Thailand has a higher percentage of elderly people than any other developing nation on earth. In just two years, Thai seniors will number 11.23 million, or 20 per cent of the population. By the year 2040, 17 million Thais (more than 25 per cent) will be over 65. As a rapidly ageing society, Thailand faces several serious challenges.
In Thailand and anywhere else, the elderly are often unhealthy, unfit, bored, lonely, poor and dependent on others for everyday needs. A 2014 survey indicated that 21 per cent of Thai senior citizens need assistance with day-to-day living. The finding is alarming, but the dependence of seniors could be reduced significantly by motivating all citizens to pursue healthier lifestyles.
Now I will share “secrets” from key places around the world where successful and graceful ageing are found and practised. The formula for successful ageing is the “3 i” approach, namely interdisciplinary, intercultural and international. It draws on lessons from many disciplines and diverse places across our planet.
Best-selling author Dan Buettner coined the term “blue zones” for locales where individuals live exceptionally long lives. Buettner writes about lifestyles in five areas of the world: Okinawa, Japan; Icaria island, Greece; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rice; Ogliastra, Sardinia, Italy; and Linda Loma, a vegetarian community in California. Okinawa is the most famous among these, with exceptional longevity and ageing with grace.
In my research to discover a formula for “reverse ageing”, I propose four key factors:
1. Keeping mentally active.
2. Keeping physically active.
3. Having a healthy diet with significantly lowered food consumption.
4. Having lots of love and “social wealth”.
For the first factor, it is important to maintain brain density throughout life to retain our “cognitive reserve”. Key research at my own institution (“The Nun Study”, University of Minnesota) has demonstrated rigorously that this is the best way to minimise dementia and Alzheimer’s, which are extremely costly, requiring 24-7 care.
Examples of brain-density boosters are playing a musical instrument, playing chess, writing poetry, watching a film in a second language, thilanguage learning after age 50, and other activities that actively engage the mind. Recently I received a New Year’s greeting from author William Klausner, a Thailand resident since the late 1950s who is now nearing 90. The letter contained several haiku-style poems he composed. This is a wonderful example of using brain density.
Regarding factor 2, I once had the privilege of working for Nike’s founder Phil Knight, and was deeply influenced by its philosophies of cross-training and leading a super-active life. Cross-training means diversity in exercise, since different types of exercise utilise different parts of the body and brain. Research has shown how such physical exercise contributes to cognitive health.
In contrast, the world’s most serious disease is the “sitting disease”. The adjustable standing desk should be the norm, not the exception. Contributing to the sitting disease is the digital dementia highlighted in “Smartphone Epidemic”, an important new book by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer.
The Israeli physiologist Moshe Feldenkrais has developed extremely effective movement techniques and exercises such as climbing stairs backwards, running and walking backwards. This backward movement is also part of ancient Chinese wisdom to optimise use of all parts of the body and brain. Climbing steps in general is extremely healthy and can be done easily at no expense. Recent research from Duke University, meanwhile, has shown that speed of walking is a key health indicator and that it is healthy to walk as fast as possible.
For the third factor, diet, the most common wisdom is the Buddhist “middle path” – everything in moderation. The late professor Roy Walford was a world guru on “life extension” and his life-long research suggests that humans generally eat about 30 per cent too much. The dietary practice of Thai Buddhist monks to take no food after noon is perfectly consistent with Walford’s philosophy.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the global industry selling vitamins and vitamin supplements. Research suggests that these are largely a waste of money. Interestingly, serious research studies show consuming tea can have significant health benefits, reducing the chances of developing glaucoma, a serious eye disease. Strong genuine green tea, though bitter, is particularly healthy.
Other healthy foods include cucumbers, black garlic, olive oil, and mangosteens, which are high in antioxidants. And alcohol consumption should be strictly limited.
The fourth factor is optimal love and social wealth – the number of true friends one has. The 80-year Harvard Grant Study of long-term health and well-being found that human relationships were key. Thai Buddhist nun, social entrepreneur and author Mae Chee Sansanee writes that real wealth is not how much money you have, but how many genuine friends you have.
More wisdom on ageing comes from Finland and Japan. Recent rigorous research in Finland shows that taking regular saunas can greatly reduce the risk of stroke. The effects of the sauna are likely similar to those of the onsen, the relaxing hot baths popular in Japan. Notably, Japan boasts the longest living people. From Okinawa, Japan – the most famous blue zone – comes the powerful concept of ikigai: having a passion and purpose in life. My father’s passion was playing the violin and he almost made it to 100. When he was over 80, he composed “The Kansas Waltz”.
There is one important caveat to note. Before trying any of the physical strategies suggested here, check with your doctor to see if you are fit enough to engage safely in the activity.
The biggest challenge to adopting a healthier lifestyle, however, is more basic: People everywhere are often simply too lazy to use their bodies and brains.
Gerald W Fry is a visiting scholar at Chulalongkorn University and a professor
at the University of Minnesota.