By the time we turn 60, most of us will still have one third of our lives to live. How well we live these years will depend on our health. Are we agile and disease free, or dependent on medication and help?
Melbourne specialist geriatrician Dr Kate Gregorevic is fascinated by, and an expert in, the ageing process. So much so that the mother-of-three has written about the science of it in her first book Staying Alive (written at 5am over just six months—go Kate!)
A keen runner and mother of three who wraps sleep, nutrition, exercise, and cognitive and emotional health into a holistic approach to her own life, Kate has built her research and experience treating older adults into day-to-day strategies around how to live happier, healthier and longer.
Where others can equate ageing with being worthless to society, Kate has the opposite view. "It is just the most incredible gift to get that wisdom and perspective that comes at the end or after many decades of life," she told me on new #Perspectives podcast 'Staying Alive'.
"People in their eighties and nineties, they've lived. They have so much understanding of what is important. Don't get me wrong, physical things are really important aspects of health, but we also need to find a framework and find motivation.
"It's not so much saying to someone, 'Do your exercise,'" says Dr Kate. "Everyone kows exercise is good for them. It's saying, 'What's important to you?' Asking what's going to add value to each of them.
"And I can't prescribe that."
I loved our conversation, which ranged from a couple of my new obsessions—telomeres and gut bacteria with their own neuro-transmitters to name just a couple!—to many of my older ones including the potential for psychology to physically express itself, optimism, and the best way to deposit into your own 'health bank' now to get great returns later.
I also loved Staying Alive and was keen to deep dive with an expert into what she knows about ageing. (Kate doesn't like the longtime buzzword 'anti-ageing', be it in claims about nutrition or beauty products and treatments: "We're all getting older all the time. We age, and can't stop that.")
We can't, but we're all living much longer than we did. One statistic in Staying Alive intrigued me. In 1900, we died at the average age of 31 compared to 81 now in developed countries, and 71 across the board.
My interest in the topic of how to live well now to boost our chances of having satisfying older years was sparked when I was a teenager and was diagnosed with endometriosis.
It was my first introduction to an Australian health care system which may not allow as much as it should for prevention rather than cure. My diagnosis and years of treatment really woke me up to a system that was designed just to get cut it off, cut it out, drug it.
I actually had one doctor tell me once, ‘If we cut the nerves, you won't feel the pain as it kills you.’ I'm not saying that's the standard practice. But that was my experience. And it made me realise the medical system is very reactive.
It was a wake up call.
In the decades since, the one thing that helped my health most was dumping processed food and sugar 20 years ago. I was diagnosed with candida and depression, and I was prescribed antibiotics and anti-depressants—I was given four different scripts.
Again, this is my experience. It isn't me being a doctor. I'm giving all the disclaimers here. But my experience with this was about the medical systems reacting to what was going on, not dealing with how I got there. And that's where I made these major changes in my life.
It's why I became a coach.
Because I didn't feel empowered by suppressing. So I dumped sugar, processed food, alcohol for two years. And, yep, I started exercising—what a concept! It was a pathway that taught me so much about how much I can impact me. It was so empowering for me.
After years of surgeries with endometriosis and ovarian cysts, it was an incredible feeling to empower myself that way. And every day I feel gratitude for having my health, knowing what it felt like back then not to have that.
So my dedication to taking care of my health now is ingrained, disciplined, means everything. I've literally spent decades now being as best as I can be in getting the research and being on top of it.
I see other people and it's almost like, no matter what happens, they still feel they don't have a say in their health and outcomes.
“One of the fundamental flaws in the whole idea of prevention is that it's an abstract future," says Kate.
"None of us actually knows what’s going to happen in 10 years, twenty years. And people don't often articulate that in their everyday choices, but we are balancing that up and that's why I think it's so much more important to focus on a definition of health that's really present—that's much more about enabling you to engage in your life.
"That you can physically and mentally do what you want to do and so then it makes it important in the here and now. And you know, my take personally is I'm not willing to make any major behaviour changes to my health that I don't get benefits from.”
Woah. Like right now?
Yes, says Kate.
“You know, things like ... I'm very active. I exercise a lot, but the thing that gets me up in the morning and going for my walk and my run, isn’t thinking, ‘This is decreasing my chance of dementia.’ It's because I'll be in a better mood after I've done that.”