“Life’s a bitch. And then you die.” Glimpsed on a bumper sticker, it’s just a flicker of unpleasantness – a bit of bravado from some tough-guy teen. You dismiss it without a second thought. Or do you?
Should you ever find yourself pondering this assertion, and especially if its plausibility weighs heavy on you, it could be a sign you are getting old. Old enough, at least, to have started inspecting the lines around your eyes. Old enough, perhaps, to have noticed some creaks and quirks in your body, and (big sigh) to have begun swapping descriptions of these ailments with your friends. Old enough, in other words, to know better.
This is not the road to youthfulness, friend, and unless you want to be a living testament to that wretched bumper sticker, it’s not the road you want to be on.
No doubt, getting old can be a bitch. Reminders of your mortality can certainly make you feel old. But you aren’t really getting old, are you? Nah. Not if you can help it, anyway. And, for the most part, you can.
That’s what the expert authors of books like Real Age: Are You As Young As You Can Be? (Cliff Street, 1999) and Biomarkers: The 10 Keys to Prolonging Vitality (Fireside, 1992) will tell you. Your chronological age (age in years), these doctors insist, can differ vastly from your biological age (the age you feel, look and function), and as it turns out, the size and nature of that discrepancy is pretty much up to you.
Your chronological age, of course, is determined by your year of birth, and there’s not much you can do about that one (except lie). Your biological age, however, is a rather complex amalgam of physical- and mental-health factors – a series of so-called “biomarkers” that are, at least in part, within your control. These experts assert that some of the most significant markers of aging can be arrested – even reversed – at virtually any time, even well into your old age.
Again, this is not to say that you are getting old. Or even worried about getting old. But with legions of baby boomers marching bravely into their, um, middle years, it’s safe to assume that there is now a larger population thinking and worrying about aging than at any previous time in history.
Wise Beyond Our Years
When Dylan Thomas wrote, “do not go gentle into that good night,” he couldn’t have known how passionately this generation would receive his advice, or what an arsenal of anti-aging knowledge and technology we would have with which to implement it.
Now, refusing to go along quietly with the aging process is one thing; fighting it like a desperate lunatic is another. And yet there is something about the prospect of aging that turns otherwise intelligent people into complete wackos. Miracle wrinkle cures, space-age ab-busters, powdered reptile organs – if it promises to keep us young, by gosh, we’ll buy it. Particularly if it promises to keep us young without demanding too much effort on our part.
If you’re already up to your youthful-looking earlobes in quick fixes like these, you may be disheartened to hear that according to the best research – the stuff coming out of places like the Harvard School of Public Health, the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts, and the American Federation for Aging Research – you do actually have to do a little something in order to trigger the air brake on your aging machine. You do not need another quick-fix miracle product. You do not need surgical intervention of the plastic variety. What you need is a customized, comprehensive anti-aging plan.
On the following pages we’ve collected some of the most important and best documented anti-aging essentials for you. Integrate these fundamentals into your life, and you’ll not only slow the major mechanisms of aging, you may well throw them into full-throttle reverse.
Before you start doing battle with the so-called biomarkers of aging, it helps to know what they are. And there’s a bit of debate about that. In fact there’s a fair bit of debate about the whole process of aging – how much of it is genetics (your DNA causing your system to crap out on you at some predetermined time), how much is wear and tear (e.g., free radicals demolishing the molecular structure of your body’s proteins, fats and your DNA), and how much interdependence there is between the two factors.
For example, one much-ballyhooed marker of aging is a drop in key hormone levels. This shift appears to occur as a preprogrammed biological event, and yet hormone levels can also be significantly affected (for better or worse) by lifestyle factors like stress, exercise and diet. Similarly, skin proteins naturally break down over time, but their demise can also be considerably hastened by excessive sun exposure and inadequate nutrition.
Then, too, there’s the problem that many biomarkers are mere evidence of aging (like wrinkled skin and graying hair), while others are conditions that actually precipitate aging by catalyzing other aging factors.
Loss of lean muscle, for example, one important biomarker, results in decreased strength (another biomarker) and increases your fat-to-muscle ratio (another biomarker), thereby lowering your basal metabolic rate (yet another) and potentially compromising your arterial health – arguably the most important aging factor of all.
