Ageing is something of an obsession of mine. At a wedding reception over a year ago, I went to the loo and there was a girl standing next to me, young, pretty, glowing.
Looking at our reflections in the mirror I was horrified. I was only 40, but next to her I looked positively ancient.
There were too many wrinkles on my forehead. And a particularly nasty one right in between my eyebrows. My skin looked sallow. If I smiled, I saw a cluster of crow’s feet around my eyes.
It occurred to me that over the last ten years I had been either pregnant or breastfeeding. My body had not been my own. And I hadn’t had the energy to do anything about it.
But suddenly my youngest child was three and there was no excuse. Gazing at my reflection, I realised that I actually cared about my appearance.
In fact, I couldn’t believe I’d let myself go to such an extent. There was a woman inside this mother, wanting to get out again.
So, I decided to spend a year researching as many anti-ageing treatments as possible. I travelled the world visiting anti-ageing clinics in Switzerland, stress-relieving retreats in Jamaica, and plastic surgeons in New York, to discover if the elixir of youth really exists.
I also interviewed dermatologists, dieticians, exercise instructors, yoga teachers, you name it, in the hope they would tell me what the secret of looking younger is.
And so now, after a year’s research, I know that it is possible to change almost every part of my body.
I can have any veins in my legs removed. My breasts lifted and enlarged. Brown spots lasered away. A wrinkle-free forehead, a newly shaped jaw. But you know what? I’m not going to.
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During my research I spent a day with Tina Richards, a non-invasive anti-ageing consultant (this rather cumbersome title means she’s is opposed to surgery and prefers more natural solutions), scanning the beauty counters at Harvey Nichols. It was an education.
“No matter how lovely the packaging is if an over-the-counter cream doesn’t have certain active ingredients in it, then it won’t have any effect on your skin other than moisturising it,” she says.
“Expensive creams with no active ingredients such as antioxidants or retinol only moisturise. Retinol and antioxidants actually do something that can change the appearance of your skin.
“Retinol, best used at night, stimulates collagen production. Antioxidants help to protect against free radicals.”
Examples of antioxidants are green tea, copper peptide, ferulic acid, idebenone and Vitamin C.
However, not all are suitable for every skin type – some people with dry, sensitive skin cannot use retinol without some irritation.
So look on the list of ingredients for antioxidants when selecting a day-time product and retinol for a night-time one.
Tina recommends you get a sample size to test active ingredients first if your skin has a history of stinging, burning or reddening.
I have asked all the professionals I met during my anti-ageing quest whether or not creams work, and whether it’s worth buying expensive brands or not.
One dermatologist told me off the record that the only difference between, for example, Nivea and La Prairie is the packaging.
Despite knowing all that, I admit I can’t resist expensive creams. I tested several cheaper ranges for my book and although this may just be me, the products seemed cheap, they didn’t smell as good and I didn’t enjoy using them.
And if a cream makes you feel good, chances are you will look good, too.
I did come away with a couple of interesting titbits, however. Apparently, putting collagen on the surface of your skin does absolutely no good at all. So don’t fall for a cream with collagen in it.
And, as long as there is a sunby Helena Frith-Powell screen in a cream, manufacturers have the right to call it anti-ageing.
But in reality, you may be able to get the same effect from a less-known brand sunscreen for a fraction of the price.
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An anti-ageing technique you can try at home is the facial workout. This involves pulling silly faces, so can be quite good fun.
Tina Richards is keen on daily facial workouts with an electrostimulator called the Tua Viso.
This machine stimulates your facial muscles, boosts collagen production and improves the skin’s circulation.
Electro-stimulation of facial muscles makes sense to me. Also, I’ve met the clinical dermatologist who supervised the independent clinical trial of this product and evidence is statistically significant.
I tried the Tua Viso. It is a handheld gadget with two electrodes that you wet with water and use to stimulate certain muscles on your face.
At the beginning, you’re meant to do it once a day. Tina has now “graduated” to three times a week.
