There is a lot of fear surrounding aging. Many people are afraid of losing their memory, vision, mobility and becoming frail, ill, or dependent. While no one has a crystal ball and can predict what will happen day to day, there is a recipe for healthy aging.
The process by which we age is as follows:
- Oxidation: Just by being alive, we are constantly producing free radicals. These cause damage to tissues. It happens when we eat, sleep and exercise and needs to be quenched with antioxidants. Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables as well as most multivitamin formulas and other targeted supplements.
- Inflammation: Oxidation causes inflammation and inflammation accelerates oxidation. There is a term called “Inflammageing” that occurs in most older individuals that increases susceptibility of chronic illness, frailty, disability, and premature death. Inflammageing is also a risk factor for chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, cancer, depression, dementia, and loss of muscle mass called sarcopenia. It is characterized by an elevation of inflammatory makers in the blood. Inflammation causes a cascade of events that lead to chronic illness. We can reduce inflammation with an anti-inflammatory diet, decreasing oxidation and glycation and managing stress as well as taking anti-inflammatory supplements such as a high quality fish oil and curcumin. .
- Glycation: When sugar binds to protein, it changes its structure and function of that protein. A cataract is a good example of something you can see. The sugar binds to protein in the lens and makes it cloudy and inflexible. This glycation can occur all over the body and is found in the brain, arteries, and kidneys. Glycation accelerates oxidation and inflammation. A low glycemic diet low in processed foods, simple carbohydrate and sugar will lower the glycemic index and the amount of sugar that is free to bind to protein all over your body. Supplements such as chromium and berberine as well as many others may be helpful in lowering blood sugar.
- Decline: hormones, digestion, neurological, immune, and other functions slow down. Hormones send signals to your cells to degenerate or regenerate and the balance of hormones are key. Over time, the epithelial barriers of the skin, lungs, and digestive tract break down, making us more susceptible to infection. There is evidence of nutritional interventions promoting beneficial changes to immune cells as well as digestion, neurological and other functions. Lifestyle measures such as reducing oxidation, inflammation, and glycation as well as eating a nutrient rich diet, getting enough exercise and sleep and managing stress may help slow the inevitable decline.
Now that we know how we age, understand that we all age at different rates and are only as young as our oldest part. Some people may be more susceptible to loss of memory, bone, muscle or increased inflammation and oxidation. It is important to get an evaluation to measure how you are doing so you can determine what your weak spot is and address it.
I have been told by many patients that they have bad genes. While genetics play some role, the environment and your lifestyle can alter gene expression. You can turn longevity genes on and the genes that cause illness off by altering your environment and lifestyle. The reverse is also true.
Centarians taught us a lot. Researchers on longevity in the Blue Zones found many of the same factors that enabled people to live past 100. You may think that you are not able to live as people in the Blue Zones do, however we can adapt their habits to our circumstances and apply some of the latest scientific breakthroughs to age slower and healthier.
The people who live in the Blue Zones incorporated movement into everyday activities such as gardening, and doing house and yard work without mechanical equipment. The modern-day approach to movement is maintaining fitness that prevents bone and muscle loss as well as brain loss. Exercise can increase a protein called BDNF – Brain Derived Neurotropic Factors. BDNF, a trophic (growth) factor is associated with cognitive improvement and the alleviation of depression and anxiety. It increases blood flow and resistance to injury.
Weightlifting or using your body weight against gravity can build muscle and bone, aerobic activity helps the heart, lungs and circulatory system and brings nutrients to the brain. Flexibility and balance exercise can prevent injuries, muscle spasms and falls.