Because aging is a complex process, and the potential list of biomarkers is virtually endless, most anti-aging experts focus on those biomarkers that have the most significance on the degradation of the entire organism. After all, laugh lines don’t count for much if you’re keeling over from clogged arteries. Anti-aging experts also tend to focus on those biomarkers we can tackle most directly through maintenance and treatment. They pay less attention to subtle factors – like declining sense of smell – about which we can currently do comparatively little.
Note that we say “currently.” That’s because the field of anti-aging medicine, like all medicine, is undergoing seismic change at the moment. As a result of large-scale genomic and biomedical technology breakthroughs now in the works, our understanding about the nature of the aging process is evolving quickly. From the intersecting roles of hormones, antioxidants and T-cells to the encoded mysteries of DNA, science is unveiling new (and sometimes contradictory) chapters in this story daily. So while the theorists, geneticists, chemists and lab rats work out the details, by all means keep posted (we’ll be doing articles on this stuff in coming issues of EL). But meanwhile, don’t neglect the opportunity to learn what you can do – right here and now – to slap some anti-aging cuffs on the too-busy hands of time.
I Was So Much Older Then
In Biomarkers: The 10 Keys to Prolonging Vitality, authors William Evans, Ph.D., and Irwin Rosenberg, M.D., outline a comprehensive anti-aging plan designed around 10 key physiological factors that can impact aging for better or worse. Based on evidence from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center of Aging at Tufts University, all have less to do with the passing of years, they say, than with the combined effects of inactivity, poor nutrition and avoidable illness.
These, the authors suggest, are the 10 most important biomarkers of vitality that you can alter (for the most part without medical intervention):
- Lean body mass
- Basal metabolic rate
- Body-fat percentage
- Aerobic capacity
- Blood-sugar tolerance
- Blood pressure
- Bone density
- Body-temperature regulation
The researchers settled on these 10 (out of hundreds of possibilities), they explain, for two reasons: “(1) they’re critical biological functions that influence vitality; and (2) we know how to revive these functions, even in very old people.”
At first glance, you may think, “Hey, but those are mostly the same things responsible for keeping any person healthy.” And you’d be exactly right. Because as most anti-aging experts will tell you, much of what we’ve come to think of as aging (weakness, frailty, poor health, disrupted body chemistry) is often evidence of a system that’s been degraded less by years than it has been by chronic neglect, abuse, bad habits, stress and so forth.
This, in fact, is the central concept behind Dr. Michael F. Roizen’s No.1 New York Times bestseller, Real Age. Using a questionnaire and answer-charting system, this book proposes to help you calculate (to within about six months), the precise extent to which you’ve either aged your body prematurely or bucked the aging trend and won back a few years.
Based on a plethora of compiled research on aging, disability and death, Roizen’s formula adjusts your chronological age upwards or downwards by a given number of years in accordance with the impact of your various virtuous and/or dastardly lifestyle habits. Smoking a pack a day will cost you eight years, thank you very much. But quitting can rapidly win you back seven. By exercising and eating properly, taking the right supplements, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough sleep, having a safe and satisfying sex life, managing stress, avoiding drugs, wearing your seatbelt and flossing your teeth, you can reclaim all sorts of time, rendering your “Real Age” a decade or more younger than your birth date would suggest.
You can check out the “Real Age” system for yourself at www.realage.com, where a free online test will calculate the aging effects of more than 125 behavior and history factors, report your “bio-status,” and even generate personalized age-reduction recommendations for you. But whether or not you buy into the whole Real Age concept, you can’t help but be struck by some of the data behind it, and by the incredible range of things you can do to offset – or accelerate – your own aging.
Initially, finding out about all the weird things that make you old can be kind of a jolt. For example, it’s surprising to discover that not flossing your teeth can, in “Real Age” terms, make you 3.2 years older! Apparently, this is because the same bacteria that’s present in dental plaque also causes inflammation and clogging of your arteries. Plus, periodontal disease and tooth loss can compromise your immune system. And, according to Roizen and other experts, arterial health and immune health are two of the most influential factors in how fast (and how well) you age overall.
The next frame into focus concerns something called “bio-intervention.” You’re probably familiar with the classic intervention concept – where a group of concerned friends or colleagues interrupt an addict’s downward spiral into self-destruction by packing him or her off to a treatment-and-recovery program. It’s the same idea here, accept that you are intervening in your body’s own downward spiral. You are recovering some youthful vitality, and with luck, you’re also reclaiming some healthy years from what the authors of Biomarkers refer to as the “Disability Zone” – those years preceding death that many people spend in infirmity, limited mobility and pain.
