Aging. It’s inevitable for each and every one of us. If you are 40 or over (like me!), you are probably much more cognizant and aware of the fact you are aging and maybe have even thought about your own mortality a bit more than you did in your teens, 20’s, or 30’s. Maybe you have a few aches and pains that seem to stick around, more prominent wrinkles, or maybe you find it easier to throw your back out or pull a hamstring when you try to exercise. For others, you might have even had a major health event occur, such as a heart attack, as some of these chronic conditions can start showing up in the 4th decade of life for some people.
Chronological and biological age are two different things. Chronological age is how old you are from a numerical standpoint. I was born in 1979, so I am 41 years old (at the time of this writing). Biological age is how quickly, or slowly, your body is aging. We all know or have interacted with people who seem either much older or much younger than their chronological age. I’m not necessarily referring to their demeanor, wit and attitude (although this can correlate), I’m referring to how they look, feel and their degree of functionality.
For example. I am a nurse practitioner and have worked with people with chronic disease for many, many years. My specialty is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), so I work closely with many patients who have abused their bodies for many years in a variety of ways including cigarette smoking, occupational pollutants and hazards, sedentary lifestyle, very poor and unhealthy eating habits, obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes…just to name a few. I am always AMAZED at how old these patients look given their chronological age. I’ve had patients in their 40’s and early 50’s who could easily pass for 60’s or 70’s. Yes, I’ve had patients in their 40’s who could pass for 70. They don’t move well. Their face is covered in wrinkles. They have very poor muscle tone, have no energy and complain of “getting old”. It’s truly sad, heartbreaking in fact. I’ve also had patients who are 96 years old, still smoking sometimes, and the patient reports she/he hasn’t “been to a doctor” in 50 years. She/he might be 96 years old and have smoked for 75 years, but they look like they are 20 years younger than their chronological age (this is rare and far from the norm!). I am fascinated by the story of the longest living person known, Jeanne Clement, who lived to be over 122 years old, lived on her own until she was 110 and reportedly smoked until she was 117! What gives?
We all know people, whether it be family, friends or other contacts, who either look and move much older or younger than their actual chronological age. Some people, especially those who smoke, abuse alcohol, use illicit drugs, are obese, sedentary, stressed out all the time or whatever are “easy” to identify as to why they have aged. But what is the secret of those who age “slowly” and is there anything you can do to slow, or even reverse, the effects of aging?
There are many factors that play into aging. These many factors fall into two main categories: genetic and environmental influence.
Genetic Factors of aging
Our “genes” are the traits the we inherit from our parents. We have about 20,000–25,000 of them. We oftentimes hear the terms, “good genes” and “bad genes”. We know of families where every family member lives a meaningful life well into their 90’s, and the opposite is also true, as we know of families where “every” male dies in their 50’s from a massive heart attack. Although genes are important and we cannot change the genes that we have been dealt, we DO have the ability to either “turn on” or “turn off” these genes, a term known as epigenetics. No one has all “good” genes and all “bad” genes. But, what we do and how we live our life will determine which genes are expressed, which means “turned on”.
Let’s use the early heart disease example. Joe is 32 years old and has a strong family history of heart disease. His grandfather died of a massive heart attack at age 59. His dad had his first heart attack at age 41 and had bypass surgery at age 49. One uncle died of a heart attack at age 52. Another uncle had his first heart attack at age 38 and is still living, although his quality of life is not great as he is now 56 and has severe congestive heart failure and all the complications that go along with it. Joe has accepted his fate. He isn’t questioning “if” he will get heart disease, he’s questioning “when” it will happen. Due to this strong family history and “bad genes”, Joe does what he wants as “it won’t matter anyways”. He continues to smoke cigarettes, drink soda and eat highly processed junk food. Other than riding dirt bikes, he doesn’t exercise much on any sort of regular basis. He has developed a bit of a gut and is having to buy bigger pants. His blood pressure is now elevated, and his family doctor wants to start him on a blood pressure medication. Also, his cholesterol panel is a mess and he has been advised to start a statin given his strong family history for heart disease. Although reluctant at first, Joe starts taking a blood pressure medication and statin and feels a little safer now that he’s on these meds….
What is wrong with this scenario? Firstly, Joe has erroneously “accepted his genetic fate” of having early onset heart disease, so he’s going to “live it up” since there’s nothing he can do about it anyways. Secondly, he buys the false notion that a couple of medicines that “fix” his numbers will also help him avoid significant health issues.
Joe is wrong. If you think your “bad genes” have sealed your fate, you are wrong also.
