By Azu Ishiekwene
THE cold blast of the air conditioner from the room hit me by surprise as I opened the door. I wasn’t expecting a draught from inside at eight on a damp morning. But there was my cousin under the duvet, hugging what seemed like a pillow as he snuggled diagonally across the bed, deeply asleep.
I grabbed the electric iron from the floor right next to the standing fan, which was purring at a speed that made the room even cooler, and left quickly. How could he be sleeping so comfortably with the AC at a cold blast on a wet morning?
As I closed the door, I remembered that this was the sort of thing I used to do not too long ago. Going to bed with the AC in super-chill mode and the standing fan whirring in complement was the cool thing. And whether in the car or at work in the office, I made sure that the atmosphere was super-chilled all the way.
And then one day a friend forwarded an article in the Times of India to me entitled: “AC causes more harm than good.” Under the heatwave baking us night and day, it seemed like a weird thing to say. AC is not only a welcome relief from heat, it has also become a status symbol.
But the article was an eye opener. AC, it said, sucks humidity from the air in the room, without discriminating between moisture in the atmosphere and moisture from the skin. That’s probably not so bad if, like my cousin, you’re in your late 20s. But, if like me, you’re in your late 50s and above, the skin is more vulnerable and the AC effect tends to hasten aging.
But AC turned at full blast is only one of the many potential miseries of aging. You would find, as you get older, that there is a lengthening list of don’ts you are advised to observe to live a longer, healthier life. I used to love sugar like mad. I still remember popping St. Louis cubes, hiding some on the door lintel or scooping handfuls of Ovaltine powder when mother wasn’t looking.
Occasionally, when my hand was caught in the jar, mother would, apart from administering strokes of fan belt to my buttocks, also give me the Ketrax worm expeller treatment, with Fam-Lax, a common laxative at the time.
I don’t know which one was worse. The lashing was bad and merciless. But the fear of expelling a few live worms as they wriggled their way through my anal canal after surviving the Ketrax attack, was dreadful. Yet, the punishment, however harsh, didn’t keep me away for too long from Goodie-Goodie, fizzy drinks, ice cream, chocolates and candies. As I grew older, I began to learn more about sugar and its deadly side effects.
Sugar is sugar
Sugar, no matter by what name it is called – corn syrup, agave nectar, cane juice or sucrose – is sugar. It can mess up your health, especially as you get older, if not taken in significant moderation which, according to some health experts, is about 200 calories daily from all the foods combined.
According to WebMD, excessive sugar consumption may alter the mood from a “sugar-high” to “sugar crash”, compromise cavity health, worsen joint pain, and trigger molecules that could hasten aging. Fifteen, 20 years ago, I didn’t care. And why should I? I think by some genetic accident, I have maintained a slim figure that has left friends teasing that I could swallow a mortar and pestle without showing it.
My shopping cart was incomplete without a box or two of vanilla ice cream, to wash down my dinner which could be pounded yam, fried plantain, or amala with egusi and plenty of ponmo, eaten at well past midnight. My ice cubes or chilled bottle of water was never too far away.
I thought that was life, and that I was young at heart and invincible – until a medical checkup turned out to be a life-threatening scare. After a major surgery, my lifestyle changed significantly. It’s not the AC, ice cubes and sugar alone that I have been forced to cut down on or do without completely.
I’ve almost shifted 180 degrees from a life of super-chill to one of fresh air and electric fans; and descended from my sugar pyramids to pounds of bitters, fruits and vegetables – and yes, my salt intake is nearly down to zero.
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Not too long ago, I just loved to season my foods all the way, first marinating and then garnishing them with salt, seasoning cubes and whatever synthetic flavours that could, in my opinion, bring out the real taste. I ate my boiled plantain or yam with a saucer of palm oil seasoned with salt. During rainy seasons, I snacked on my African pear by first rubbing it in a plate of salt, “to get the taste”. I know many people who still eat avocado pear with a salt spread.
Playing with fire
They’re playing with fire. A nutrition study by Elias Menyanu, Karen E. Charlton and Paul Kowal, focusing on Ghana and South Africa said: “It has been estimated that 1.7 million lives could be saved annually if salt consumption levels were decreased to recommended levels of 5grams per day.”
Unfortunately, low and middle-income countries, including Africa, where over 75 percent of cardiovascular deaths take place, also account for the highest consumption of salts, apart from energy dense and nutrient poor diets. According to this study, more than two-thirds of African populations attach low importance to dietary salt reduction.
The result in Ghana, South Africa and many African countries is that the prevalence of hypertension has continued to rise. My transition from the life of a regular Joe living on dangerous dietary habits for years to one of daily struggle with elevated blood pressure in my middle age should serve as an example to those who have ears.
In an effort to repair the damage of the past, I’m surprising myself with a new attitude of dietary curiosity. I read food labels for size, servings, carbs, calories, sodium and fat, even if it means squinting or running a quick check on my phone to be sure of the health benefits – or risks. It’s tedious, even annoying sometimes. But it’s a small price to pay for redemption.
I stopped jogging, too. I know that there are folks who jog into their late 60s. I honestly did my best to match that record before a much older friend told me to be careful. Don’t get me wrong. There are many good reasons for an active lifestyle that keeps your muscles strong and your bones firm well into old age. But you may need to work with your doctor to find out what is best for you.
If I had any doubts about my older friend’s advice concerning running into my 60s, they were soon settled when tests showed that pushing the limits could have landed me with a runner’s knee or even stress fractures. I have since learnt to do my recommended moderate exercise of 150 minutes weekly or 30 minutes five days a week.
My grandchildren can vie for the Olympic medals in the marathon! A consolation prize works for me just fine. There are other lessons I’m learning about aging, too. I used to wear late, irregular sleeping hours like a badge of honour. Not that I was partying or playing snooker late into the night.
Ode to long nights
My work as a journalist is hostile to early nights. But I managed to worsen the bad habit by reading long past godly hours. I used to say, very proudly, that five hours of sleep was enough for me. And for many years, I indulged in this dangerous fantasy.
When an older friend told me he was decluttering, for example, taking out all the heavy printed stuff and documents he no longer needed, I begged him to send the books to me. I piled on my binge until it became a compound obsession. Of course, my stress level rose and my mindfulness took a beating from poor sleep and insufficient rest.
Yet, aging is not all gloom and misery, especially if you find the right things and do them early. My wife often jokes that she never quite understood why her mother, who died from diabetes-related complications this year, used to carry “bags” of medicine or fret about sugar and carbs.
My wife was big on fizzies. Not anymore. But that was after she managed to create her own small collection of remedies for past indulgences, with a range of medicines that would make a chemist proud. After her mother’s death, she developed a steely determination to avoid all those things that could inflame her predisposition.
It’s true, as we say, that “something will kill somebody”. But thanks to improvements in medicine and science, the cause of death doesn’t have to be ignorance, though current studies by actuaries in the UK suggest that even where knowledge is present, inequalities could also be significant factors in life expectancy. Yet, WHO reports that in about nine years’ time, one of six people in the world would be 60 years and older.
Aging mellows you. It even makes you wiser and more forgiving of yourself and others. Depending on how you handle it, it also provides just about enough time for repairs, before you enter the departure lounge.