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20 Oct 2020

On your bike then

As easy as 1,2,3 Norman Lazarus says good health at 80 requires making a start at adopting a simple ‘trinity’ of actions by 50, writes Hans van Leeuwen
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As easy as 1,2,3 Norman Lazarus says good health at 80 requires making a start at adopting a simple ‘trinity’ of actions by 50, writes Hans van Leeuwen

Thirty years ago, a 54-year-old medical scientist and British health bureaucrat named Norman Lazarus was settling down to a nice dinner with his wife while on holiday in Switzerland. As he put his napkin on his lap, he saw the bulge of his middle-aged belly protruding over his belt.

The waiter arrived with the soup course, but Lazarus put down his spoon and folded up the napkin. It was time to get serious about getting healthy, before it was too late.

Fast-forward to now: Lazarus is a twinkly-eyed, sprightly 84-year-old. Healthwise, he’s in the pink. He’s an endurance cyclist, has recently published a book, and is still working at King’s College London on unravelling the secrets of healthy ageing. His wife, June, who joined him on his health journey, is 87 and also has no age-related illnesses.

Lazarus deployed his medical know-how to develop a simple “trinity” of actions that, if started during middle-age, give you a solid shot at warding off the 20 or so avoidable diseases of age, including cardiovascular disease, pre-stroke hypertension, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, dementia, non-alcoholic liver disease, peripheral artery disease, and certain kinds of cancers.

“If 40-to-45-year-olds don’t put in the trinity now, you are going to suffer from at least three diseases,” he says. "It means that those extra years you are going to live are going to be taken up with doctors’ appointments, queueing for medicines and relying on those around you.

“Those lovely children that 45-year-olds are now raising are going to have to spend a lot of their time worrying about their aged parents. I think that can be avoided."

His book, The Lazarus Strategy: How to Age Well and Wisely (Hachette Australia), is plain-speaking and impassioned. Get started, and get started now – not just for your own sake, but for the sake of our societies’ struggling health systems and ageing demographics.

Ageing and slowing down is inevitable, he says, but disease and infirmity is not. And, for the benefit of AFR Weekend readers, he offers a financial analogy.

“If I had to put this in financial terms, I’d say this is asset management in a bear environment,” he says.

“Whatever you do, your physiological assets are going to go down to zero. So what you’ve got to decide is how am I going to manage myself, what are the principles I can use, to make sure I use my failing assets to the full capability as I pass through the various decades?”

Prepare not to be particularly surprised by the answer. Eat less, and eat smart. Exercise more, and regularly. And pay regard to your mental health.

“When you begin to break down what is necessary, myself I am surprised at how simple the message is but how complicated it is to put it into place,” he says.