Sir Muir Gray on Keeping Safe

Sir Muir Gray has worked for NHS England since 1972 and is an internationally renowned authority on healthcare systems worldwide. He has occupied a variety of roles including as a Consultant in Public Health in Oxford University Hospital NHS Trust and a professor in the University of Oxford’s department of Primary Care Health Sciences. Sir Muir Gray is also the author of Sod 70! and with Diana Moran the joint author of Sod Sitting, Get Moving.

He has kindly shared his personal insight on how to keep physically and mentally happy during lockdown, being positive and looking to the future.

Time for renaissance

I am 75 and have two long-term conditions. I had a stent fitted about six years ago following a heart attack and have a little bit of bronchitis, from growing up in Glasgow before the Clean Air Act, so there are two reasons I am distancing myself from others. However, I prefer the term ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’ and in fact am developing stronger links with friends on social media using the phone and Zoom and WhatsApp to speak to and see friends more frequently than I did when I was busy with the hurly-burly of everyday life. Zoom and WhatsApp are particularly good because of the ease with which you can get a group of people together and we now know that isolation, with or without loneliness, is a risk factor for dementia so must be prevented or mitigated with energy. I am at home with my wife but many people are at home on their own, but even if I were on my own I would still be doing the distancing to reduce my risk of dying from coronavirus infection. I regard it, therefore, as vitally important to keep distant from others and reduce the risk of infection although how long this will go on is unclear that we must hope that a vaccine is developed as soon possible.

For people of our age, of course, this is all reminiscent of the polio epidemics of our childhood where we knew it was a virus, we knew there was no treatment and no vaccine, and we all, in Glasgow certainly, stayed clear of swimming pools and, most unfairly I am sure, Italian ice cream.

The risks of staying home

The benefits of staying home are clear but there are significant risks.

Ageing by itself is not a cause of major problems until the late nineties. Most of the problems that occur as we live longer, based on my work over the last fifty years with people living longer, are due to three factors:

  • Loss of fitness, physical and mental
  • Disease, much of it preventable; and, when it does occur, often aggravated by accelerated loss of fitness due in part to the disease and in part to the second factor, namely
  • Negative beliefs and pessimistic attitudes, for example assuming that everyone over 70 is developing dementia, should rest as much as possible, and needs care, namely, things done for them, when they would be better doing things for themselves even with a bit of a struggle.
  • We now know that even a week in hospital can have significant adverse effects, called the ‘deconditioning syndrome’, because of the forced inactivity, so three months, or possibly more, of inactivity at home is a challenge which should not be underestimated in its capacity to do harm. What is needed is to increase activity, physical, cognitive and emotional.
  • However, we are also offered an amazing opportunity, the ‘elixir of life’, which can be taken during this period cut off from the distractions of everyday life.

The elixir of life

Although hundreds of millions of pounds and dollars are invested in a search for a pill that will be the elixir of life, we already have the elixir of life and that is called knowledge; we have the knowledge now that most of the problems that we see developing as we live longer are not due to ageing but are due to factors that we can control. We need a bit of luck, of course – luck in our genes, although they are not responsible for more than about 15 percent of what happens to us, luck in being born to parents who are either wealthy or who value education even if they are not wealthy – but we can do much to reduce our risk of dementia and frailty and therefore to reduce our risk of the need for social care.

The elixir of life is available but it does not come as a pill or a potion, it comes through learning and this is the ideal chance to learn for the next phase of our lives.

Renaissance through active ageing

In a great book called The Hundred Year Life, the authors made it clear that the old idea of there being three stages of life, childhood, adulthood and retirement, has now gone and people are adopting different phases at all ages, including in the decades from the sixties onwards.

So, let’s use this period of time to reflect on what we want to achieve, to assume that we might live into our nineties, and therefore to take steps to reduce our risk of dementia, frailty and dependence on others, either family or the State. Here are some simple rules that you can follow to achieve this aim.

  • Understand what is going on inside you
  • Don’t accept what most people say about ageing – be positive
  • Become more active physically, get even fitter
  • Become more active mentally, learn new skills
  • Become more active socially, for example by helping other people even more
  • Get more sleep
  • Be cautious users of healthcare
  • Eat more plants and eat fewer wrapped foods
  • Define yourself or be defined.

If you would like to learn more, look at Sir Muir Gray's books such as Sod 70! and Sod 60! or visit www.learningwithexperts.com/foodanddrink/courses/living-longer-better.