Epigenetics. I referred to this earlier. Epigenetics refers to how our environment either turns our genes “on” or “off”. What we do and how we live our life, either healthy or unhealthy, is truly the biggest factor in how we age, our lifespan and, probably most importantly, our healthspan. Some of the biggest factors that likely influence aging and disease development and turning genes “on” or “off” include dietary habits, sleep, movement, stress management and mental health, time spent in nature, having a purpose and strong social connections, use of substances (such as tobacco, alcohol), avoiding pollution and other chemical toxins. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you get the point. If you take the time to address these various environmental influences and truly strive to do the best you can most of the time, you can turn “off” the bad genes and turn “on” your good genes.
YOUR GENES ARE NOT YOUR DESTINY!! This is a fundamental concept to those of us passionate about ancestral health concepts. As a certified Primal Health Coach, this concept has been reinforced to us time and time again. I have seen this in my own life! Being lean, strong and athletic is NOT something that really runs in my family, yet, through my lifestyle choices and commitment to slow aging I have been able to be lean, healthy and continue to feel “young” and have noticed very few effects of the aging process thus far. In my early 20’s I became fat and out of shape due to eating junk food, too many liquid calories, late nights and minimal exercise. By age 22 I was 60 pounds of fat heavier than I am now and on the path of accelerated aging…until I made a choice to turn “off” my bad genes and turn “on” my good genes!! (see my before and after photo at the top of the article)
What causes aging?
Simply put, aging is a result of the cumulative effect of damage (to our cells) we are exposed to over the course of our lifetime. In addition, our cells are always multiplying and replacing themselves and metabolizing food and making energy — this also causes stress and contributes to aging (more on how to mitigate the effects of this later). Much of the damage we cannot control (or not easily control), such as air pollution, stressful times in life (death of a loved one, job loss, divorce) and where we were raised. But, we are in control of many factors and can control what we eat, whether or not we smoke or abuse alcohol, how much we exercise, how much time we spend in nature and how much sunshine we get. Ongoing and repetitive exposure to toxins, such as chemicals found in foods, household products and increases in blood sugar due to poor food choices, causes damage to our cells and inflammation and oxidation in our body. Our bodies are designed to “detoxify” and neutralize many of these insults, but the problem is we don’t give our body the necessary tools to detoxify and fix the damage that is done. We continue to cause insults to our body causing inflammation and oxidation. Think of oxidative damage as “rusting” on the inside of your body. Over years and years this can accelerate aging and the development of chronic disease conditions. Ever heard of “antioxidants”? Antioxidants neutralize/counteract the effect of oxidation in the body. Oxidation and inflammation happen when we eat unhealthy foods, have chronic elevated stress, smoke cigarettes and suffer repetitive exposure to various other chemicals such as household cleaners and pollution. These things all STRESS our cells, causing us to potentially age faster than what we would if we were avoiding these and giving our body the necessary support through nutrition, stress management, movement and sleep.
It’s also important to address telomeres when discussing aging. Telomeres are these protective “caps” at the end of our DNA strands that protect our chromosomes. Healthy telomeres are “long”, healthy and protect our chromosomes. With time, cellular replication, and exposure from harmful environmental factors, our telomeres continue to shorten and become less effective at protecting our chromosomes leading to, you guessed it, aging. All the environmental and lifestyle things I have listed above directly contribute to shortening of these telomeres and, in effect, aging.
Mitochondrial health is also vital to not only feeling good, but to healthy aging. Our mitochondria are our “powerhouses” of our cells that convert ATP to energy (aka the citric acid cycle or the Krebs cycle in case you want to open your old science books). The more mitochondria you have the better you will feel and the slower you will age. Telomeres and mitochondria health go hand in hand.
So, what does this mean? This means that YOU are primarily responsible for turning your genes “on” or “off”. The lifestyle you choose to live directly impacts how much damage your cells incur which then determines how quickly you do, or don’t, biologically age. What if you are 40 or 50 or 60 years old and want to start living healthy? Is it too late? Absolutely not! In most cases, it is never too late to start living healthy, slowing down and even potentially “reverse” aging. I have read about, heard about and witnessed countless success stories of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond who have done exactly that! Yes, it is possible to cure obesity. Yes, it is possible to reverse and even cure metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Yes, it is possible to dramatically reduce your risk for heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s dementia, even if you’ve neglected your health for years.
How do you age well and turn “on” your good genes and turn “off” your bad genes?
Eat right at least 80% of the time. EAT REAL FOOD. Eat lots of non-starchy vegetables, healthy and sustainably raised/harvested animal products. Eat LOTS of healthy fats from extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, ghee, coconut products. DON’T FEAR FAT! Eat seasonal, low sugar fruit full of antioxidants, such as berries. Eat fatty, cold water fish such as wild caught salmon, sardines and mackerel. Adequate protein and amino acids are vital to mitochondrial health.
Move!! Get your booty going! Make sure you are moving at a consistent, slow pace most of the day. Don’t sit for extended periods of time. Get plenty of low to moderate intensity aerobic activity in as this is very good for overall health and for your cells. Low intensity cardiovascular activity helps to boost brain boosting hormones, such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which can improve cognition and prevent against cognitive decline.
