Due to advances in medicine and sanitation, people are living longer than ever. Whereas 100 years ago life expectancy was about 50 years in Western countries, today it is around 80 years, with some researchers predicting it will increase to 90 years by 2030 in women (1).
Many people are concerned that as they grow older, they'll experience chronic disease, decreased mobility, and memory loss. Fortunately, old age doesn't have to include progressive physical and cognitive decline. In this article, I'll explore how and why we age and provide strategies to help increase your “healthspan,” the period of time you spend functional and independent.
What is Aging?
Aging is the process of growing older or maturing. Although aging technically begins at birth, the term usually refers to senescence, the gradual deterioration of function that begins in our thirties or forties.
Interestingly, recent research suggests that this decline doesn't accelerate indefinitely but instead reaches a point of adaptation in our seventies or eighties ( 2).
Aging is a complex process involving multiple changes throughout the body. A few of these include:
Increased Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
Free radicals are natural byproducts of biochemical reactions that occur constantly throughout your body. Their numbers are normally kept in check by antioxidants. However, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the number of free radicals produced vs. the ability to neutralize them (3).
Excessive Accumulation of AGEs
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) occur when sugars combine with proteins and fats, which become damaged and nonfunctional. As we get older and experience greater amounts of oxidative stress, we tend to accumulate more AGEs in our systems ( 4).
Shorter Telomere Length
Telomeres are the “caps” at the ends of our chromosomes that contain our cells' DNA. Over time, these telomeres wear down, causing damage to that DNA ( 5).
Impairment of Biochemical Processes and Pathways
During aging, our cells may become less responsive to hormones and may not communicate with each other as effectively, among other changes ( 6).
Decline in Reproductive Hormones
Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels begin decreasing within the fourth or fifth decade of life, signaling the approach of menopause in women (3).
Some of the above changes can impair organ and blood vessel function, which may increase your likelihood of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and other diseases common in older people.
Additionally, many of the visible signs of aging – including wrinkling and sagging skin – occur as a result of the changes going on internally ( 7, 8, 9).
However, the extent to which these changes occur and at what age you'll start noticing them is highly individual.
Strategies for Slowing Down the Aging Process
Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
For healthy aging, should you follow a keto, low-carb, paleo, primal, or Mediterranean way of eating?
Although the optimal anti-aging diet isn't universally agreed upon, these diets have a number of things in common, including their potential to reduce inflammation ( 10, 11, 12). They're also rich in high-quality animal protein, which may help prevent age-related muscle loss ( 13).
While they can all be well balanced, nutritious and satisfying, these diets differ when it comes to macronutrient composition and the inclusion vs. exclusion of certain foods, such as sweet potatoes or dairy.
Some people thrive on a very-low-carb, high-fat keto diet, whereas others feel and perform better with the more moderate carb intake of a paleo or Mediterranean diet. Experimenting with these diets can help you determine which one you prefer and can stick with long term.
Choose Fatty Fish Often
Fatty fish are the best source of the omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research suggests that these polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may provide a number of anti-aging benefits, including:
- Reduction in inflammation and insulin resistance ( 14).
- Prevention of muscle loss ( 14, 15).
- Protection of telomeres and potential reduction of DNA damage ( 16, 17).
- Preservation of memory and other aspects of brain health during aging ( 18). One study found that eating all kinds of fish (not just fatty types) was associated with higher concentrations of gray matter in the brain ( 19).
- Decreased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other age-related diseases ( 20).
The fish highest in EPA and DHA are salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and anchovies. Aim for a minimum of two 100-gram (3.5 ounce) servings per week.
Consume Plenty of Brightly-Colored Plants
While high-quality animal protein are beneficial for staying strong and vibrant, plants can make equally important contributions to health. This is particularly true for types with bright or deep pigments, which contain phytonutrients that help counteract oxidative stress.
A growing body of research suggests that including them in your diet on a regular basis may help slow down the aging process.
Although there are reportedly more than 25,000 phytonutrients found in plants, here are a few of the most common types, along with their top low-carb sources:
These compounds found in orange, red, and green fruits and vegetables have been linked to better vascular health and telomere protection ( 21, 22). Best sources are tomatoes, spinach, carrots and kale.
As the largest class of phytonutrients, polyphenols come in a wide variety of colors and may provide anti-aging benefits for the heart, brain, and overall health ( 23). Best sources are berries, greens, bell peppers, herbs and spices.
Abundant in cruciferous vegetables, sulforaphane may reduce risk of cancer and other diseases of aging ( 24). Best sources are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.
Mushrooms are another plant (technically a fungus) worth including in your diet regularly. Although they're not colorful, mushrooms contain dozens of phytonutrients and seem to be particularly effective at neutralizing free radicals ( 25).
Additionally, there's growing evidence that the phytonutrients, vitamins, and other compounds in these plants may help protect your skin from sun damage and reduce visible signs of aging ( 26).
Avoid Sugar and Processed Foods
In addition to providing empty calories, refined sugar may pose several negative health effects. Many of these are linked to unhealthy aging, such as increased production of AGEs and shorter telomere length (27, 28).
Sugar and other processed food like white flour and vegetable oils may also raise your risk of developing diabetes, cancer, and other disorders that become more common with age.
Avoid these items and focus on whole, minimally processed foods that are naturally low in carbs.
Perform Strength, Flexibility, and Balance Exercise
Staying active for as long as possible can help improve your mental and physical health, confidence, and overall quality of life.
Research has shown that engaging in physical activity regularly can reduce the loss of muscle mass and reduction in resting metabolic rate (RMR) typically seen during aging ( 29, 30, 31).
In a 2012 study, researchers looked at body composition data from recreational athletes aged 40 to 81 who exercised four to five times a week. They found similar levels of lean muscle mass in these individuals regardless of age. What's more, in some cases, the older athletes had even more muscle mass than the younger athletes ( 31).
Resistance exercise is key to preserving muscle mass and strength ( 32, 33). However, flexibility and balance training are also important for staying mobile, energetic, and preventing falls and other injuries ( 34, 35).
Here are two excellent programs for physical fitness that incorporate all of these components and can be performed at any age:
As important as nutrition and physical activity are for healthy aging, stress management may be even more crucial.
Stress leads to accelerated aging and increases risk for disease and disability ( 36). This is true for both acute stress due to traumatic life events such as the passing of a family member, as well as chronic stress from being overworked, involved in unhappy relationships, or other causes.
In studies, stress has consistently been associated with shorter telomere length. In one study comparing caregiving mothers of sick children with mothers of healthy children, the caregiving mothers tended to have shorter telomeres. What's more, the longer the duration of caregiving, the shorter their telomeres became ( 37).
Managing stress is very individual. For instance, going shopping can be stress-relieving or stress-inducing, depending on the person. You probably already know what sorts of activities relax you, so make it a point to practice those as often as you can. Also, the importance of getting enough high-quality sleep can't be overstated.
Here are a few additional ideas for easing stress:
- Try acupuncture
- Schedule a massage
- Practice meditation
- Say “no” more often
Have a Positive Attitude
The saying “attitude is everything” may not be 100% accurate, but changing the way you feel about getting older can have many positive effects on your health and quality of life.
It's true that certain aspects of aging can't be avoided. However, it's counterproductive to dwell on these instead of being grateful for your life experiences and focusing on making the most of what you have.
Moreover, steer clear of people who constantly complain about aging and surround yourself with those who accept or even celebrate it.