Regardless of your current age, the authors of Biomarkers strongly suggest that you initiate this intervention now. If you’re young, it will keep you looking and feeling younger longer. And if you are old – even, the authors promise, “if you are already 75 years old and feel overburdened with aches and pains and have long since accepted the idea that an energetic lifestyle is over for you” – it couldliterally give you a new lease on life.
Ready to begin the bio-intervention planning process? The 10 factors outlined in the Biomarkers book are a great place to start. We’ve briefly covered the first six below. The remaining four are included in the Web Extra! found at the top of this page.
1. Lean Body Mass
This refers to the amount of lean muscle tissue you’ve got on your frame. Studies show that following young adulthood, the average American loses about 6.6 pounds of muscle every decade. Left unchecked, especially after age 45, this loss accelerates. The amount of muscle we have depends on two factors: 1) how much we use our muscles; and 2) the amount of natural, tissue-maintaining anabolic hormones (like testosterone) we have swimming around in our blood. The right kinds of exercise, in adequate amounts, can impact both factors.
And this muscle business is not just a vanity thing. Actually, your lean body mass turns out to be a sort of linchpin for a bunch of other biomarkers that can make or break your grand plans for continued youth and vitality (read on, you’ll see).
This is your ability to lift, support, move and resist weight. Naturally, loss of muscle tends to cause a decline in strength: Strength of the sort you need to move something heavy, like a big box, and strength of the sort you need to move something heavy, like you and your skeleton.
Your skeletal muscles, along with your nerves, are what make your bones move – and when they start getting weak, your health starts a descent down a very slippery slope. There’s a bunch of stuff here about losing motor units and fast-twitch muscle fibers that’s worth knowing, but the main takeaway item is this: If you allow your muscles to weaken and atrophy through lack of use, you won’t be able to move your body (let alone that big box), anywhere near as quickly or efficiently as you used to.
Losing your muscular strength and ability to move well is bad enough on its own, but it also has a domino effect on your biomarkers, causing a slowdown in your metabolism, an increase in body fat, a plunge in your aerobic capacity, reduced blood-sugar tolerance and loss of bone density, among other things.
The problem is, we tend to lose a huge number of muscle cells as we age, and the cells remaining have an annoying tendency to shrink. The only way to counter this trend is to work your muscles vigorously enough to cause hypertrophy (making the individual muscle cells grow larger). That means vigorous resistance training – weight lifting, core and stability training, things that give all your muscles a real workout. And no wimping out, even if you are old: Studies show that even very old people can get huge benefits from doing high-intensity resistance exercise. In fact, when they work hard enough (80 percent of their one-rep max, as opposed to the 30-40 percent most older folks satisfy themselves with), they can experience gains every bit as dramatic as young people, quickly doubling or even tripling their strength. Those who’ve already experienced declines in mobility often improve their ability to get around, too, gaining confidence and independence in the bargain.
Even if you are too young to be thinking about mobility, you will probably find that building muscle strength and tone dramatically improves your physical poise, posture and appearance. It may also increase the likelihood that you will be motivated to remain fit and active as you age.
3. Basal Metabolic Rate
Your BMR is the baseline rate at which your body burns calories (i.e., metabolizes food and tissue into energy, releasing heat) while it is at rest. This biomarker, too, is related to muscle, because even at rest, muscle is active tissue. It burns at least some calories even when you’re just lying there doing nothing (unlike fat, which mostly just stores calories). We’ve known for a long time that BMR tends to fall with age, but now researchers are almost certain that this decline – about 2 percent per decade starting at age 20 – is due primarily not to aging per se, but to loss of lean body mass.
As we begin losing muscle and our basal metabolism starts to slow down, very few of us notice – at first. Even though our caloric requirements have diminished, we keep eating the way we always have, with predictable results: We get fat.
According to the authors of Biomarkers, every decade from about age 20 on, our daily caloric needs decline by about 100 calories. So, to maintain his or her weight, the average 70-year-old needs about 500 fewer calories per day than the average 25-year-old. Considering that it only takes 3,000 or so excess calories to make a person gain a single pound, it’s no wonder we pack on fat so fast as we age.
4. Body-Fat Percentage
You knew we were getting to this, didn’t you? Even if your actual body weight doesn’t increase, the changing composition of your muscle/fat ratio – your Body Mass Index or BMI – has some serious implications for your aging-vitality profile. In fact, many epidemiologists use BMI as a way of predicting a person’s risk for developing chronic disease.
