There’s more to Caerphilly than its famous castle and cheese!

They’ve got something to sing about in the valleys around Caerphilly – they’ve just proven how to live to a healthy old age –  and reduce the risk of dementia by 60%.

In 1979, 2,500 men were enrolled in a study and asked to follow five simple rules – eat well, exercise, drink less, keep their weight down and never smoke.  Only 25 managed to stick to the plan, but now, 35 years later, they are all far fitter and healthier than those who gave up.  They are so fit, in fact, that they have dramatically cut their risk of cancer, diabetes, heart-attack, stroke and dementia.

Caerphilly Castle, the largest in Wales and second largest in Britain.  Built by English Lord Gilbert de Clare in  1268 to keep defend against the Welsh,  particularly  Llewellyn ap Gruffudd.
Caerphilly Castle, the largest in Wales and second largest in Britain. Built by English Lord Gilbert de Clare in 1268 to defend against the Welsh, particularly Llewellyn ap Gruffudd.

Those who did develop these conditions did so at a much older age than the others.  Study leader Professor Peter Elwood, of Cardiff University, said:  ‘The development of heart disease was delayed by up to 12 years, and it was up to around an additional six years before dementia took its grip. It shows that following a healthy lifestyle staves off disease and premature death.’

The recommended physical activity included walking two or more miles, or cycling 10 or more miles to work each day, or other ‘vigorous’ exercise.  The volunteers, all from Caerphilly gave researchers regular reports on their physical activity, alcohol consumption, and diet, and their  wives and families helped by completing regular food questionnaires.   Every five years the men were re-questioned and re-examined along with their medical records to identify new cases of diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

Researchers found that not smoking, having a moderate alcohol intake, eating a lot of fruit and vegetables, together with regular physical activity and having an acceptable BMI were associated with lower incidence of certain chronic diseases.

Retired teacher Leighton Jones, 80, rides 35 miles a week around the hills and valleys near his home and walks up to two miles every other day.  “I’ve followed the healthy steps for many years now and feel pretty fit, ‘ he said,  ‘Cycling keeps my body fit while scrabble keeps the mind fit.  I do have a beer or wine most nights but I drink in moderation.”

Bachelor Ray Grace, 80, jogs two miles every day near his home in Llanbradach.  He travels all over Wales and the West Country refereeing college American football matches and he said: ‘I’ll go on as long as I am able to. I’ve been refereeing for nearly 30 years now and still get a thrill out of it.’

Alzheimer’s Society Research Communications Manager Clare Walton said: ‘We have known for some time that what is good for your heart is also good for your head. The landmark Caerphilly study showed that healthy living can reduce the chances of dementia by up to 60 per cent.

Dementia expert Professor John Gallacher of Cardiff University said: “The Caerphilly Study has made a tremendous contribution to UK Science. These are exciting times as we gear-up to do research that will bring significant public benefit, helping older people everywhere to have longer and more satisfying lives.”

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Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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