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Learning is the elixir of healthy life

  • 08 June 2023

Sir Muir Gray shares what we know about living longer - and how u3a's model on informal learning is crucial to tackling ageing issues. Sir Muir Gray spoke to u3a members as part of the u3a Future Lives programme - find out more on the u3a Future Lives webpage.

Millions of pounds are being invested in the search for an elixir of life. There are, however, a number of points that need to be considered when reflecting on the role that an elixir of life might have in society.

First, there is no strong evidence that many people want to increase their life expectancy, although it is clear that people want to increase their healthy life expectancy. Not many people want to live to 118, but they certainly want to minimise the time spent dependent on others for the most basic of tasks.

Second, concern about what happens to us as we live longer and the desire for an elixir of life is based on the mistaken assumption that the problems that occur in later years are all due to the normal biological process of ageing, or ‘senescence’ as the scientists sometimes call it. However, it is now clear that the normal biological process of ageing does not cause major problems until we are in our late 90s.

The Science Base of Living Longer

A bit of luck is needed to avoid problems linked to ageing, such as Parkinson’s disease. But most of the problems that affect us as we live longer are due to three other, inter-linked, processes:

  • Loss of fitness, both physical and mental, which for most people starts in their early 20s
  • Disease, much of it preventable, including dementia, the risk of which can be cut by about 40 per cent, and disease which is often complicated by accelerated loss of fitness
  • Social and environmental pressures

Loss of Fitness - Physical and Mental 

Most people start to go downhill when they get their first sitting job and a fitness gap opens up between the best possible rate of decline and the actual rate of decline.

This is a consequence of the environment in which we now live and it is wrong simply to blame ‘lifestyle’. We have inherited our genes from hundreds of generations of people who survived by being very active and efficient at converting any food they could find into fat. We now live in a world dominated by the car, the computer, the desk job and the television, with calories galore available everywhere we look. It is also clear that the brain and mind lose fitness because they are not challenged enough in later years, so the concept of fitness is relevant for body, brain and mind. The good news is that the fitness gap can be closed at any age and, by doing so, one becomes as able as one was five or ten years ago. So rejuvenation is possible by increasing activity – physical, cognitive and emotional.

Disease followed by increased inactivity

Most modern epidemics, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes, also arise from the physical and social environment in which we live.

Furthermore, the fitness gap often widens faster after the onset of disease, almost always due to increased inactivity as well-meaning friends and family do things for the person with the long-term
condition instead of supporting them to do more for themselves.

The good news is that, no matter your age and no matter how many long-term conditions you have, you can close the fitness gap and continue to perform basic tasks without the need for social care.

Social & Environmental Pressures

Environmental pressure from deprivation accelerates decline, so too do pessimistic beliefs, while negative attitudes, otherwise known as ageism, reduce the challenges offered to people who are living longer. We now know that involvement with others – a sense of purpose, interaction and challenge – are of vital importance in maintaining brain and mind fitness and in reducing the risk of dementia. We now also have a strong evidence base about the impact we can have onthese three factors.

Increasing Healthy Life Expectancy

We do not need only to invest more in healthcare and social care. What we need is to focus on enabling people to live longer, better.
Ageing reduces resilience and therefore we need take more action:

  • We need to enable people to increase their physical, cognitive and emotional activity, including activities with other people and with a social purpose, such as volunteering. Prescriptions for those with one or more long-term conditions should include recommendations for activities. A National Activity Therapy Service is being designed and the 40,000 fitness professionals involved are now focusing on contributing to healthy longevity;
  • We need to tackle the social and environmental factors that cause problems. Helping people cope with the impact of deprivation is something every community can do – for example, helping people find u3a groups or to get online. All of us need to tackle ageism and the work of the Centre for Ageing Better on negative language should be promoted
  • All of this requires a cultural revolution which is positive about living longer and the changing demographic. For example, stop talking about ‘the elderly’, change the term ‘retirement’ to ‘renaissance’ and change the name ‘carer’ to ‘enabler’. But it also requires people to reflect and learn, and the best way of doing that is with others in groups like u3a.

Members of every u3a should be able to describe to others what is happening to us as we live longer and what can be done about it. This, of course, can be done with friends and family but also with other groups of people, with every bowls club and bridge club, with every church, Women’s Institute and mosque. There are many ways in which culture can be changed, but learning and education are probably the most important ways of doing this and the u3a, based on its guiding principle to ‘promote non-formal learning’, provides the perfect basis for the revolution.

The fourth education revolution emphasises the fact that people learn more from one another than they do from a lecturer or tutor, and the u3a has always followed this approach. For individuals to live better for longer, and for a shift from fearing a tidal wave of ‘population ageing’ to welcoming healthy longevity, requires a revolution and the u3a Future Lives initiative is already having a very important impact.



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