In the second part of our exclusive serialisation of a new book on how to age well, two midlife mothers reveal the best ways to beat menopausal sleep problems — and how smiling, drinking beer and seeing friends can help you live a long and healthy life . .
When we read that switching to a healthy lifestyle in midlife may reduce our dementia risk by 90 per cent, we knew we had to make changes. After watching family members succumb to heart disease, cancer, dementia and diabetes, we were prepared to do anything not to suffer the same fate.
But, as busy working mums with six children between us, how on earth would we find the time?
Together, we started a blog to catalogue our scientific discoveries and spread the word about the simplest, quickest, most effective changes you can make to boost your vitality and protect against disease.
Susan Saunders and Annabel Streets, pictured together, have offered advice on how to improve health get a better nights sleep which includes eating two kiwi fruits before bed
All our advice is manageable, backed by research, and tried and tested by us. We don’t follow prescriptive diets, exercise regimens or supplement programmes. Instead we cook, dance, hike, play table tennis and fill our houses with greenery.
The best bit? We discovered that taking responsibility for your health doesn’t mean a life of denial or angst. We still love a late-night party, cocktail or ice-cream — pleasures to be enjoyed in moderation and without guilt.
You have one fleeting, splendid life — here’s how to make it a long, happy and healthy one . . .
SET YOUR ALARM AT NIGHT
Going to bed on time each night is great for long-term health (file picture)
It’s easy to fritter away the evening watching yet another episode (or an entire series) on Netflix or replying to emails. Bedtime gets pushed later and later.
The solution? Go to bed! It sounds ridiculously simple, but going to bed at the same time each night is great for long-term health. Try setting two alarms each day: one for morning and one for evening. Your night-time alarm reminds you to start winding down.
Susan has an alarm at 9.30pm to turn off screens, and another at 10pm for bedtime.
Studies have linked poor sleep to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, obesity, depression, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, poor memory and a shorter life. We’ve also learned that good sleep means improved immunity and better skin. So tackling our sleep problems was a priority.
Annabel had always been a terrible sleeper, rarely enjoying more than four hours at once; with a stressful job, Susan had learned to live with little sleep. This had to change.
PREPARE FOR BED
Annabel has transformed her sleep by adopting a ‘wind-down’ routine. She used to eat late, watch the ten o’clock news, have a glass of wine and fiddle with emails.
Now she eats earlier, saves wine for special occasions and never watches the evening news — current affairs should be consumed in the morning, when we’re positive and energised.
An hour before bed, Annabel switches on an essential-oil diffuser (containing lavender and vetiver), puts her phone and laptop away, dims the lights and reads.
Susan, too, has learned to prepare for sleep, rather than just throwing herself into bed and hoping it happens.
WAKE UP? GET UP!
In midlife, it’s infuriatingly common to drop off easily and then wake in the early hours of the morning. If this happens, don’t lie awake worrying. Why not get up?
Annabel wrote a first draft of a novel in those early hours; now she listens to audiobooks (someone else’s story stops her mulling over her own). Our friends do yoga or housework.
Annabel has transformed her sleep by adopting a ‘wind-down’ routine and nowputs her phone down an hour before bed (file picture)
Take comfort from the theory of biphasic sleep, which suggests we were never designed for a single eight-hour stretch.
Historic accounts show our ancestors socialising, walking and working in the middle of the night.
MAGICAL KIWI FRUIT
Our most peculiar experiment was with kiwi fruit. Research from Taiwan’s Taipei Medical University found that volunteers eating two kiwis before bed for four weeks fell asleep more quickly, slept more deeply and for longer.
As kiwi fruit is inexpensive and ubiquitous (plus rich in antioxidants, serotonin, fibre and vitamin C), we tried eating a couple every night. After two weeks, in tandem with less alcohol, sleep-friendly foods and daily exercise, we noticed a definite improvement in our sleep.
SMILE IN THE STREET
Staying sociable is one of the best ways to fend off the ageing process. This doesn’t mean throwing wild parties every weekend, but it does require cultivating and nurturing a social network.
Social isolation is linked to a 32 per cent higher risk of stroke, 40 per cent greater risk of dementia and 29 per cent higher risk of heart disease.
We both live in busy households, where family, friends, neighbours and pets come and go. Susan’s work as a TV producer involves a constant stream of meetings. Even Annabel’s life as a writer involves meeting editors, agents and publicists.
But we won’t always be this busy, so we’ve upped our game in preparation — greeting people, striking up conversations, smiling more. We opt for the social version of any activity and look for opportunities for fun.
American neuroscientist Professor Robert Provine says laughter is inextricably linked with socialisation and confers huge health benefits by bringing people together.
Studies link laughter to better immunity, improved mood, reduced stress and even improvements in rheumatoid arthritis. A study by the University of Leeds found a good laugh helped leg ulcers heal quicker, as it gets the diaphragm moving, propelling blood around the body.
