Good news! Ageing well and indulging yourself are not incompatible. The simple pleasure of a mug of cocoa, or a cup of tea or coffee comes with all sorts of health benefits for a healthy old age. I'll drink to that!
Without the threat of early death from war and infectious diseases, most of us in the Western world can expect to live well into our eighties and beyond, a lifespan that would have seemed incredible just a few generations ago. But of course we don't just want to live a long time – we want to enjoy life to the full, and that means ageing well.
There's a whole industry built around our aspiration to a healthy old age now, and it seems that every week brings us a new superfood or exercise regime to be regarded as the holy grail for warding off the more unpleasant side effects of ageing, from wrinkles to dementia. But looking after yourself doesn't have to involve expensive dietary supplements or outlandish forms of exercise. It can be as simple as having a comforting warm drink. What sort of drink? Read on...
Many of us are careful about our coffee consumption for health reasons. And we have a point. It's easy to overdo the caffeine when you're drinking coffee, as it's one of the caffeine-richest drinks around. And then there's the temptation to adulterate the stuff with cream and syrups, which can add a shedload of saturated fat and sugar to your regular diet. But actually, consumed with care, coffee has many health benefits.
There are hundreds of studies that have found one health benefit or another to be gained from drinking coffee. The following findings are particularly relevant to the issue of ageing well:
Dark chocolate has a whole host of health benefits, to the extent that it has been hailed as a superfood. Mixing cocoa powder up into the form of hot chocolate is a particularly palatable way of accessing its health benefits, which include protection from a number of diseases that increasingly afflict us as we age:
The humble old cuppa has similar health benefits to the ones claimed for coffee and cocoa. Again, consumption of tea has been linked to reduced rates of heart attacks, stroke, cancer and various forms of dementia. Green tea seems to provide the clearest health benefits, but even a traditional cup of black tea with milk is good for you – as long as you don't add loads of sugar to it.
It's interesting to think about how these drinks contribute to a healthy old age, particularly over and above the simple benefit of staying well hydrated. The exact mechanisms by which this occurs aren't understood yet, but there are two active ingredients for which there is ample evidence: antioxidants and caffeine.
Antioxidants. Here's a quick primer on the chemistry of ageing: Our basic metabolic processes form by-products called free radicals. Free radicals cause oxidation, a major mechanism of biological ageing, and have been implicated in all sorts of diseases, from the inflammation associated with heart disease to the growth of tumours. The reason that we keep going at all is that antioxidants come along and mop up these free radicals. All of the drinks described above contain antioxidants in varying forms and concentrations, all helping to neutralise the natural ageing process to some extent.
Caffeine. We're rather used to thinking about caffeine as a health hazard. But in moderate doses it's the exact opposite. It has a stimulating effect on the nervous system, increasing blood flow all over the body. It raises the body's level of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is implicated in feelings of pleasure and reward. The important thing to remember is to consume it in moderation (have a look at this article for more information about the dangers of excessive caffeine consumption). You want the mild stimulating effects but not the sleep deprivation.
Finally, there is much to be said for the sheer, simple pleasure of indulging in a nice cup of tea or coffee. Savouring and enjoying life contribute to physical and mental health and are an integral part of living well at any age. So... enjoy!