At first, when I used it, I got one hell of a surprise when my whole eyebrow lifted 2cm. I looked like a lunatic but, once I’d figured out how to control the current, it was not uncomfortable.
I’m sure this kind of facial exercise is brilliant for anti-ageing. Tina has the best skin I have seen on anyone that hasn’t been airbrushed, and has not got a single wrinkle.
One alternative comes from a lady called Carolyn who lives in Seattle. Her company is called Carolyn’s Facial Fitness and it teaches people to retain a youthful look by exercising their facial muscles.
Her programme is based on muscle resistance training that not only builds muscle fibre to create a lift, but isometrics as well to enhance the skin.
I’ve seen a picture of Carolyn on her website – www. carolynsfacialfitness.com – and she looks great, but she could have been using that same picture for the past 40 years.
It is when I hear from my friend Peggy who has been trying out the techniques for two months that I’m convinced.
“My friends noted that I looked refreshed, younger, less tired,” she says.
Six months later, she’s still going strong.
When I interviewed Ines de la Fressange, the original supermodel and Chanel muse, she told me her top anti-ageing tip was sleep.
And she’s right. Sleep deprivation is lethal in ageing terms. When we sleep, our cells regenerate. We also remove toxins and activate immune system cells.
But of course, it isn’t just a question of sleeping any old way you like.
According to Melanie Vasseur, from Vasseur Scientific Skincare, a San Diego-based skincare company, “Sleeping on your side is the second cause of wrinkles after the sun, as when you sleep on your side you are ironing in wrinkles on your skin.
“This means on average, you are spending over 2,500 hours per year reversing the positive effects of your skincare treatments in your sleep.”
And it’s not only your face you need to worry about – sleeping on your side can cause wrinkles in the décolle·té area as well.
Once you’re in the right position for a good night’s sleep and you nod off, the body produces the hormone melatonin, which helps fight free radicals which cause cell damage.
It has been suggested, for example, that reduced melatonin production may significantly contribute to higher cancer rates in night workers.
In fact, during sleep, all your hormones re-balance, so if you’re menopausal, don’t do the nightshift. Or if you do, take a melatonin supplement.
Sex is actually very anti-ageing. During sex, the body secretes the steroid hormone DHEA which is linked to longevity.
Sex is also relaxing and good for the circulatory system. In addition it reduces cholesterol and stimulates the oxygen supply to cells as well as burning calories.
And according to Help the Aged’s website – www.helptheaged.org.uk – sexually active people live longer.
An open mind
According to Rita Carter, a brain specialist and author of several books on how the brain works, the best way to avoid senile dementia, Alzheimers and generally becoming a grumpy old woman is to listen to music you hate, this is because it exposes you to new sounds and experiences.
“Just like any other organ in the body, the brain is subject to ageing,” she tells me over dinner.
“But what is perhaps more interesting is the change in attitude that happens. You start to think like an old person, adopt old attitudes.
“There is a refusal to accept new trends, to listen to new music, to adopt new fashions.
“All music is based on repetition. It is a slight change of basic melody, with enough change to keep you interested. Just the right combination of security and novelty that the brain is constantly seeking.”
According to Rita, you can exercise the brain in the same way you exercise any other muscle. Just before you go to bed, for example, spend an hour going over the day’s events two or three times in your head.
That encodes them more firmly in your brain. Then sleep on it and repeat the exercise in the morning.
She also recommends doing crosswords, mental arithmetic, playing chess, scrabble and word games.
Also, having another language delays the onset of Alzheimer’s for four years on average.
We all know that diet is essential to staying young and one of the key factors in environmental ageing.
But purely for cosmetic gain, Dr Frederic Brandt, a leading Miamibased dermatologist, says that cutting out sugar is the best thing you can do.
“It can knock ten years off your face,” he says.
“Sugar hastens the degradation of elastin and collagen,” he says.
“In other words, it actively ages you.”