No one understands why the body responds so favourably to laughter, but it seems it sends a wave of electricity over our cerebral cortex, the outer layer of our brain, which activates immune cells, reduces stress hormones and releases endorphins.
BEER FOR MENOPAUSE
While you’re being sociable, you might want to try a cold beer.
Although red wine, with its greater count of phytonutrients, remains the preferred tipple of longevity experts, beer is worth considering, too.
Moderate drinkers (of beer or red wine) enjoy a lower risk of heart and brain disease than non-drinkers or heavy drinkers.
Beer also contains, measure for measure, fewer calories and less sugar and alcohol than wine — and might have particular benefits for midlife women.
A study found beer’s blend of antioxidants, nutrients, fibre and phytoestrogens could be good for middle-aged women (file picture)
We found a Spanish study which declared beer’s blend of antioxidants, nutrients, fibre and phytoestrogens to be ‘highly beneficial in the prevention of pathologies arising from the decline in oestrogens’ in the menopause, as well as possibly reducing osteoporosis risk.
That’s because beer is a good source of dietary silicon, which is useful for healthy bones.
Skin, nails and tendons all need collagen, which in turn requires silicon. A half-pint of beer has around 8mg of silicon, along with vitamins B2, B6, B9 and B12.
It’s possible beer drinkers are protected by something else altogether. The social engagement? Walking to and from the pub? We don’t know.
But if you fancy a beer, have one. Though perhaps just a half, and not every day; one study linked more than five pints a week to lower life expectancy. Low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers often taste as good as the real deal.
FOOD FOR SLEEP
Changing our evening eating habits really helped our sleep.
The hormone melatonin is key to good sleep, but declines as we age. It also promotes longevity — another reason to boost your levels of it.
Cherries contain melatonin which is key to good sleep (file picture)
Cherries and oats contain melatonin, while foods rich in vitamin B6 or the amino acid tryptophan help your body make melatonin, so it’s wise to include both in evening meals.
Good sources include sunflower seeds, pistachios, tuna, wild salmon, avocado, chicken, cooked spinach, bananas and prunes. Magnesium is another nutrient vital for sleep — it’s found in almonds, leafy greens, bananas and fish — as is calcium (leafy greens, yoghurt, cheese).
Some foods have a double-whammy of sleep-inducing nutrients. Prunes contain vitamin B6, calcium and magnesium, for example. Our perfect supper is fish, leafy greens and wholegrain carbohydrates, followed by a banana and cherries or yoghurt with prunes.
Some foods have a double-whammy of sleep-inducing nutrients (file picture)
Complex carbohydrates are important as they help the brain absorb tryptophan and make you feel full. Sweet potato does all this and contains vitmain B6, calcium and magnesium.
But avoid aubergines, tomatoes, pineapple, chocolate, fermented/cured foods and wine before bed, as they contain a brain stimulant called tyramine.
REWIRE NOT RETIRE
We have no intention of retiring — ever. We both enjoy our work: the daily challenges, social interaction, opportunities for creativity, sense of purpose. Now this conviction is bolstered by research showing that people who work longer, age better.
When you’re working your socks off, retirement might seem a blissful nirvana, but it’s not always good for long-term health. Studies show workers who take early retirement are at increased risk of heart disease and cancer. And it can lead to increased alcohol consumption, loneliness and depression.
Our investigations reveal a healthier option is to rewire rather than retire. Midlifers benefit from working part-time (assuming they can afford it) and using the extra free time for exercise, volunteering and hobbies.
One study found that beyond the age of 40, 25 hours’ work a week is optimal, before stress and fatigue kick in. So carry on working if you enjoy your job or, if you can’t, fill retirement hours with purposeful social activities.
Many people also change career in their middle years. Annabel switched from PR to writing in her 40s and her mother became a gardening expert in her 40s.
When researching longevity we soon noticed studies showing a link with religious attendance.
Those with faith often seem to live longer. Religion has a powerful impact on the brain — engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of endorphins and the ‘happiness’ neurotransmitter serotonin.
So whether it’s the meditative quality of prayer, the moment of calm, the exercise to reach a place of worship, or something more mystical, it’s worth incorporating these elements into your life.
Try attending your local place of worship to see how you feel. If a faith you were raised in no longer appeals, why not explore another?
If religion isn’t your thing, try finding your ‘church’ in other ways, such as the shared euphoria of a sporting or music event. Alternatively, you might reap the benefits by meditating or practising gratitude.
Susan’s stress has been hugely helped by regular meditation (ten minutes several times a week). The research into meditation’s power to reduce cognitive decline is compelling.
Adapted by Louise Atkinson from The Age-Well Project by Annabel Streets and Susan Saunders, published by Piatkus on May 2 at £14.99.
To order a copy for £11.99 (20 per cent discount) visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery. Offer valid until April 28, 2019. See agewellproject.com