Strength train. Strength training has many positive health effects. The more functional muscle you have, the better health effects. Improving strength and muscle helps improve insulin sensitivity and can slow down aging and even improve cognition and brain function. Having a strong body gives you the best shot at staying active and functional well into your 8th and 9th decades of life. Building muscle helps to work as a “sponge” and can mitigate the effects of carbohydrate intake, especially in the post-workout time frame.
Don’t become obese. Or, if you are obese, start doing the things needed to start burning off body fat. Obesity puts you at higher risk for all of the very bad diseases that will age you and shorten your lifespan and healthspan.
Keep your blood sugar in check and keep your insulin levels low. Having high blood sugars and eating simple carbs, which stimulates insulin production, and being either pre-diabetic or developing type 2 diabetes is the gateway to having a life of poor health and accelerated aging. There is not a single cell or organ system in the body that can escape the negative effects of having elevated blood sugar. Elevated blood sugars on a frequent and chronic basis will accelerate oxidation in the body leading to damage to the cells and faster aging. Having chronic elevated insulin levels will eventually lead to insulin resistance, which then becomes type 2 diabetes. If you have pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, it IS possible to reverse and even completely cure yourself of this condition (and don’t let any medical person tell you it’s not!).
Get sunshine. We’ve erroneously been told to avoid the sun like the plague due to the risk of skin cancers. Although too much sun can be harmful, regular sun exposure to large parts of our skin has very many health benefits ranging from the synthesis of vitamin D, increasing nitric oxide production (which is good for our cardiovascular health), improves mood, sleep, immune system and general sense of health and wellness. DON’T BURN. Protect your face. Be sensible. Apply sunscreen if you are going to be in the sun for a prolonged period, such as a beach vacation. If it’s your first time in the sun after a long, cold winter, go easy and don’t overdo it.
Get outside! Nature and fresh air have many health benefits and makes people happier and less stressed and is associated with improved health.
Manage stress. Humans were designed for acute, short-term stress such as running away from a predator. What we WEREN’T created for is ongoing, relentless chronic stress, which pervades our modern society. This chronic stress causes a chronic stimulation and elevation of our stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and this wreaks havoc in our body and leads to, you guessed it, accelerated aging.
Have healthy, meaningful social relationships and a purpose in life. There have been many studies suggesting that healthy relationships and having a purpose in life can improve health and increases longevity.
Don’t smoke. This should be a no-brainer. Cigarettes contain hundreds of different chemicals and toxins that will accelerate aging and put you at risk for major health conditions such as lung disease, cardiovascular disease and many types of cancer.
Don’t drink alcohol in excess. Alcohol might be ok for some people in “moderation” on a limited basis, but regular, excessive alcohol consumption is very hard on the body and can lead to many health problems, just not liver issues. The liver is the organ primarily responsible for the production of antioxidants, such as glutathione, as well as being the primary detoxification organ in the body. Too much alcohol can interrupt hormones, such as lowering testosterone in men, lead to heart issues and cognitive issues, such as dementia.
Sleep well! Sleeping well and getting enough sleep is one of the most powerful free “drugs” in the world. Too many Americans are not doing well in the sleep department. Sleep is when your body repairs itself, forms new memories, and is the foundation of good health and good mood. Lack of sleep puts you at higher risk for about every health condition out there and will accelerate aging.
Avoid poison. Poison can come in many forms. When talking about dietary poison, avoid highly processed foods, refined carbs, trans fats, hydrogenated fats/oils, highly processed oils (canola, vegetable, corn, for example). Avoid poison from household cleaners, cosmetics, mold and many, many others. Basically, there are thousands and thousands of poisons we are potentially exposed to on a day-to-day basis. Try and use products that are as natural as possible. It’s impossible to completely avoid all poisons in our modern day society, which is why it is so important to mitigate the effects of these poisons by trying to do everything else well, which then gives our body the tools and the ability to naturally detoxify.
Last, but not least… FAST. Yes, some degree of periodic or intermittent fasting does wonders for the body. Being in the “fed” state all of the time not only can decrease insulin sensitivity and cause other metabolic concerns, it keeps us from learning how to use bodyfat as fuel and also inhibits all the awesome repair mechanisms that occur after going for a period of time without food. Where to start? I recommend stopping eating/consuming any calories 2–3 hours before bedtime and try to fast at least 12 hours overnight into the next morning before consuming any calories. This is a great healthy habit to get into for most people.
I realize this list is not completely exhaustive, but if you do all of these things well most of the time, you are giving yourself the best shot at optimizing your genetic potential to turn “off” your bad genes and turn “on” your good genes and slow aging and live a long, healthy life!
Remember, your genes are not your destiny! The power is in your hands!
Thanks for reading!