Tina Richards, agrees. She says the key to anti-ageing is eating a low glycaemic index (a ranking system for carbohydrates based on their effect on blood glucose levels) and a high intake of antioxidants.
Top dermatologist Dr Nicholas Perricone is among other adherents. He has developed an anti-ageing diet called “The Dr Perricone Salmon Diet” also known as “The Facelift Diet”.
This involves eating a low GI diet and salmon three times a day. Kate, a friend of mine, followed it for a few weeks and said the effect was amazing.
“I definitely looked younger,” she told me. “My skin was clear and my eyes sparkled.
“Friends kept asking me if I was in love. But there’s only so much salmon you can eat in a life time.”
I agree. So, after consulting with expert after expert about what is the best anti-ageing diet, here is my compromise: Don’t become too dull, but do think about what you eat and if possible choose the healthy option.
Cut out as much sugar as you can. Drink green tea, it is full of antioxidants and essential in the battle against ageing.
Go for olives with the aperitif, not crisps and eat a square of good dark chocolate instead of a Mars bar.
Red wine with resveratrol (from red grape skin) is probably the best known antioxidant and has been shown to protect against cardiac attacks as well as have anticarcinogenic properties. So don’t go more than a few days without the odd glass.
Since I started writing this book, I do try to take some supplements – fish oils, multivitamins with probiotics, vitamin C and B, calcium and evening primrose oil.
The other thing I tried was the skin supplement Imedeen, but it’s expensive and although I took it for three months I couldn’t really tell whether it made a difference.
But there is clinical evidence that it can be beneficial to sundamaged skin at the dermis level so maybe it’s worth a try.
Whilst in New York to research this book, I bumped into the model Dayle Haddon.
She has been the face of Estee Lauder and of L’Oreal and now writes books and acts as a consultant for multinational cosmetics companies, specialising in products for women over 40.
Dayle herself must be approaching-50 now, but she looks great. I can see no signs of Botox. I grab my chance to ask her what her best anti-ageing tips are.
“Always look your best,” she replies. “Stay connected to your friends and family.
“Honour your body, so do lots of exercise (she loves yoga and Pilates). The key is to keep moving the body, that way it will stay fluid.
“Nurture your spirit, so make time for yourself through meditation. And discover your wisdom. No way would I want to be 20 again. All that insecurity and uncertainty. I’m much happier now.
“Use sunscreen every day, on the backs of your hands as well as your face. And if you have yellow teeth, get them whitened.
“There is nothing more ageing than yellow teeth. And standing up straight can take ten years off you.”
The most important thing I have learned is that for me, going to hell in high heels means victory over old age by staying elegant, sane-looking and true to myself.
I am going to give up trying to look 20, or even 30. I don’t ever want to become one of those 16-61 women – women who look 16 from the back and 61 from the front.
There are many pieces of advice and good practices I’ve taken away with me from my quest. I will exercise every day if I can. I now do yoga every morning.
And I do some Pilates moves whenever the mood takes me. I have found that just the breathing seems to help keep my tummy firm, so if I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I focus on breathing in and pushing all the air out.
I will try to avoid sugar, eat more fruit and vegetables and try my best not to drink too much wine (with the exception of course of wine containing resveratrol).
I will try to keep out of the sun and reduce my stress levels.
I will moisturise, cleanse it and exfoliate my skin. I will have a facial either at home or at a beauticians.
I will use a retinol cream every night and a serum mixed with an antioxidant like a vitamin C powder every morning. And of course, I won’t leave the bathroom without sunscreen.
I will try to find the time to be well groomed. I will never go under general anaesthetic for vanity.
I will make an effort to keep those neural pathways moving and be open to new experiences and try not to grimace every time I hear loud music.
I will do what my husband’s grandmother did and never give in if I can’t remember something: If you let your brain get lazy, you’re doomed, she would say. And she lived until she was 97.
And I will remember that there are people who would give anything to age, however disgracefully.