Really, our bodies don’t like carrying around more than a little adipose tissue, and when forced to, they balk, putting us at increased risk of impaired blood-sugar tolerance, heart disease and stroke. Excess weight also stresses our internal organs, puts pressure on joints, and can interfere with our posture and gait, thereby messing with our spinal alignment.
Beyond making us look much less youthful (witness your 10- or 20-year high-school reunion), having too much fat can also make us feel lethargic and dissuade us from exercising, which is a Catch-22 because exercise is an essential tool for burning off that fat. Dieting alone just tends to reduce your basal metabolic rate further and causes you to lose muscle along with fat, setting you up for even bigger trouble. Including exercise in your fat-burning plan also improves your overall fitness, which brings us to …
5. Aerobic Capacity
The term “aerobic capacity” refers to your body’s ability to process oxygen – specifically, to breathe in air, get it into your bloodstream, and transport that oxygenated (aerated) blood throughout your system. This requires a strong cardiopulmonary system: a powerful heart and lungs and a healthy, efficient vascular network of arteries, veins and capillaries (see “Full Circuit” to find out how this system works).
Most people’s aerobic capacity declines markedly with age because the whole system gets less efficient – for a host of reasons: Our maximum heart rate declines, our cardiac output lessens, our arteries and veins weaken, stiffen and get mucked up, our circulation gets less robust, and our muscles lose some of their capacity to process oxygen.
Although the impact of these trends can be largely reversed or overcome with cardiovascular exercise (which improves cardiac output, capillary density, and muscles’ oxidative capacity), aerobic exercise works a little differently in older people than it does in young folks. Specifically, scientific evidence suggests that in older people, the impact of aerobic exercise occurs more in the processing efficiency of the muscle cells than in the output of the heart. Although you can still increase cardiovascular efficiency and up the maximum volume of oxygen (VO2 max) your body is capable of processing, as you get older that improvement occurs more and more through muscular demand. Thus, having a weakened musculature has an even bigger impact on aerobic capacity than it did when you were young.
The good news is that with exercise, you can make marked improvements in a relatively short amount of time. Studies suggest that aerobic exercise has an even greater impact on the oxidative capacity of middle-aged and older people than it does on young adults.
6. Blood-Sugar Tolerance
You’ve probably heard a bit about “glucose tolerance” and “insulin sensitivity.” Both refer to our bodies’ ability to take up and process the sugar (glucose) that winds up in our bloodstream. Dietary sources of glucose include starches (like breads, pastas and potatoes), and pretty much anything that tastes sweet (milk, fruit and, of course, various kinds of sugar). The digestive process breaks down these carbohydrates and sugars into individual molecules that enter your bloodstream as glucose. Those glucose molecules are then escorted – by a hormone known as insulin, which is produced by our pancreas – to our muscle cells, where (ideally) they are used for energy or stored as a reserve fuel (glycogen). Barring that, they are circulated to the liver and converted to fat.
Our bodies like to maintain a constant glucose supply. When we don’t have enough blood sugar, our liver will step in to manufacture it. When we dump in too much sugar (say, in the form of soda, candy, sugar cereal or other refined carbs), our pancreas tries to keep up, producing more and more insulin in an effort to signal our muscles to take up more of the excess glucose.
The trouble is, as we age, that process gets thrown off. First, accumulating body fat and losing muscle reduces our body’s demand for glucose. Processing the excess glucose also puts a strain on our system, rendering our fat-burning and detoxifying mechanisms less efficient, resulting in more fat. What muscle tissue we have left also becomes less sensitive to insulin, meaning it takes more and more insulin to have an effect. Over time, the insulin-production cells in our pancreas can wear out from overproduction. This heralds the arrival of a condition known as “adult onset” or “Type II” diabetes, which contributes to hypertension, heart disease and all sorts of other things that can rapidly age and kill you.
Improving glucose metabolism and preserving your insulin sensitivity is an essential part of maintaining youthful health and staving off disease. Fortunately, if addressed early enough, this requires mostly stuff you should be doing for your other biomarkers anyway. Strength-building exercise can markedly increase muscles’ insulin sensitivity and glycogen storage capacity. A diet low in unhealthy fats (but ample in good fats), and high in fibrous, complex carbs (like raw vegetables) helps maintain good blood chemistry and keeps muscle/fat ratios in check. Good nutrition also helps support the organ and endocrine systems that regulate hormones and blood-sugar. Aerobic exercise burns off excess fat and helps regulate metabolism. It’s all part of the big, beautiful bio-intervention picture!
