With the welter of medical advice available, it's hard to know what to believe. Roger Dobson reviews the latest research to help you live long and prosper

Take a teaspoon of garlic a day

Take a teaspoon of garlic a day

Almost everything has been tried to slow down ageing and prolong life, and most have been found wanting. But garlic may actually work. Researchers in Liverpool found that 5ml of garlic extract lowered levels of a disease-causing chemical by up to 48 per cent. As well as reducing brain ageing, the researchers say that garlic may decrease the risk of or prevent cancer, immune disorders and arthritis. For good measure, it reduces the clogging of arteries and lowers cholesterol levels as well.

Get breathless more often

You don't have to go to a gym or be an Olympic marathon runner. Simply walking a mile a day, or taking reasonable exercise three times a week, will substantially reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as strengthening bones and keeping them strong. If you walk, don't dawdle. Make it a brisk pace. Fitness balls are a new fad and are said to work by constantly changing the areas being worked on as you exercise.

Eat wholegrain foods

Make sure you have whole-grain bread, rice or pasta at least four times a week and you will reduce the chance of having cancer by 40 per cent.

Learn to love fruit and vegetables

Have at least five portions of vegetables and fruit a day, especially tomatoes, red grapes and broccoli, to reduce the chances of stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Women who eat large amounts of vegetables and pulses can halve the risk of breast cancer, according to London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researchers.

Cut back on burgers

UK consumers spend £6bn a year on fast food, and there is increasing concern about the health impact. One-third of coronary heart-disease deaths in the UK are linked to an unhealthy diet. Research shows that eating too many high-fat foods contributes to high blood-cholesterol levels, which can cause hardening of the arteries, coronary heart disease and stroke. While fast food provide some of our nutritional needs, it is often high in calories, salt, fat and cholesterol. They can also be high in the worst kind of fat, oxidised. Hold back on high-cholesterol, high-fat sauces and dips, and avoid the bigger portions that some blame for the huge rise in obesity.

Don't take your backache to bed

Research shows that people who take to their beds with backache take the longest time to recover. Those who avoid bed-rest and continue normal activities as much as possible have less pain for shorter times and get back to work sooner; they were, on average, absent from work for 4.7 days, compared with 7.2 days in backache sufferers prescribed exercise, and 9.2 days in those who took to their beds for two days.

Eat plenty of fish

Studies have found that those who regularly ate fish were up to one-third less likely to get heart disease than those who ate it less than once a month. Researchers believe omega-3 fatty acids – found in high levels in salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel – make blood less likely to clot. Fish oil also boosts the immune system. There has been concern, however, over toxins, particularly mercury, in fish. The Government's advice is to take one portion per week of oily fish and one of white fish, and to eat swordfish and shark, which may carry more toxins, infrequently.

Cut back on salt

Draft guidelines from the World Health Organisation recommend no more than five grams a day, but in the UK we consume almost 12g on average, much of it in processed foods. Too much salt can lead to stroke and heart problems by causing blood pressure to rise. It is estimated that 40,000 strokes a year in this country could be prevented if salt consumption were cut by one-third. An extra 6g of salt daily can increase heart-disease risk by 21 per cent and stroke by 34 per cent.

Drink a little wine

Research suggests that the equivalent of a couple of glasses of wine a day may be a good thing. Moderate drinkers of wine have less risk of dying from cancer, and two glasses of red wine a day may halve the risk of catching a cold. It can also help you keep your marbles; researchers who tracked 2,000 adults for 20 years found that wine drinkers were less likely to get dementia. Occasional beer drinkers were more than twice as likely to develop dementia as those who never drank beer, according to research based on 4,272 Spanish academics. But drinking more than 30 glasses of wine a week has been linked to liver, throat, colon, breast and stomach cancers.

