How the Queen stayed so active till 96

In the days leading up to her death at the age of 96, Queen Elizabeth II approved legislation and ministerial appointments, wrote a message of condolences to Canada after a mass attack and named Liz Truss as the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The monarch died at the age of 96 after 70 years on the throne.

Boris Johnson told the BBC she was “bright and focused” when he announced his retirement.

University of Otago Professor Yoram Barak is a world-leading expert on neurodegenerative diseases and author and co-author of 150 peer-reviewed articles on psychiatry.

READ MORE: Queen Elizabeth II’s State Funeral: What you need to know

He says Her Majesty is a “perfect” example of staying fit as you age.

“That fits with our research… the term is an outlier. She has escaped every major physical and mental illness.”

Some reasons are obvious, he says. An impeccable diet and a devoted royal doctor reduced the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, drivers of dementia.

But their schedule also gives some clues.

Professor Yoram Barak.

Elizabeth’s daily routine has changed little in 70 years. She devoted a good portion of her day to her duties as sovereign, whether it be approving laws, appointing ministers, or speaking to world leaders.

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These tasks, says Barak, are ideal exercises for the mind, work that is complex, meaningful and different every day.

“Her constant engagement in very challenging social situations, meeting with this or that diplomat, making these decisions are extremely important because she had to synthesize new information in a way that is challenging for the human brain.”

“And people with a very clear purpose in life are very well protected from dementia or memory problems.”

But also important, says Barak, was the time the British monarch used for her free time, hours she spent reading, horseback riding and listening to the radio. Elizabeth was also known for taking an hour-long stroll in the palace gardens every afternoon.

“A very physically active woman… and the privilege of being able to walk in nature.”

“Brain imaging … shows that taking a walk in nature has a very, very positive effect on your brain health, while the same walk in an urban environment does not.”

A constant

However, those pieces of the puzzle pale in comparison to her one constant – Prince Philip.

“Research from Harvard University, the longest study in the world, clearly shows in black and white… that a lifelong supportive partnership is the best predictor of cognitive health.”

Queen Elizabeth II, who privately called Philip Lilibet, is said to have called him “her rock” in a rare show of public affection.

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The Prince Consort, in turn, once told an old Navy friend, Michael Parker, that “his job—first, second, and last—was never to let them down.”

And when he died in April 2021 at the age of 99, it was the nickname Lilibet that Queen Elizabeth used to sign the farewell note on his coffin, marking the end of their 73-year romance.

Unfortunately, Barak says, it’s possible that the loss of Philip, a man she called her “constant force and guide,” 516 days after his death, could have played a role in her death.

The Queen and Prince Philip on a tour of New Zealand in 1977.

“Loneliness is a very painful, physically and emotionally very negative force in our lives.”

The loss of a loving companion, he says, greatly increases the likelihood of cognitive impairment, suicide, and physical illness.

And that despite the fact that the Queen was surrounded by loyal helpers. Philip was the only person who “just treated her like a different person,” according to her former private secretary, Lord Charteris.

“Loneliness and social isolation are two completely different things, and social engagement is not necessarily an antidote.”

“Given what we know about this partnership, I think that toxic power of loneliness would have hit her very hard.”

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Lessons for NZ

And lessons from the Queen’s life and death, he says, cast a dark shadow over the condition of New Zealand’s elderly population.

A paper Barak co-authored in 2020 showed that elderly people in Aotearoa were more likely to die compared to Australia, despite similar lifestyles.

“We have done extremely poorly on almost every index.”

dr Ngaire Kerse is a Principal Investigator at Auckland University’s Brain Research New Zealand and holds the Joyce Cook Chair in Aging Well.

The shocking statistics are partly due to our medical system and how it cares for the elderly.

But that only paints part of the picture.

New Zealand, she says, “also grows lonely, older people.”

The signs, she says, are obvious once you know what to look for.

“Public transport isn’t conducive to older people…once you’ve lost the ability to drive it can be really, really difficult to maintain relationships.”

“We have an inadequate pension that you can’t live on without a house, and we have a miserable housing situation.

These are just a few examples of the barriers that prevent older people from fully participating in life, “which would go a long way in combating loneliness.”

“The irony is that we worshiped the Queen, but we don’t appreciate our old people.”

We will be covering the full state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in a 1News special on TVNZ 1 and on Monday from 7.30pm.

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