Humans are living longer than ever but the quality of that life can be impaired by poor health – both physical and mental. We speak to a range of researchers about the secrets of staying well as we age.

Much like enjoying a vintage wine – something soft and rounded on the palette, warm, rich in flavour and mellow – our ideal of ageing is that it should be full of opportunities to relax, reflect and reap the rewards after a lifetime of hard work and family commitments. 

But for some, ageing can be a time of loneliness, compounded by failing health and immobility.

The good news, according to researchers from the University of South Australia, is that some of life’s simplest blessings – animal companions, physical activity and a wholesome diet – could make an enormous difference to how you age.

Dr Janette Young.Lecturer in Health Sciences and qualitative researcher, Dr Janette Young, has spent many hours combing research literature, “playing in the theoretical space”, to pin down the health benefits linked to pet ownership. 

Young’s recent interviews with elderly pet owners are a fascinating insight into the non-human relationships that keep us young. For instance, pets – of all kinds – increase incidental activity. 

It’s not simply the obvious, like taking the dog for walks. Even feeding a guinea pig or pet lizard or talking to the budgie every day, can add activity and purpose to people’s lives. 

One of Dr Young’s interviewees related that after adopting a stray cat, her husband – who suffered dementia – “was moving more and talking more simply because he was walking around looking for the cat and calling it”.

“I expected to see evidence that pets give people a sense of purpose; a reason to get up each morning,” Dr Young says.

But she wasn’t expecting to hear such a strong connection between pet ownership and suicide prevention in her interviews.

“One man with aviaries commented that the birds couldn’t survive more than a couple of days without him feeding them. 

“Another man who talked about having serious depression, just kept saying, ‘if it wasn’t for the dog, I would have done something’.”

From her research, Dr Young believes pets catalyse social interactions and engagement, even if it is just attending the local dog park. 

“Pets support connection with the wider world, like the 70-year-old couple who chatted to a couple of young guys outside the pub when their dog approached them – the dog was the bridge across generations,” Dr Young says.

Her favourite interviewee was a man who brought his cockatiel along.

“He inherited it because it was a ‘naughty’ bird. And because the cockatiel refused to stay with anyone but him, he started driving, instead of flying, to visit his girlfriend in Sydney – with the bird.

“My last visual image was him driving off with the bird sitting on top of its cage inside the car, checking out what was happening. It was the loveliest picture. This little bird wouldn’t even weigh a kilo but had managed to exert a powerful influence over his life. It’s amazing.” 

But for a range of reasons, allergies and phobias among them, pets and the benefits of owning them, are not a feature of everyone’s lives. 

That is where attention to diet and exercise can have a huge impact on ageing well.

Dr Gaynor Parfitt.Dedicated to tailoring physical activity to individual capabilities and levels of motivation, Associate Professor in Exercise and Sport Psychology, Dr Gaynor Parfitt, is inspired by the impact of a simple exercise program at a Helping Hand aged care facility in Adelaide. 

The 12-week program, delivered by exercise physiologist Alison Pennington to residents suffering memory loss and dementia, has been running for two years. 

Dr Parfitt’s team has been evaluating the program, including the perceptions of care staff on the impact of the exercise regime.

“Overwhelmingly the program has dispelled the notion that these people are just on a downward trajectory,” Dr Parfitt says.

“Staff at the facility have seen positive improvements in individual residents’ behaviour, socialisation, communication and alertness.

“One staff member describing someone who was ‘stand-assist’ – that is not independently mobile – was astounded to see the resident standing in the lounge room and then walking.

“The aged care worker was just laughing as she described the scene – as though she was describing a child walking for the first time or someone taking first steps after an accident.

“She just never expected to see that resident walk again.”

The aged care workers also observed enhanced mood in residents involved in regular exercise.

“After the exercise session, staff reported more smiling and laughing and less agitated behaviour from the residents and a calmer atmosphere, less calling out, and less mood disturbance for the rest of the day,” Dr Parfitt says.

“Even in residents who were not able to verbalise during the sessions, there were indicators including smiling and laughing, that showed they were enjoying the sessions.

“One resident, not involved in the program because she was confined to a princess chair with one arm immobile and no speech, smiled every time the physiologist walked into the room and moved her mobile arm and even started to raise the hand on her immobile arm to copy the exercise regime.

“This all points to not only the physical benefits of exercise, but also to how it can stimulate memory and mood in positive ways.”

Dr Parfitt attributes the program’s success to the fact that it can be adapted for individuals’ different capabilities.

“I think fear of falling or not being able to do the things they once could is a major reason people stop being active, but exercise physiologists can support people to continue to exercise within their limits and to find it fun.”

Applying similar principles, Helping Hand is developing walking trails for older people living in the community, tailored to a range of ability levels. 

“They are developing trails of different lengths, so people can do a short trail or a slightly longer trail and there are places for them to sit and stop for a while if they need or want to,” Dr Parfitt says.

“The idea is to develop something that gives older people the physical, social and psychological benefits of exercise – and research is suggesting that those things are vital.”

Dr Karen Murphy .UniSA’s Dr Karen Murphy says a healthy lifestyle as we age must also embrace good nutrition.  

A dietitian and Senior Research Fellow, Dr Murphy has investigated the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet for older people. 

In a recently published study, her team researched 166 men and women aged 65 and over, either following their normal diet or a traditional Mediterranean diet for six months. The team were looking for the impacts of diet on both heart health and cognitive outcomes.

The diet included fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, legumes, nuts and lots of extra virgin olive oil. 

Participants were advised to eat less red meat and processed food, and to include dairy products like plain yoghurt, feta and ricotta cheese three times weekly.

Dr Murphy says one of the great things was that unlike many other diets, sticking to the Mediterranean diet did not seem to be a problem.

“Compliance was excellent. We had a 92 per cent adherence to the diet from our participants,” Dr Murphy says.

“That has a lot to do with the diet being simple and palatable – it’s fresh, plant-based, easy to prepare, easy to eat and easy to digest.”

But even more encouraging are the health benefits, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

One study group comprised people who were heading for clinical hypertension before they started the trial – a leading risk factor for heart disease. 

On the Mediterranean diet, they had significantly reduced blood pressure at six months. Blood samples showed healthier lipids and reduced oxidative stress.

“In our study we also showed quite a huge, clinically relevant effect of the Mediterranean diet on flow-mediated dilatation – a measure of how pliant and elastic the arteries are,” Dr Murphy says.

While cognitive assessments did not show any change; as Murphy points out, this was probably to be expected, given the study had a cognitively healthy sample to start with. 

But evidence suggests better heart health reduces dementia risk, as physical and mental health are closely linked.

“If we can stimulate physical and mental health, it doesn’t really matter which one might be driving the impact; together they can both have a beneficial effect,” Dr Parfitt says.

What the research is showing is that integrating better nutrition and some form of regular exercise together with more cognitive stimulation and companionship – whether that be with human or animal friends – seems to be a recipe for staying happy and healthy for longer.