Coffee is good for you

Researchers have found that two to four cups of coffee daily can lower the risk of colon cancer by 25 per cent; gallstones by 45 per cent; cirrhosis of the liver by 80 per cent; Parkinson's disease by 50-80 per cent; and asthma by 25 per cent. But research in Finland shows that the risk of rheumatoid arthritis increases with the number of daily cups, and those who drank 11 or more cups a day were almost 15 times as likely to have problems. If you are pregnant or have high blood pressure, coffee is best minimised.

... And tea is even better

Being a heavy tea-drinker can almost halve the risk of dying after a heart attack. The protective effects of tea increase with the amount drunk, and people who drink the most tea are the least likely to die during the three or four years after a heart attack. A Harvard Medical School study found that among people who reported heavy tea consumption, the premature death rate was 44 per cent lower.

Being overweight can kill

Overweight people cut 20 weeks off their life for every excess kilogram, according to new research. Check your height and weight on a chart to see if you are overweight for your height. Your body mass index is your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared: preferably, your index should be below 25. If you are overweight, try to lose the excess fat and you should lower your risk of a wide range of problems, from heart disease to cancer and arthritis.

Crash diets don't work

And neither do most fad diets. Forget trying to find a simple and easy way to lose weight. Think long term, not week to week, and take it one step at a time. Make the kind of changes that you can incorporate permanently into your lifestyle, and combine calorie limitation with increased exercise. On average, men need about 2,700 calories a day and women about 2,000. It is not well understood why some people can eat considerably more than others and still stay slim, but to lose weight you must take in fewer calories than you burn.

Your diet needs selenium

This natural trace element, found in Brazil nuts, wheat and fish, has been found to protect against cancer. Brazils are the richest source of selenium. It is also found in meat and grains. Research has shown that people who took a daily supplement of selenium had a 37 per cent reduction in cancers. Incidence of prostate cancer was 63 per cent lower, breast cancer 46 per cent lower, and colon cancer 58 per cent lower.

Lower your cholesterol

This can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke even when your level is not high. Exercise to reduce weight, eat more foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and cut down high-fat ones. The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 300mg of cholesterol a day. A three-ounce portion of skinless chicken has 70-75mg of cholesterol; a similar portion of fish has 20-60mg.

Aspirin is a wonder drug

That old standby for aches and pains also helps to reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease and cancers, including of the colon, oesophagus, stomach, rectum, prostate and pancreas. It has been shown to lessen the risk of heart attacks by 44 per cent. Aspirin reduces the tendency of blood to clot, which lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke, and it is thought to work against cancer by stopping the tumour from growing. Consult your GP before taking aspirin daily. *

Have plenty of sex

Decongestants may relieve some cold symptoms, but they won't prevent colds. But regular sex will, at least in Pennsylvania, where researchers have shown that people who have sex at least twice a week get a protective boost from their immune systems. People who had sex twice a week had a 30 per cent increase in IgA, a compound that is the first line of defence against colds. It's thought that people who have frequent sex are exposed to more bugs, which keeps the immune system more alert. Another study showed that those who have sex three or more times a week look up to 10 years younger than those who have none.

Learn to relax

Unwind, take up a hobby and start socialising. Medicine is finally accepting that stress causes illness. It plays an important role in the onset of mental illness, including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression. It makes people more vulnerable to physical ill-health and inflammatory conditions, such as allergic, auto-immune, cardiovascular, infectious and rheumatologic illnesses. Researchers have found that vigorous exercise three times a week can help with stress and depression.

Don't smoke

There has never been so much help to quit. Nicotine patches, gums or inhalers might work for some individuals, or other methods, from hypnosis to acupuncture. If you can't stop, try to cut back, because the more you smoke, the more likely you are to develop cancer or heart or respiratory disease. Cut down to less than five cigarettes a day, with long smoke-free periods.

Bad breath is preventable

Halitosis affects 96 per cent of the population at some time, and is almost always caused by oral bacteria. A tongue scraper may help, but dental work may be needed. Mouth rinses are effective, as are flossing and brushing teeth twice a day. Clean your mouth after eating, scrape the tongue once a day and clean between the teeth. Eat fresh, fibrous vegetables such as carrots, and don't drink too much coffee.

