Can you ever be old enough to eat junk food?

August 16, 2015

When Leonard Cohen announced he intended to resume smoking on his 80th birthday  I was shocked. Wasn’t he a Buddhist? Wasn’t he rather saintly these days? “I’m looking forward to that first smoke,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for 30 years.”

It’s a bad decision to smoke at any age. Some doctors are understandably apoplectic. They fear Big Tobacco is using Cohen to further its sales to old people. They point to the asthma, bronchitis and risks to others that can accompany a smoking habit. “Not smoking will enable Leonard Cohen to live a bit longer, not be breathless, and to keep singing,” one geriatrician told me.

So don’t take up smoking at 80. But Cohen’s declaration highlighted an advantage of ageing I’d overlooked: some risky behaviours might not seem so risky when you’re old. At some point in the life span, it might be preferable to indulge in the pleasures of the here-and-now than to worry about the future. Personally when I’m old enough, I’ll be happy to reclaim some of the bad stuff I’ve renounced in the hope of long life. How freeing it will be to get to a point where it doesn’t matter so much if I’m a bit naughty.

On my 80th birthday, I’d eat a slice of excellent cheese cake and on every day there-after I’d eat more delicious cake (cake being something I love but fiercely ration). Also I’d bring out the salt cellar after its aeons growing cobwebs in the cupboard. Surely decades of abstention from added salt (It’s linked to strokes, isn’t it?) couldn’t be undone by a few years of indulgence towards the end of life? I’d probably drink a bit more alcohol than I do now. Two separate bouts with cancer have turned me into a nervous one-glass-a- week imbiber because of the dastardly link between alcohol and cancer. But at 80 will I care?

I’d definitely explore the cheese cabinet at my delicatessen. I’d buy a new kind every week. I’d happily replace my sardine sandwiches, rich in health-giving Omega 3, with fatty dairy delights from Italy, Scandinavia or Tasmania at lunch-time. I’d resuscitate my delicious Tuna Bake recipe from the ‘70s with the white sauce and the masses of cheddar that got relegated to the back of the file when my first cholesterol reading came back. Trying to control a cholesterol level that’s too low for statins but too high for comfort robs life of a lot of culinary pleasure.

It seems many Australians aren’t fastidious enough about their diet and their alcohol consumption. They consume wilful amounts of the wrong stuff. Risky drinking seems to be a bigger problem among middle-class people over 50 than among the young. Obesity and diabetes are far too prevalent.

Bu some of us are doing our best. We know it’s important in mid-life to take care of yourself, to improve your chances of good health in later life. We follow the dietary guidelines and the guidelines for testing for breast cancer, bowel cancer, and so on. We try not to get too bitter when cancers strike anyway. (Ah well, at least I’m a slim person with cancer!) Eating well and exercising regularly is about risk reduction not guarantees.

But at what point can we focus less on prevention of future health problems and more on sheer enjoyment of the years we’ve won?  “A skim milk cappuccino isn’t a real coffee,” my 87-year-old mother has always maintained.

I can’t remember what age my mother was when I stopped nagging her about her lapses from the preventive health messages and started to encourage her to indulge instead. I used to chide her about the amount of salt she used (“It makes food tasty,” she’d rejoin); I’d tell her to not to bake so many cakes because no-one eats that much cake any more. Now that she’s 48kg, I urge her to eat cake.

When I consulted Milena Katz, an accredited dietitian, and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, she told me being underweight was a serious health problem for old people. It indicated loss of muscle. Muscle mass keeps people upright and reduces the risk of falls and fractures. “The reality is,” she said, “you have to enjoy your food.”

Being heavier when you’re older has its advantages, providing a “reserve” through illness or falls. “If older people eat a variety of food, especially protein, and they don’t have diabetes, a piece of cake won’t hurt,” she said.

Recently the granddaughter, my darling niece, on a visit from London, raised the whole vegetarian thing with Mum, plus the sugar-is-poison argument familiar among young women. When you’re 18 it’s all preferable to the fast food addictions of her peers. But when you’re nearly 90 who cares about chia seeds and kale? Is this being ageist? If you let yourself go at 80, might you regret it when you’re fat, wheezing and immobile at 90?

Let me say it again. As much as you might think Leonard Cohen is a genius, don’t take up smoking in old age. But a glass of wine or two with dinner, and a piece of cake to finish the meal off? That’s something I’m looking forward to.

So am I being ageist? Does eating healthily always matter? Please comment.

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