I decided around 12 years ago that I wanted to age in the best way I could. I was certainly not going to give up the youthful vibrancy and lust for living that keeps me inspired and motivated every day. How did I make this decision? To understand a little of why I do what I do, it’s necessary to start, not quite at the beginning, but with the experiences I’ve had and the understanding of my own mortality that I learned when I was very young—all the events that have led me to address the way I age.
I was five years old when I was taken to the hospital with pneumonia and a mysterious virus. Fast forward to a year later, and I was diagnosed as severely allergic to all dairy products. “Nothing from a cow” was the stern advice from my doctor. Then there were the numerous chest infections, always verging on another bout with bronchitis. I was that sickly child; colds turned into flus, and I was prone to panic attacks (I had no understanding, then, of what was really going on—mental health issues in young children were never touched upon back in the 70s). As I got older, I began to think that maybe my own health issues were, in fact, more to do with my family environment and, most importantly, the physical and mental health of my mother.
I was born in 1966 to parents who were 42 and 49 at the time. They were the same age, if not older, than everyone else’s grandparents at my school. Most of the time, it didn’t bother me. My father was incredibly fit and healthy, but my mother—now that was a different story. While she was relatively healthy, a lung condition she had developed from a bad case of pneumonia when she was in her 20s would regularly reoccur. She had dealt with many mental issues too, from a nervous breakdown in her teens to depression and panic attacks. This definitely had a negative impact on my early life. Lying awake, listening to her constant coughing night after night, wondering if a hospital trip was imminent—it made me such a frightened person at times. I was always worrying, and the older she became, the less resilient she was. As soon as I was old enough, I escaped from this by becoming “the party girl,” always out drinking and smoking. Those few hours took me away from the reality I didn’t want to accept.
One day, when I was 23, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, it was found early. A mastectomy proved successful, and no further treatment was needed. Things could carry on as before—or could they? At the time, it was another unperceived crack in my mental health. A year later, at 24, I had my first experience of extreme anxiety and depression. I took a short dose of medication, but it was almost two years until I really felt back to my “normal self.” Did I realize then that I needed to take better care of my physical and mental health? Or see how they were linked? No, I was back in party mode, running away again and living as if I didn’t have a care in the world—at least for a few hours a night.
Around this time, my mother, now in her late 60s, started to display some odd quirks. Things were out of place; she would forget that I was her daughter or how to use appliances. Then, her mood would change dramatically, and she would turn into a morose, often mean person who acted out of character and rude to people she’d known most of her life. The eventual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was confirmed, and for about seven years, until her death at 75, I was there, witnessing her gradual decline. My own mental health declined once again, and I was back on the medication. On higher doses than before, my life was lived through a slightly hazy lens for the eight or so years I stayed on medication, until, one day, I decided to come off them. At age 39, I discovered homeopathy. From that day, homeopathy has been one of my main aids in ensuring good mental health.
This was a turning point for my overall view of how I wanted to age. Things didn’t happen overnight. I was still using cigarettes as a crutch, but I did start to research more about what I could do to maintain an even keel mentally. All of my mother’s issues and ailments turned out to be a great motivator for me. I began to get into a regular fitness regimen, incorporating spinning and boxing classes (these are great for releasing anxiety), various cardio exercises, and weight training—to build up not just muscle mass, but also to maintain brain and bone mass. As I headed further into my 40s, I decided that I had to get more serious about my general health, diet, and wellness. What could I do to protect myself and age better? I had never had an excessively sweet tooth but did indulge in sugary foods quite regularly and readily enjoyed an afternoon tea sugarfest.
