We caught up with Dr Dawn Harper upon the release of her new book Live Well to 101 to find out just how we can live better and longer. 

Dr Dawn Harper by Lucy Johnston

Dr Dawn Harper by Lucy Johnston

What can readers expect from your new book Live Well to 101?

“Live Well to 101” is my 12th book and undoubtedly my favourite. It was inspired to write it by an off the cuff comment made by a GP colleague of mine at a medical meeting where we were discussing the cost implications of increasing longevity in the British public. What she said was “the problem is, we aren’t actually living longer, we are just taking longer to die”! I was horrified at the time but the more I thought about it the more I realised that so many of my elderly patients had very poor quality of life and it made me think more and more of the minority who were living life to the full in their 80’s, 90’s and beyond. In “Live Well to 101” I look at all the factors that influence longevity from the obvious like diet, smoking habits and exercise to the less obvious like where you live and your mental attitude. Throughout the book I give really simple tips that are easily achievable and could make all the difference to healthy longevity. I think of investing in our health as a pension policy – the earlier you start contributing, the more you will benefit later on. But I am also mindful that none of us want to be slaves to our regime. All my advice is the kind of thing we can all incorporate into our day to day life. Did you know for example that walking briskly for just 10 minutes a day reduces your risk of premature death by 15% and your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease by 40%?

Have you always been healthy even before you became a doctor?

I have always been an outdoors sort of girl so quite active but like most 20 year olds I think my diet left a lot to be desired! I try to practice what I preach and aim for my 10,000 steps a day but I know that on my surgery days for example I am relatively sedentary and achieving 10,000 steps, particularly in the winter can be quite a challenge, so I don’t beat myself up. What I actually do is aim for 70,000 steps a week so I just ensure that I make up for it over the course of a week. I also try to do one long distance charity cycle ride each year. That makes me get out and train whatever the weather. I don’t always want to go out on my bike, but I am always glad when I have. I need motivation like anyone else.

My diet has definitely improved year on year. I now stick to a plant based diet aiming for two portions of fruit and five of vegetables each day and I really do try to eat a rainbow. I eat meat but only occasionally and I have the occasional takeaway. As I say in “Live Well to 101”, there is no such thing as a bad food, but there are plenty of bad diets. There is nothing wrong with a burger or a bar of chocolate as a treat. It is only when they become part of your staple diet that you run in to trouble.

Please tell us about collecting the case studies for the book- did you get to meet everyone who features in it?

I spent a lot of time researching various centenarians living life to the full and couldn’t meet them all but those that I did, both here and on the continent were a true inspiration. They had very different stories to tell having come from hugely diverse backgrounds, but they had several things in common, which were really striking. I discuss these in detail in the book as I am sure those factors are not coincidental in their healthy longevity.

Is your lifespan affected by where you live?

Yes! There are various “longevity hotspots” around the world. One of them is Acciaroli on the Italian coast where one in ten people live to over 100. I went to visit some of the citizens there and their stories are in the book. But you don’t have to live abroad to reap the benefits of geography. There are variations in life expectancy in different areas here in the UK which I also talk about in “Live Well to 101”.

How does an active sex life affect your life expectancy?

Several studies suggest that regular sex increases your life expectancy and there are various theories as to why that may be. I suspect one of the greatest influences will be that people who have regular sex throughout their lives are often in a loving relationship and I discuss in detail in “Live Well to 101” how being happy and having a positive mental attitude can affect your life expectancy.

Is your lifespan related to genetics?

Yes. Many of the centenarians I met came from a long line of people who lived in to old age. Some of that is influenced by genetic predisposition to certain diseases and some is literally down to “good genes”. We can’t (yet) alter our genes but by looking at our family history we can take measures to reduce our risks of certain conditions that nature has stacked against us and this is something I discuss in the book.

Can having a pet actually help you to live longer?

Yes. Pet owners visit their doctors less often, are less likely to be depressed and live longer. Some pets have an obvious impact – owning a dog for example means you have to be more active. But the benefit goes beyond that and in the book I talk about a nursing home near me where there are almost as many pets as there are human residents and the impact on emotional wellbeing, which has a big influence on longevity, is clear for all to see.

What is deemed as a healthy lifestyle as the term seems to change with every new diet that comes out?

You raise such an important point here and that is why I have dedicated a whole chapter in “Live Well to 101” to explaining what a healthy well balanced diet really is. I hope it will help debunk myths and encourage people to adopt a healthy way of life. Funnily enough I am not a fan of “diets” per se as by definition, when you go on a diet you will at some point have to come off it. So what I encourage people to do in my book is to adopt a way of living which is easy to achieve and more importantly, easy to sustain.

Does access to private medical care and all the latest technology help you live longer?

The influence of wealth on healthy longevity has a chapter to itself in “Live Well to 101”. Most of us recognise that people in wealthy countries live longer than those in poor countries but even within the UK there are some striking variations. Recent figures, for example, show that the richest 5% of men in the UK can be expected to live just over 34 years longer on average than the poorest 10% (just over 31 years for women). The reasons behind this are complex. Some of it may be down to access to private healthcare, but there is also tha fact that, while money per se doesn’t make you happy, it does make life easier and therefore easier to be happy. Private healthcare may give you faster access to tests, diagnosis and treatment but our NHS, despite some negative headlines, is, I believe, second to none, and I discuss in “Live Well to 101” both the pros and cons of private medical care.

What is next for you?

I’m not hanging up my stethoscope just yet! I have several TV projects in discussion alongside my existing commitments to radio and writing for various magazines and there are at least another couple of books in me, which I hope to get started on in the spring.