Believe it or not, aging is reversible. We’re not saying that you’ll absolutely avoid all the bumps along the way, but your rate of aging isn’t as inevitable as a morning trip to the bathroom. You can learn how to prod your systems so they’ll work in your favor. It’s never too early to start making these changes. That means you have to start building your defenses in your 30s, 40s and 50s against attacks that may not occur until your 60s, 70s and 80s. You don’t need a complete overhaul, because, frankly, your body is a pretty fine piece of machinery. But if you can find and fix your own personal weak links — the things that make you most vulnerable to the effects of aging — the cumulative effect of those fixes can be huge when it comes to increasing the length and quality of life. And while you well know some of them, such as keeping your weight down, increasing your fitness and getting quality sleep, here are some you probably didn’t know, till now.
Longevity is based one-quarter on your genetics and three-quarters on your behaviors and lifestyle choices, according to studies on identical twins. It’s not about what genes you have, but how you express them. Genes work by manufacturing proteins, though whether a specific gene is turned on or off is at least partially under your control.
So how do you change the function of your genes? One way is by rebuilding your chromosomes, which have small substances on the ends called telomeres. Think of them as the little plastic tips of shoelaces. Every time a cell reproduces, that telomere gets a little shorter, just as the shoelace tip wears off with time. Once the protective covering on the tip is gone, your DNA (like the shoelace) begins to fray and is much harder to use. That’s what causes cells to stop dividing and growing and replenishing your body. The cell is no longer helping the body and commits suicide (that’s called apoptosis), which ultimately contributes to age-related conditions.
But your body also has a protein, called telomerase, that automatically replenishes and rebuilds the ends of the chromosomes. That keeps cells, and you, healthy. Lots of cells in your body don’t have telomerase, though, because they have a reproduction limit, thus putting a cap on how well your systems can be replenished.
Damage control: The amount of telomerase depends on your genetics, but we’re now starting to see that you can influence the size of those little tips, the telomeres. For example, researchers have found that mothers with chronically ill children have shortened telomeres, indicating that chronic stress can have a huge influence on how cells divide — or fail to. The implication is that if you can reduce stress, you can increase your chance of rebuilding the telomeres, and decrease the odds of having your cells die and contribute to age-related problems.
Where does your body get its energy? Not from candy bars or a double latte, but from hundreds of mitochondria in your cells, which convert nutrients from food into energy that your body uses to perform all its tasks. They are the fundamental drivers of metabolism and serve as the backbone for one of the major theories of aging.
The problem is that when mitochondria turn your food into energy, they produce oxygen free radicals, molecules that cause dangerous inflammation in the mitochondria themselves as well as in the rest of the cell when they spill over. Think of them as the power plants of your body. Just like an old factory, aging mitochondria spill industrial waste into the environment. This inflammation damages your cells and the mitochondria within them, and causes many aging-related problems.
Mitochondrial damage in the heart occurs when your body becomes inefficient in consuming oxygen and glucose. We also see mitochondrial damage in brain-related disease and in diabetes. It may also serve as a contributing factor to certain types of cancer, because the more oxidative damage that takes place, the more DNA is damaged. And that damaged DNA, when it’s replicated over and over again, can evolve into a cancer.
Damage control: While these seemingly uncontrollable cellular battles may be taking place deep inside your body, you still have the power to control the ways in which your cells function. One of the best strategies is to eat plenty of foods containing flavonoids and carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants. Found in colorful foods such as red grapes (and red wine), cranberries, tomatoes, pomegranates, onions and tomato juice, flavonoids and carotenoids seem to decrease inflammation by neutralizing those damaging oxygen free radicals.
Consuming fewer calories can also help by shifting your metabolism in a way that produces fewer free radicals.
Aspirin works, too, as the chief of the fire company called in to put out the inflammation response. Make it part of your regular routine, just as you would brushing your teeth or walking the dog. If you’re a man over 35 or a woman over 40, take half a regular aspirin or two baby aspirin (162 mg total) every day, after you and your doctor agree on your plan.
Stem cells are powerful tools that play a key role in how you recover from stress. But as you age, you lose stem cells to repair damaged tissues, leaving you vulnerable to stress-related conditions.
At all stages of your life, your body responds to damage by recruiting stem cell repairmen. When you smoke, for example, stem cells are sent to the lungs to respond to damage. Or when your skin burns from the sun, stem cells go in to make repairs. But the more stem cells are sent in, to fix anything from inflammation to too much saturated fat to alcohol abuse, the higher the chance that something will go wrong. In other words, the more those stem cells are needed, the more they reproduce. And the more they reproduce, the higher the chance they could mutate into tumor cells. And that spells cancer.
Damage control: Using your precious stem cells to repair something preventable like sunburn or lung damage from smoking is a waste.
Remember, stress may lead to shortening of your telomeres, so rapidly reproducing stem cells are even less able to be present in adequate reserve. Managing stress better can help minimize stem cell damage. In addition to deep breathing from your diaphragm, try these:
You see this effect in Tibetan monks who pass a test into monkhood by generating enough heat off their bodies in freezing temperatures to make a cold, moist blanket on their shoulders dry out. It comes from the vagus nerve, which sends messages to major organs in the body and carries information back to the brain. It’s the main mechanism by which your brain audits your body. Those monks figured out how to meditate to fake out their bodies that they’re warm rather than cold.Damage control: We’re not suggesting you can will away strep throat. But manipulating the connection between the gut and brain may be one of the ways you can quiet the high-level inflammation and immunity challenges that may affect the way you age. We’re starting to understand that meditation (or as we prefer to call it, training your vagus) can positively influence your immune system and aging. A form of movement combined with meditation called chi gong may activate the vagus. Eating certain healthy fats, in foods such as avocados, walnuts, olive oil, flaxseed oil and fish oil, may stimulate the hormone cholecystokinin, which facilitates the beneficial processes in your vagus.
Thinning hair, body parts that give in to gravity and joints that creak are signs of aging. But did you know sugar may have something to do with it?
It’s called glycosylation, and it occurs when sugar molecules (glucose) floating around in your blood attach to protein molecules, diminishing their effectiveness and causing inflammation. Normally, glucose is what gives your cells energy, but when you develop insulin resistance (from type 2 diabetes or from being overweight), the insulin can’t get all the glucose into your cells effectively. So glucose stays in the blood and gunks up the proteins. It’s kind of like acid rain — it damages the things it touches and makes them vulnerable to tears. So the body repairs the tears on the inside layer of your arteries with LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. That causes plaque in the artery walls. And that makes vessels less elastic and less able to absorb the pressure generated by the heart, so the higher number of your blood pressure (e.g., 160/60) increases.
Glucose also affects the collagen in your skin and joints so they become less elastic, which can lead to wrinkles, joint problems and arthritis.
Damage control: Reducing sugar in your diet is a good start, and you know what that means: more fruits and veggies, complex carbs from whole grains, and fewer simple sugars and processed foods.
Get your blood pressure under control by walking 30 minutes a day — every day — and try to eat ten tablespoons of tomato sauce a week. Coffee, tea and cinnamon may help too.