Most people cringe when they consider the thought of ageing. Seeing others struggle in old age doesn’t make it appealing. Many expect the experience of ageing to be bleak, limiting and “the end of the road”. For many, the experience involves at the very least some bone weakening, eyes straining, frequent bladder emptying, bowel movement lessening and of course the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.
While it’s understood that ageing is simply getting old, the scientific world defines ageing as “the time-related deterioration of the physiological function necessary for survival and fertility”1. With time the body is exposed to a myriad of damage from toxins or other harmful agents. When the body is receiving more damage than it has the ability to repair, it will begin to deteriorate and eventually lose its function. This is similar to what happens to a house when its owners are unable to make regular repairs as it is exposed to weather or intruder damage.
There are a number of causes of ageing. Oxidative damage is caused by free radicals oxidising cells. This then causes inflammation that leads to damage and ageing2. These free radicals come from UV light, other inflammatory agents, air pollution, ionising radiation and bad lifestyle habits, including smoking.
Another cause is the shortening of repeated segments at the end of our chromosomes, known as telomeres.
These telomeres are like the plastic tip at the end of your shoelaces. Shorter telomere length has been associated with an increased risk of chronic disease and reduced mortality3. Additionally, there are mutations in the LMNA gene that causes early ageing, a condition known as Hutchinson-Guilford progeria syndrome4.
Many people have attempted to beat ageing by researching how to slow its progression, beat the cause or mask its effects through surgical intervention. Many books, magazines, documentaries, vitamins, cosmetics and antioxidant supplements claim to help slow or stop the progression of ageing. Let’s face it—no-one wants to get old. Perhaps many of us have gerascophobia, which is a fear of getting old.
There are people in this world who have discovered the secrets for combating ageing and are living like the young at an old age. A documentary called How to Live Forever interviewed different long-lived people and Jack Lalanne was featured. He was an American fitness trainer, nutritional guru and passionate about living well. Although he didn’t reach the centenarian lifetime, he lived a healthy, fit and vibrant life until he passed away at 97 after contracting pneumonia.
In Loma Linda, California, one of the “Blue Zones” with a dense population of centenarians—Seventh-day Adventist Marge Jetton lived to 106 years of age5. Believing in the importance of the little things, Jetton had a routine. She rose early at 4.30am for her morning prayers and reading, lifted weights and rode 13 kilometres per day, volunteered and switched to a plant-based diet in her 50s. Both Lalanne and Jetton lived until a ripe old age without experiencing the negative ageing effects many others suffer.
Simple habits may be the keys to beat ageing. After all, who wants to live longer but suffer daily from the effects of ageing? Dan Buettner, the journalist who traversed the globe to interview centenarians in the five Blue Zones, has seen the common factors that kept the world’s oldest people young and experiencing low rates of chronic disease. Interestingly, these factors are not difficult, rather simple lifestyle habits that have been regarded by millions as unimportant. These longer living, happy people have:
- A predominantly plant-based diet and eat only until 80 per cent full (Okinawans call this concept hara hachi bu) with regular fasting;
- Active daily routines with activities that raise their heart rate and exercise their muscles;
- Sufficient sleep every day;
- A purpose in life, or be people of faith; and,
- A healthy social network.
These habits have also been found by different research groups to reduce their risk of developing chronic disease, including Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps we need to revisit the simple things in life.
Various research groups have uncovered habitual patterns against ageing for living longer, healthier and happier. A Harvard study found that by living out these five lifestyle factors, your life expectancy at age 50 increases by 14 years for women and 12.2 years for men, compared to those who don’t 6. Again, these five lifestyle factors are basic everyday approaches: having a nutritious diet, doing regular exercise, maintaining a healthy BMI, not smoking, and minimal alcohol.
Another study by Dr Dean Ornish investigated how three months of comprehensive lifestyle changes increased telomere length after five years of follow-up in men who had low-risk prostate cancer7. The adopted lifestyle changes by these men were: nutritious plant-based diet, regular 30 minutes of daily walking, stress management exercises (stretching, deep breathing, meditation, progressive relaxation) and increased social support. Additionally, the myth that older adults can’t learn new skills has been disproven. In fact, neurogenesis research has shown that the adult brain has more plasticity than previously thought8. This means that as one continues to learn in their old age, they will gain more experience and insight. In fact, in order to reduce the risk of developing dementia, older adults need to learn new hobbies to improve their memory, as well as engaging in regular social activities to boost their cognitive health9, 10. Learning is certainly not just for the young.
Although genetics accounts for longevity, it only contributes 20–30 per cent while a larger percentage of influence comes from lifestyle choices with regular physical activity, nutritious diet choices, maintaining a healthy weight and environmental influences11,12. Optimising our lifestyle can maximise our longevity within the biological limits.
Having longevity in the family genes does help and coupling it with healthy behaviours will increase the chances of slowing ageing and improving your health. Why not add years to your life, but more importantly add life to your years? What choices will you make today for the most important investment—your health?
Christiana Leimena has worked in cardiovascular research in the areas of molecular cardiology and hypertension. She obtained her PhD through the University of New South Wales and did her postdoctoral training at Loma Linda University, California. She has a passion in educating and promoting whole-person health and nutrition. She loves the outdoors and cooking.
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