in all things has contributed to her longevity. “My mother died in her late 50s and my father died in his 80s but people are living much longer now,” she says. She keeps in regular contact with her brother Sean (84) and sister Kathleen (93).

Living in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham since the late 1940s, Maher’s life changed dramatically when her husband, Denis Maher, died of lung cancer in 1984. “He was an assistant secretary in the Department of Finance and one of the negotiators in Ireland joining the European Economic Community [EEC now the EU] in 1973,” she says proudly.

Maher had worked as a civil servant before she was married. She then did lots of charity work while her two sons were growing up – both for the international aid organisation, Gorta, and locally with the Traveller community. “I used to visit Traveller sites and encourage the children to go to school,” she says. She also played a big part in the life of a young girl in a residential home in Dublin. “We’re her family really and I visited her often since she got married and moved to live in Holland.”

Looking back on her life, Maher says her easygoing attitude has helped her along the way. “You learn to accept things as they happen and strike out and do things on your own. I would advise people to keep active and have a hobby. I’m also very lucky that I’m not alone and I’ve very good neighbours,” she says.

Alan Gerraghty

Alan Gerraghty (89) walks four mornings a week in Sandyford, Co Dublin, where he has lived all his life. He plays golf on a Friday and goes to Cabinteely Park or Scotsman’s Bay in Dún Laoghaire for a walk on a Sunday.

Alan Geraghty (89): “My first overnight stay in hospital was when I was 84.” Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times
Alan Geraghty (89): “My first overnight stay in hospital was when I was 84.” Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times

And, that’s not all. On Tuesday mornings, he partakes in a current affairs discussion group and on Thursdays he runs and participates in an exercise class for the over 50s in Sandyford Community Centre. In fact, he was part of a group of local people who fundraised to re-build that community centre at a former Carnegie Library in Sandyford.

A retired works manager with CIE, Gerraghty started as an apprentice fitter in the engineering section of CIE and built railway carriages and buses until CIE began importing buses in the 1970s. He retired at age 58 and did private consultancy work until he retired fully in his early 70s.

“My first overnight stay in hospital was when I was 84 to get treatment for an abscess on my liver. Not that I was a heavy drinker or anything,” he says. In fact, he says he is a moderate drinker and gave up smoking when he was in his 30s.

Gerraghty attributes his healthy life to eating wholesome food, taking regular exercise and being involved in community life. “I don’t see the doctor much. We don’t eat fast food or processed foods. We grow our own vegetables and fruit,” he says. A long time beekeeper, Gerraghty also attributes his agility [he doesn’t suffer from rheumatism or arthritis] to getting lots of bee stings throughout his life. “I take an aspirin to keep my blood thin. I take a blood pressure tablet and indigestion tablet and that’s all,” he says.

Gerraghty lives with his wife, Margie, on a site that also includes a house for one of their sons and one of their daughters. “We have six children in total, 17 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. At least one of our children looks in on us every day. We’re blessed really,” he says.

And what is his advice to people to preserve their health as they age? “The mind has great control over the body. The key is to be involved in things and keep your mind active. If you’re just sitting looking out the window thinking about yourself, you’re much more likely to become ill.”

The 100-year life

The 100 Year Life is the theme of this year’s Positive Ageing Week from Monday, October 1st, to Sunday, October 7th. Organised by Age Action, the week includes coffee mornings, tea dances, quizzes and walks throughout the country. A series of public talks on ageing will be held in Cork, Dublin and Limerick.

Billy O’Keeffe, programme manager of Age Action, says more than half of babies born in wealthier countries since 2000 are likely to reach their 100th birthday. “The benefits of living longer and getting older are immense. Positive Ageing Week is all about exploring these positive aspects,” he says.

However, most people are also aware that as people age, they are more likely to suffer from one or more chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease or dementia. These diseases make living well as an older person more difficult.

Dr Leroy Hood, founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington, USA, presented a novel health strategy to avoid chronic illnesses at the Schrodinger at 75: Future of Biology conference in Dublin in September.

Dr Hood suggested that modern medicine needed to focus more on preserving wellness. “If you look at the determinants of health, genetics contributes 30 per cent, environment and lifestyle contributes up to 60 per cent and healthcare contributes 10 per cent,” he said.

In 2014, Dr Hood persuaded more than 100 friends to take part in an experiment to analyse their genes and biochemistry while also tracking their behaviour. This led to a wider understanding of their personal health and disease risks which they could then make efforts to avoid. For example, through his research, Dr Hood realised he had poor absorption of vitamin D due to his genetic make-up. He was then able to take a higher dose of vitamin D to maintain better health.

From his research, Dr Hood has developed a scientific approach to wellness, which he calls P4 medicine because it is predictive, personalised, preventative and participatory. He also founded the company, Arivale, to promote data-driven wellness and personal coaching. “Scientific wellness is going to strikingly increase the health of individuals and the future of medicines is going to be very different to what we had in the past,” he said.

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