COMMENT:

Life begins at 40, and for many people hitting that magic middle-age four zero number is no longer a millstone but a springboard into the next stage of life.

Today, people in their 40s and beyond are looking and feeling better than ever before and only part of that is down to Botox. Although they may feel good, 40-somethings increased sense of wellness may actually be a hindrance to their health in the long run. New research out this week found that when middle-aged people who considered themselves to be healthy with no need to visit a doctor were given a health WoF, all of them failed at least one of the health categories and showed early onset symptoms of issues that could become much more serious in later life.

Healthy ageing is the process of keeping an optimum level of physical, mental and emotional function that allows us to have wellbeing as we age. The Government has committed $35 million towards maintaining health and wellbeing for New Zealanders into the latter years of life through the 10-year Ageing Well National Science Challenge. The goal is for the research generated to influence policy and practice to support ageing well for all of us through our lifetimes. What isn't clear is at what point in time does "ageing" occur and when should we start worrying about age-related changes to our bodies. The truth is that most of us only go to the doctor when we are unwell or when symptoms have become severe enough to restrict us in some way. This trend of waiting until things are bad enough to see a doctor means that early symptoms of decline are missed and preventative treatments for more serious issues may no longer be applicable.

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To look into the age at which this bodily decline may occur, researchers studied 561 adults classed as middle-aged (40-59 years) and young-old people (50-75 years) to see if early physiological and functional changes related to their health were detectable.

The volunteers chosen for the study had self-assessed themselves as people who were healthy and had no medical concerns. They were then tested for 21 health domains including hearing, memory, lung function, foot sensation, grip strength, respiratory rate, balance, diet and physical activity to see where they ranked compared to data for healthy population norms. Surprisingly, even though they all thought they were healthy, not one of the volunteers tested complied with all of the healthy norms with each person having an average of five unidentified health problems. The research published in the journal BMC Geriatrics showed that many of these early onset body changes would have been reversible if they were detected early. The challenge was that all of the individuals self-assessed themselves as healthy with no need to visit a doctor, meaning that these early symptoms would probably not have been picked up in time and only noticed when they became more serious and potentially untreatable later on in life.

Poor body systems performance were detected in people as young as 40 years old, a time when many people are busy with their jobs and their kids. These busy lives mean that small reversible changes in health tend to go unnoticed and start quietly accumulating as we get older.

The study results suggest that rather than coping with an over-burdened reactive healthcare system, perhaps we need to provide a WoF for those hitting 40 and beyond as part of a proactive and preventative health maintenance system that could treat early symptoms of age-related diseases before they become too complicated and costly.