Five years ago, I made the decision to quit sugar altogether. I did my research and informed myself of everything about sugar consumption and the part it plays in diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes to heart problems. I am an all-or-nothing person, so I cut not only the obvious foods—like cake and chocolate—but also foods like balsamic vinegar, honey, and high fructose fruits like bananas. It was never intended as a weight loss tool, but what I did find was that my anxiety levels lessened. No more migraines, reduced cellulite, no more crashes, and better energy. My ultimate goal is to help protect myself from brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Research has shown that sugar can be a contributory factor to these and some cancers. I then considered other parts of my diet, mainly my meat and dairy consumption. What if the childhood allergy I “grew out of” lay dormant somehow?
I came to the conclusion that my future is completely up to me and is not predetermined. We all possess the ability to change how we age. It is in my control to guide my health and wellness in the direction I want it to go, and I believe that with each decade, we need to revisit and tweak our diets and lifestyles accordingly. I can’t keep on doing the same things I was doing when I was 20 years younger and expect the same results. For me, moving to Los Angeles from England when I was 47 was a huge turning point. I had been eating less and less meat, but I decided that both meat and dairy no longer had a place in my diet.
I can only speak from my experience, but my strength is better. I can lift heavier weights, and I am more satisfied after meals. I was able to start running that same year and this year. At the age of 52, I completed my first ever half-marathon on a plant-based, sugar- and dairy-free diet (oh and I should add, a cigarette-free diet too!) It helps with my hormonal balance, adds more to my energy levels, and helps with my concentration. It’s hard to describe, but I know my body is thanking me for changing the way I nourish it. I have recently added yoga back into my fitness regimen and have discovered Total Resistance Exercises (TRX) and pilates. Although running and weight training are great, they shorten the muscles and make them tighter, so to keep flexibility and suppleness, classes that help stretch the muscles are beneficial.
With my fitness and diet doing great things for both my mental and physical health, I wanted to find out what else I could do to complement both. I had been taking vitamin B12 and evening primrose oil for a few years, but I was interested in what else I could include to supplement my lifestyle. B12, D3, and omega-3 are often most lacking in a vegan diet. D3 can protect against breast cancer, promote a healthy partnership between brain and digestive health (in fact, research is building around the correlation between D3 and Alzheimer’s), and is an important vitamin to take as we age. The body cannot activate Vitamin D in the skin as we get older. Vitamin B12 promotes a healthy nervous system and omega-3 is great for heart health and blood function. Along with these, I take Ashwagandha, which can help with cognitive health and hormone balance, along with anxiety. I also take beta carotene for eye health and antioxidant properties, turmeric with ginger for anti-inflammatory benefits, and a good probiotic for good digestive health, as this has been linked to maintaining brain health.
But, how else can you “fuel” your mind and body? For me, being around positive, energetic, and naturally happy people really lifts my own energy and gives me the strength to distance myself from the negative people and influences that I had allowed into my life. This was a hard one to deal with, but I have learned that I am responsible for me and owe it to myself to treat myself well. Being surrounded by this negative energy really did block me from being able to expand, appreciate the now, and allow the good stuff in, unashamedly.
A final and integral part of my quest to age in the best way I can is a daily 20-minute meditation. Taking that time has proved invaluable to calming my mind and gaining clarity.
Everything that I do is what I believe helps me. I read, researched, and drew my own conclusions, sometimes asking others’ advice. I am not an expert, but I do think it’s vital to look at not just physical health, but also mental health. For me, the two go hand in hand, and I can’t achieve one without the other.
You may read and think: is it all worth it? My answer is a resounding YES! I have always been a “prevention is better than cure” person, and once you switch your mindset, you can achieve anything you want. Change is always a good idea. Without it, things stagnate and can’t evolve and grow. We have the continued ability to keep on growing and discovering new ways of being. Never stop learning, never lose your sense of wonderment, change a negative into a positive. Life is for living, so live it well.
*All I do is based on my own research and from speaking to others. Please do seek medical advice for any exercise regimen before you begin, apart from exercising your brain—that needs no doctor’s consent.
** Drink more water! Beautiful, delicious, life-giving water.
***I finally stopped smoking completely four years ago.
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