The Quest and the Questions
We’ve just covered the 10 factors addressed in the Biomarkers book. And of course there are plenty more biomarkers we haven’t even gotten to – from the heft of your hormones to the tidiness of your tolomeres (cellular endcaps that protect your DNA).
Both the fusion and profusion of these factors create a pretty daunting picture, particularly when you start getting into all the science behind them. And yet the basic message behind virtually all this remains relatively simple: Taking good care of yourself (getting appropriate, adequate nutrition, exercising amply and staying psychologically and emotionally well) all increase your body’s ability to cope with the rigors of life, reducing your chances of getting sick with age-related, degenerative conditions like heart disease, Type II diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis. Not getting these diseases, meanwhile, can significantly reduce the rate at which you age.
You may be wondering, though, are diet, exercise and lifestyle factors the only ways you can affect aging? Of course not. We already know about plenty of proactive interventions, from nutritional-supplement therapies to hormone- and enzyme-replacement therapies, that can counter certain markers of aging, and that are appropriate for some people. And of course there are lots of health and beauty products designed to slow the visible effects of aging. But even there, it’s important to recognize that things like wrinkles and skin tone, hormonal balances, the integrity of your DNA – perhaps even gray hair – can all be impacted by the overall health and resiliency of your entire system.
There is also an enormous amount of promising research and breakthrough activity occurring in anti-aging medicine right now – from biomedical tests that promise to help people customize their own diet and exercise programs for optimal impact, to genetic tests that suggest ways for their doctors to identify and intervene early in potentially damaging conditions. Right at this very moment, some of the best minds in the world are intently focused on finding out more about all the things that cause aging, and experimenting with ways to get those things to slow down or cease. You can expect to read more about all of these things in upcoming issues of EL.
Meanwhile, what’s the goal – to live forever? For some youth-seekers, probably. But most experts agree that the real objective is maximizing not so much the number of years we live, or even the number of years we live wrinkle-free (there’s always Botox injections for that); rather, the really big prize is maximizing the number of years we can live in good health, happiness and vitality.
Whether you choose to plan and implement your own anti-aging bio-interventions, or seek professional help with that process, it’s important to remember that some aspects of getting older really don’t require intervention. Some things that come with age – like wisdom, complexity and perspective – are marvelous assets, of course. And other things
– like silver hair, laugh lines and a less than perfect physique – are characteristics we can get comfortable with, and even grow to appreciate.
Above all, the many markers of aging offer us a reminder – that time and life are both fleeting, that change is inevitable, and that we are, in all our mystery and imperfection, very much human. At core, our unique physiology has its own mysterious rhythm and purpose. And that is something that no amount of Botox, and no dumb bumper sticker, can ever change.
Time Off for Good Behavior
There is an increasing amount of scientific evidence that our psychological, emotional and spiritual state can have very real biochemical and physiological implications for our health. Psychological and emotional stress impact the endocrine system, which regulates hormones, and can otherwise disrupt things like blood chemistry, heart rate, blood pressure and brain waves. If you are hoping to keep yourself young – in body and at heart – here are some areas worth examining.
How You Think: Are you optimistic and open-minded, or negative and judgmental?
How You Feel: Do you feel mostly empowered, hopeful and grateful, or victimized, hopeless, envious and in want?
Whom You Love: Do you have good friends, a loving partner, a close family, or mostly superficial contacts and strained, distant or conflict-ridden relationships?
What You Believe: Do you have a sense of the sacred, of beauty and mystery in everyday life, or a sense of nothingness, void and disconnection?
What You Enjoy: Do you take time to develop talents, enjoy pleasures and grow dreams, or are you forever denying yourself, putting enjoyment off until tomorrow?
How You Inhabit Your Body: Is it a temple you’re proud of, that you love caring for and being in, or is it a prison that constrains you, frustrates you and makes endless demands?
Whether You Care: Do you have a sense of purpose and an inspiration for being alive, or are you just dragging yourself through and wondering if it is all really worth the bother?
By probing your attitudes and beliefs in these areas and others, you can get a pretty good sense for whether your current perspectives are likely to enhance or detract from your ideal-age picture. You can also get some ideas for how you might go about reframing and expanding those attitudes that have been with you the longest or that pose the biggest challenges for you.