Sing to stay healthy

Research at Newcastle University shows that communal singing is good for mind and body. It's relaxing, improves breathing and muscle tone and creates a healthier immune system. Depression, stress, low esteem, even asthma and chronic pain, have been helped by singing. There are claims that regular singing can prolong life, and that it helps in the treatment of stammering. Playing a wind instrument has health benefits, too. Children with severe bronchial asthma are among those who have been found to benefit, as the technique helps to train the abdominal muscles to assist the diaphragm in breathing. Playing the piano, flute or keyboard has benefited people suffering with social phobia, depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder.

... Or just hum for healthy sinuses

Daily humming is an effective way to increase ventilation in the sinuses, according to research. Humming speeds up airflow and helps to prevent sinusitis, which affects one in seven Britons. Researchers in Stockholm found that humming increased the flow of nitric oxide 15-fold. It's a good way to clear the head for cold sufferers.

Get the right amount of sleep

Sleep primes the immune system. Research shows that women sleep an average of seven-and-a-half hours daily, about 15 minutes longer than men. There are exceptions; as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher got by on as little as three hours a night. Researchers from Pittsburgh University found that people who were naturally short sleepers tended to suffer more from a form of mania whose symptoms can include a craze for seeing through ideas and achieving specific targets and goals. It's a myth that everyone needs eight hours sleep every day; some will need more, some less and it will vary from day to day. Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. The right amount is when you wake up feeling well rested and ready to go, and do not feel sleepy during the day.

Take your vitamins

Take a multivitamin tablet every day, but be sure it contains at least 200mcg of folic acid. It can substantially reduce the chance of heart disease, and has been shown to reduce colon cancer by 85 per cent. It may also reduce the likelihood of developing dementia. Folic acid is essential for any woman contemplating pregnancy as it reduces the chance of some birth defects. However, large doses of vitamins, can put prostate-cancer patients at risk.

Take care of your skin

Most people take better care of their clothes than their skin. The message that the sun is bad for the skin (and can cause skin cancer) has hit home; always wear high-factor sun protection in hot weather and avoid midday exposure. Cold weather is a threat, too; heated air indoors can do more damage to the skin than the cold outside. When the humidity drops, skin gets dry. Moisturise, but don't use too much lip balm. Lips are meant to be dry, and too much balm can lead to inflammation.

Eat right for better teeth

Cranberries reduce the risk of gum disease by preventing bacteria from sticking together to form plaque. Eat apples, oranges, celery, carrots and high-fibre greens such as spinach, lettuce and broccoli; they require chewing, which minimises stain-producing bacteria and keeps teeth white. Snacks and sugary beverages increase the chance of tooth decay and gum disease, so keep a toothbrush at work.

Choose your spouse carefully

Researchers who looked at the relationships of 10,000 men and women found that chronic health problems often affected both partners. A man in poor health in his fifties is six times more likely than a healthy man of the same age to be married to a woman who is also in poor health.

Water can keep you healthy

One study showed that women who drank more than five glasses of water a day halved the risk of colon cancer compared to those drinking two or fewer glasses a day. The average man needs 2.9 litres, or about 12 cups of water, a day. The average woman needs about 2.2 litres. If your urine is dark yellow with a strong odour, increase your intake.

Friends are good for you

Weekly socialising improves the memory, concentration and problem-solving skills. Research on 3,000 people aged 65 and older found that social sessions not only improved cognitive abilities, but that the improvement persisted for two years. The improvements were sizeable, roughly counteracting the degree of cognitive decline that would be expected over a seven-to-14-year period among older adults without dementia.

Change your job

If all else fails, consider becoming a salesperson. It's the healthiest job in Britain. Salespeople are least likely to have a work-related illness, research suggests. Rates of asthma, accidents, hearing problems, leg trouble, backache and dermatitis are too low to record. Ironically, the biggest health risk facing salespeople – often accused of twisting consumers' arms – is upper-arm trouble, but it affects only 37 per million women.