What is the secret to a long, healthy and meaningful life?

6 April 2020
It may seem insensitive to discuss longevity during a pandemic, but that's why it's more important than ever to focus on our physical and emotional health. Professor Luigi Fontana shares some practical tips.

In his new book, The Path to Longevity, leading international expert on healthy longevity Professor Luigi Fontana shows how nutrition, exercise and brain training, mindfulness and other lifestyle interventions can lead to a long life free of diseases, and why these factors have the influence on health that they do.

“Recent events in Australia and globally such as the bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic highlight just how fragile life is. They serve as a timely reminder that we must do all that we can to maintain good health and resilience,” said Professor Fontana, Leonard Ullmann Chair of Translational Metabolic Health and Director of the Healthy Longevity Research and Clinical Program at the University’s Charles Perkins Centre.

“People mistakenly believe that chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and even cancer, are due to bad genes or an unlucky roll of the dice. But we know that many metabolic disorders and chronic illnesses are preventable.

“There is no one secret to a long and healthy life, but there is a wealth of scientific evidence and knowledge we can draw on to help people take control of their own health and that of their children and children’s children. Our health is our most precious asset.”

A chat with Professor Luigi Fontana

Here, we asked Professor Fontana to elaborate on just a few of the many questions and myths his book tackles.

What’s the first step to making a change?

The first step is to acknowledge our health problems and limitations and challenge the underlying assumptions. Most of us will reshape our behaviours only if we have a clear understanding of why it is important to change, and we approve of it. Then we just need to set our goals, pursue them and have faith in them.

Smart people never stop learning, because they know that this is the way to deeper insights and revolutionary changes.

What diet should we be following – vegetarian, Mediterranean, high protein, 5:2 diet?

None of these: many are just fads, oversimplifications of a complex reality. Our society has become obsessed with losing weight, but the real question we should ask is not ‘How can I drop some extra kilos?’, but ‘How can I avoid developing chronic diseases as I age, and possibly live a much longer and healthier life?’

As I have tried to explain in this book, the knowledge we have acquired over the past couple of decades about the metabolic and molecular mechanisms that regulate ageing is allowing us to more accurately choose what to eat, how much of it and when, to meet our nutrient needs.

How important is sleep?

Sleep regenerates the brain, improves the efficiency of the immune system and reduces the risk of infections, while also playing a vital role in consolidating memories and reducing the risk of dementia.

There is no magic number of hours that works for everyone. The most important thing is that sleep is deep and restful, and you wake feeling restored. This can be difficult for some so the book explores strategies like endurance exercise to improve sleep quality or using yoga and meditation.

What role do family and friendship play in healthy ageing?

One of the features of centenarians living in Okinawa and Sardinia is the strong sense of belonging to the family and to a broader social group of friends. One of the Okinawan’s mottos is ‘Shikinoo chui shiihii shiru kurasuru’, which means: ‘We live in this world by helping one another’.

Positive social relationships and friendship play a key role in promoting metabolic, emotional and mental health – so seek them out – as challenging as that may be in current times.

Book cover, The Path to Longevity

Is it ever too late to start making changes?

No, it is never too late to start living a healthier life. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can drastically improve health at any age, even if you are already suffering from one or more diseases. Of course, the sooner you start the better, but it is never too late to turn back the clock.

The benefits of improving your diet quality and engaging in regular exercise and cognitive training (keeping your mind active and engaged) don’t accrue only to people who have been doing this all along. You can make changes in your 50s, 60s and 70s that result in a healthier, longer life.

The Path to Longevitypublished by Hardie Grant booksprovides an easy-to-follow, comprehensive science-based guide outlining a lifestyle plan that integrates the most advanced principles of nutrition, exercise, cognitive and emotional health. It touches on every aspect of life, pointing out the dangers, advising on the positive steps you need to take to enjoy a healthy life, on a healthy planet.

Declaration: No competing interests to declare.

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