3 minutes with Muir Gray

Over the official retirement age, but not over the hill, public health expert Muir Gray gives his tips on an active life as Older People’s Day comes round.

Older people are often seen as a ‘problem’. Why?

The principal problem is the term ‘the elderly’, which lumps everyone from 65 to 105 together. The fact of life is that if people in their 60s, 70s and 80s stopped helping older people who were very dependent the NHS would collapse tomorrow. We need to distinguish different groups of older people – older people who may have multiple diagnoses, or ‘conditions’, as they call them, but are healthy, active and helping others should be distinguished from older people with frailty. It is also essential to remember that people aged 70 differ from one another in many more ways than they are similar – just like physiotherapists.

What can be done to change perceptions?

I think we are seeing a change in perceptions as more older people are actively involved in politics and in start-ups. There is an undeniable tension between the generations. I feel very much for younger people who have much more difficulty in getting into the housing market than I did 40 years ago. We have a number of economic problems that shape social attitudes. The most important thing is for older people to change perceptions by being even more active in helping others and making society better at present.

Tell us about Sod70!

The mission of my book, Sod70!, is to help people in their 70s know what is going on inside them and around them. I describe four interrelated processes. 
First, there is ageing, a normal biological process which does not cause many problems until you are about 90. The other three processes cause the problems before 90.
Second, comes disease, much of it preventable, and we are seeing increasing evidence about the preventability of diseases that are solely due to ageing. For example, a recent report demonstrated the prevalence of dementia decreased by 22 per cent in England in the last 20 years. You need good luck, of course, because some diseases are not, at present, preventable but our genes are probably responsible for about 20 per cent of what happens to us.  
Third, is loss of fitness which starts for most of us when we have our first job. Physiotherapists are fortunate in that they spend most of their working day on their feet – until they get promoted, of course. It is clear that we are in an epidemic of ‘hyper sitting syndrome’. Loss of fitness is not a problem in your 30s, 40s and 50s, unless you don’t play sport, but, as physiotherapists know very well, loss of fitness can make the difference in getting to the toilet in time or not. 
The fourth factor is the attitudes of older people who need to be much more confident in defining themselves.

What will you be doing on Older People’s Day on 1 October?

Working, like many other older people. I am interested in launching a campaign to get people to give their £200 heating allowance to the large numbers of older people who are still affected by that preventable risk factor – poverty.

What three public health improvements would you call for?

  • Better housing – namely housing that is more energy efficient and designed for all levels of disability, because good design for people with disabilities means good design for all of us.  
  • Second, we need to give patients their own records to keep because only the patient is constant in the kaleidoscope of modern healthcare.  
  • Third, we need to jump the NHS based on to the web not on paper.

How do you keep active?

Every morning I do my daily dozen, focused primarily on strength and suppleness and then each day I try to do 30 minutes more of walking or cycling than I need to do for my daily work. It is essential that we build these extra 30 minutes walking, 3,000 extra steps, into our lifestyle. If we spend our lives sitting, the only exercise we get is jumping to conclusions. fl
  • Muir Gray is the director of Better Value Healthcare and chief knowledge officer, Department of Health. For more on Sod70!, visit www.sod70.org

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