The Anti-aging Toolkit
Are you equipped to battle the effects of passing years?
In the quest for eternal youth, many people have pinned their hopes on the discovery of a magic pill that will slow down the aging process. While that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, the good news is that you already have an arsenal of weapons at your disposal that can help you improve your health, and perhaps extend your life span, too.
In fact, researchers are concerned that people don’t understand just how important lifestyle choices are in determining the pace of the aging process, according to a recent report from Public Agenda, The Science of Aging Gracefully. "People are waiting for breakthroughs in a test tube, but no test tube is required to extend the health span," says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat. Here are the key components of the essential anti-aging tool kit:
Getting plenty of exercise
The phrase “survival of the fittest” takes on new meaning when it comes to aging. Regular moderate aerobic exercise—on the order of 30 to 60 minutes, most days of the week—can help protect your heart and bones, improve blood flow, tone muscles, reduce inflammation and cancer risk, and help prevent diabetes, age-related weight gain and dementia. Moreover, a recent report from the Netherlands states that people who exercise for more than 30 minutes a day are 44 percent less likely to be depressed six years later.
"Staying active and maintaining muscle mass through physical activity [including aerobics and strength training] will help you be able to do many things at 60 that younger people can do," says Roseann M. Lyle, Ph.D., a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and professor of public health at Purdue University in Indiana.
Controlling your weight
"Obesity accelerates aging by promoting insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes, increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer, contributing to inflammation, and leading to degenerative arthritis and diseases of the lungs," Dr. Katz says. On the other hand, he notes, "if you prevent obesity, you prevent accelerated aging. You’re reclaiming the normal life span and health span." The way to do that is to shed excess pounds by eating less and moving more.
In addition, a growing body of research on animal subjects suggests that calorie restriction can slow the aging process. New research on laboratory rats from the University of Florida in Gainesville suggests that modest calorie reduction (just 8 percent, which is equal to a few hundred calories in the average diet) and moderate exercise can extend the life span and reverse the negative effects of cellular aging on liver function and overall health. And a recent study from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge reports that when overweight subjects followed a diet containing 25 percent fewer calories than they were used to eating, or 12.5 percent fewer calories than usual plus a 12.5 percent increase in calories burned through exercise, they lost 10 percent of their body weight and experienced a drop in fasting insulin levels and body temperatures, which are both possible markers of longevity.
Consuming a healthy diet
There’s no one food that can miraculously turn back the clock. But sticking with a healthy diet can help. Recommended? The right fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids); carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and whole grains); and protein sources (especially lean meats and poultry, fish, beans and legumes, such as lentils). "If you eat foods that are closer to nature—such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes—you not only avoid the harmful stuff [like high-fat dairy products and meats, refined starches and simple sugars] that contributes to inflammation and accelerates aging, but you also provide your body with antioxidants," Dr. Katz says. "Antioxidants mop up the chemicals that cause injury to cells, reduce inflammation in the body, and reduce the burden on the liver and kidney in terms of what needs to be filtered out."
In addition, foods that are rich in soluble fiber (including oatmeal, peas, beans and certain fruits) "are an anti-aging tonic," Dr. Katz says, because the fiber keeps blood sugar stable and blood lipid and insulin levels down. Meanwhile, fatty fish (including tuna, salmon, sardines and herring) are strong sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also important to get plenty of calcium (1,000 mg per day for women before age 50; 1,200 mg after) and vitamin D (at least 400 IU per day) to prevent osteoporosis and osteopenia (low bone mass). Nonfat or lowfat dairy is a good source of calcium; egg yolks, liver, fortified milk, saltwater fish and supplements are good sources of D.
If anxiety and tension are making you continuously pump out stress hormones, you’ll pay a heavy toll as you travel through the years, according to Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology in New York City.
One not-so-obvious way that chronic stress influences the aging process: It reduces the length of telomeres, enzymes that affect how many times an individual cell can divide, and it reduces telomerase activity, thereby accelerating the aging process, McEwen explains.
In fact, a study at the University of California, San Francisco, shows that women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres that are shorter by the equivalent of at least an additional decade’s worth of aging. Stress also has a negative influence on lifestyle choices—it can lead to bad habits like drinking too much, moving too little and smoking. Fortunately, such harmful effects can be reversed by improving sleep quality and quantity, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular physical activity. It also helps to cultivate social support and embrace a positive outlook on life. These types of changes are usually more easily said than done, but it’s worth the effort to ease the effects of stress on your body.
Having a sense of purpose and engagement in your life helps buffer you from the ravages of time. This is largely because having (or getting) a job you love, participating in religious or political activities, volunteering for a charity you believe in, or dedicating yourself wholeheartedly to your family can enhance your sense of well-being and instill meaning in your daily life. This can, in turn, protect you from "some of the issues that plague people as they get older—loneliness, alienation, feeling unwanted or no longer useful," says Paula Hartman-Stein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in aging and founder of the Center for Healthy Aging in Kent, OH.