Eat to 80% full
As a population, the Standard American Diet or SAD diet is a diet of being overfed and undernourished. Intermittent fasting and calorie restriction are weight loss and weight maintenance strategies that have become increasingly popular. Valter Longo in his book “The Longevity Diet”, recommends a fasting mimicking diet FMDas an anti-aging strategy to clean out old dead cells and generate new stem cells. Study subjects ate the Fasting Mimicking Diet FMD for 5 consecutive days per month for 3 months. Three FMD cycles reduced body weight, trunk, and total body fat; lowered blood pressure; and decreased insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) which is a pro-aging and pro cancer hormone. In people who were at risk for disease meaning already overweight with high lipids, blood sugar and inflammation markers like CRP had reduced body mass index, blood pressure, fasting glucose, IGF-1, triglycerides, total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and C-reactive protein. Calorie restriction has also been shown to induce the expression (turn on) the Sirtuin gene, otherwise known as the longevity gene.
Dr. Jason Fung, author of “The Complete Guide to Fasting,” “The Diabetes Code’” and “The Obesity Code”, has also done a lot of research on intermittent fasting, which has shown similar results. Both methods can increase a process called autophagy which is cleaning out old dead cells that stimulate the immune system to produce inflammatory cytokines. Inflammation is the root cause of many chronic conditions. When daily caloric intake is restricted to a consistent window of 8–12 h there are benefits to multiple organ systems such as preserving muscle fitness, benefits to brain health, decreasing fatty liver, maintaining gut integrity, and reduces heart aging.
The type of fat you have matters. Intermittent fasting blocks the increase in size of inflammatory white fat and keeps fat as healthy brown fat. and reduces heart aging.
Mostly plant-based diet
Michael Pollen’s adage, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants, “and “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” and “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce, “has been shown time and time again to be a great strategy for overall health as well as health aging. He is the author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.”
Plants reduce oxidation because they contain phytonutrients that are antioxidants. Reducing oxidation also reduces inflammation. Plants that are not processed are generally low in calories and low glycemic making them very beneficial for anti-aging when combined with anti-inflammatory fats such as fish, olives, avocado, nuts, seeds, and their oils. This is the basis of a Mediterranean diet touted as a very healthy diet consisting of mostly whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, legumes, and small amounts of lean protein. With the change in the composition of gluten, genetic modification and use of pesticides as well as the rise of food sensitivities, it is important to know if you can tolerate grains.
Plants can regulate blood sugar, cholesterol, decrease the risk of heart disease and may alter the gut microbiome in a positive way. Diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in a general population. Two recent studies showed that a plant centered diet during young adulthood is associated with a lower risk of heart disease in middle age and another showed that eating more plant based foods lowered cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease in post-menopausal women. There is no need to go completely vegetarian to reap benefits. Converging evidence also suggests that plant-based foods have a profound effect on many aspects of brain health including successful aging,
Stress Reduction – Chronic Stress
Psychological stress and cumulative oxidative stress contribute to premature aging of the immune system and earlier onset of many age-related diseases. The age-associated decline of the immune system may increase the frequency and severity of infectious diseases and possibly certain cancers in the elderly. The immune system decline called “immunosenescence” is due to environment and lifestyle factors, not aging itself.
Chronic stress – and how a person perceives stress – decreases the length of telomeres which are necessary for DNA to continue to replicate and repair tissue. Short telomeres cause cellular aging. Stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases. Stress reduction techniques
There was an interesting study that highlighted the effect of stress on the body. Long-duration spaceflight triggered a sustained release of endocannabinoids combined with an aberrant immune activation mimicking features of people at risk for inflammation related diseases. These effects persisted in part 30 days after return to Earth and were stress dependent.
Nutrition, exercise, and even medications taken over the life span can influence immune function as we age. Yoga, meditation, massage, exercise, and lowering stress have been shown to influence immune system functions in a positive way.
The other things Centarians taught us is that having a sense of purpose, moderate alcohol intake, belonging to a faith based or spiritual community regardless of denomination, putting their loved ones first and associating with a community or social circle of people with health enhancing behaviors.
Aging does not have to be a quick slide into a loss of ability and function. Centarians taught us the way to live happier and healthier longer. If you need assistance in testing and targeting your weakest link as well as support for adapting these healthy behaviors, consult a functional medicine doctor who also has knowledge and experience with anti-aging medicine.