I was inspired to write the article following a couple of programmes with the same title recently on the BBC. I was alerted to watching them as the first programme contained my PhD supervisor Professor Janet Lord, who is currently the Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the University of Birmingham. I would also quite like to stay young, like most of us would.
Aging is a very hot topic due to the fact that the world’s population is living longer than decades prior– the United Nations Population Fund estimated that today 11% of the world’s population is aged 60 or over and by 2050 that number will have doubled to 22%. That brings about huge changes in society and the associated socio-economic problems, but it also has an impact on the individual. We would all like to live longer, but we want to stay as young as possible so we can enjoy those later years.
In this article I can only touch the surface of this vast topic, but I intend to give you a brief overview of the main effects aging has on your body, the science behind these effects, and finally finish up with my five tips to stay young. I also provide links in the recommended reading section at the end to some of the research if you want to read further in to the subject.
Before we start though, let’s see how well you are aging. Watch this short video and then complete the activity in the video. You can provide your score in the comments section below if you wish.
What Happens to Us as We Age?
I’m sure many of you have noticed it, but I certainly have; some things don’t seem to work as well or are as easy as they were when you were younger. That’s because many parts of the body begin to decline in function as we age, distressingly some are already in decline by the time we hit 30! Some, while potentially distressing to the individual (such as hair going grey), do not have a significant effect on our wellbeing, but some do and I will concentration on these below:
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- Immune Senescence – this is the big one in my book as the immune system is basically what keeps you healthy and free of disease. Both our innate and humoral immune system’s ability to respond, seek, identify, kill and phagocytose bacteria and viruses declines with age, meaning that as we get older our ability to fight off infections, control unwanted cellular proliferation, mount an appropriate immune response and respond to vaccinations declines. There is also evidence of an increase in our proinflammatory response.
- Cognitive Decline – it’s well known and documented that as you age your memory and cognitive speed diminishes. For example, think about how easy it is to learn a new language when you are at school compared to later life.
- ‘Structural Frailties’ – I couldn’t think (see above) of a polite way of putting this, but as we age a number of body parts begin to become frail. Our musculoskeletal system begins to fail through wear and tear, bone breaks become more common and we have less strength as our muscle power diminishes (the depressing part is that this begins at 30!). Osteoarthritis also becomes more prevalent. Our vision and hearing decline and we are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease as the strain of all those years takes its toll on the heart.
The Science of Aging
So these are the effects of aging. But what is the scientific background to these? And if we can work out what is going on then perhaps we can intervene to delay the aging process. Let’s look at some of the main culprits in accelerating aging:
- Cortisol – The stress hormone, raised levels of which are known to cause immune system suppression. There is also evidence that continuously raised cortisol levels can desensitise the resolution of inflammation leading to proinflammation.
- Free Radicals – The free radical theory of aging has been presented for a number of years and that the produced reactive oxygen species (ROS) are the major cause of aging. The theory being that the free radicals produced in the mitochondrial respiratory chain cause oxidative damage which damage the body’s cells over time. However, recently this theory has begun to be questioned by a number of studies which actually propose the alterative in that ROS may prevent aging.
- Telomeres – these structures are found at the ends of linear chromosomes and act to protect the chromosome. Each time the cell divides and the chromosome is replicated, the telomere shortens, so as we age our telomeres get progressively shorter (oxidative stress can also damage and shorten the telomeres). This gives the cell a lifespan and when the telomere reaches a minimum length, then the cell undergoes cell cycle arrest and cell death. Telomere shortening is proposed to underlie aging and age-related diseases.
- Cytomegaloviruses – most of us have been infected by one of these already, chicken-pox is a cytomegalovirus (CMV). The immune system generates a huge immune response against this virus and whilst we recover in a couple of weeks, the virus is never eliminated and remains dormant and requiring immune surveillance. It has been shown that CMV can affect the balance and performance of the immune system and CMV infection is associated with a shorter lifespan than with non-infection. Again though, there is some controversy around this CMV hypothesis.
- Nutrients (or more specifically the lack of or over indulgence) – eating and drinking the wrong foods and drinks obviously has an aging effect. This is a huge topic with a vast amount of research conducted. However, in general, eating too much fat, salt and simple carbohydrates and drinking too much alcohol causes premature aging by raising blood pressure, increasing the strain on the heart and direct damage to internal organs. In addition, calorie restriction has long been proposed to extend lifespan, at least in mice models.
- Lack of exercise – as you would expect, taking regular exercise is beneficial and delays aging in a number of ways: it maintains skeletal and muscular strength, reduces oxidative stress, reduces inflammation, maintains a healthy cardiovascular system and can also slow cognitive decline. Lack of exercise has the opposite effect.
All in all, there is a lot of science across these areas and much more than I can cover here, but I have given links to some interesting review articles below.
Five Tips to Stay Young
I’m not promising eternal youth if you follow these five, but hopefully delaying the aging process:
- Avoid stress – it really has a dramatic effect, but not always easy to avoid.
- Take regular exercise – helps delay aging in a number of areas, runners beware though as running outside in the sun can age the skin.
- Eat a nutritionally balanced diet – a wide range of different foods including lots of nuts, antioxidants and pulses, especially walnuts. Recent evidence suggests a vegan diet is best for staying young.
- Rapamycin – if you can’t avoid stress, take exercise or eat a balanced diet, then the alternative is a shot of rapamycin. This compound has be shown to extend mammalian lifespans, but the jury is out whether it actually delays aging (potentially just prevents tumours to increase lifespan).
- Avoid cytomegaloviruses – ok, perhaps too late with this one, but if you can please do!
Good luck on the road to staying young!
Below are some of the published research articles and reviews regarding the science of aging:
- Telomeres and telomerase as therapeutic targets to prevent and treat age-related diseases
- Longevity, aging and rapamycin
- Dietary Restriction and Nutrient Balance in Aging
- CMV and Immunosenescence: from basics to clinics
- Exercise Modulates Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Aging and Cardiovascular Diseases
- Human innate Immunosenescence: causes and consequences for immunity in old age
- A proposed panel of biomarkers of healthy aging