The battle against aging occupies our lives on a daily basis. You can't go to the supermarket without confronting rows of magazine covers promising to make you live longer and look younger. But is a long, healthy life a roll of the genetic dice?
Genes play a part, but many studies suggests that we can extend lifespan by our choices. In the New England Centenarian Study--geared at finding out why some people can live to be 100--researchers found a variety of environmental, behavioral and genetic factors that could explain the extraordinary longevity of some folks. And they found that ill health is not a necessary by-product of aging; many people in the study functioned independently well into their 90s.
There are lots of theories about why our physical bodies start to decline, but our culture has tended to most strongly embrace the so-called damage theories. These say aging is caused by a lifetime of assault on our cells and genetic materials. For example, oxidative damage or free-radical theories of aging say that free radicals--highly reactive molecules inherent in our environments and our diets, and produced by our bodies--destroy cellular compounds. On the other hand, some theories of aging say all of us have a genetic clock of sorts that determines when we'll die, and there's not a lot we can do about it.
Because we Americans tend to lean toward the damage theories, we also believe that the older we get, the sicker we get. But that's not necessarily so. What most studies, including the New England Centenarian Study, show, is that if you live well throughout your life, you'll live longer, and you don't have to fall apart as you age.
Not surprisingly, much of this has to do with diet. But the way we think about our lives and how well we cope with stress is as important as how many heads of broccoli or ounces of wild Alaskan salmon we consume. Some of the key findings:
If you eat less, you'll live longer. Decreasing the amount of food you eat seems to increase lifespan, reduce the incidence of age-related disease, and delay its onset. The idea, more or less, is that if you severely restrict calories, you'll slow your body's processes, and thus slow aging. Here's the catch: you have to make sure you're still getting adequate protein, fat and other nutrients. So the take-home message here is not to starve yourself, but to trim the fat (literally) and hone your diet down to its most nutrient dense manifestation. At any rate, if you go the strict calorie reduction route, don't do it unless you're under the supervision of a health care professional.
If you have a positive attitude, you'll live longer. Long-living people are, for the most part, happy campers. They tend to be laid back, cheery, fun-loving folk. Though they have the same amount of stress as negative Nellies, they deal with it more effectively. And it's probably not surprising that studies consistently link hostility, depression, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness with increased risk of heart disease and death.
You have to stay active. Can't get around this one: long-living folk aren't couch potatoes. Most of them enjoyed a robustly active lifestyle, and tend to walk more and move more in general, even in older years. Mental muscles are also important; in the Centenarian study, an agile mind was strongly related to longevity. New, stimulating activities, like learning a different language, seem to be the key to boosting brain power: once skills become routine, they lose their ability to stimulate the brain.
It helps to live like an Adventist. Most older, healthy people have one thing in common: good, clean living. Seventh-Day Adventists are great role models; those who don't drink or use tobacco, and who are vegetarians, live an average of eight years longer than other Americans, and have a lower rate of heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Additionally, Adventists generally follow a strong spiritual practice and make ample time for family--two tactics that can reduce age-promoting stress.
You can (maybe) play the odds. Most of us know at least one robust, bacon-eating and cigarette-smoking octogenarian who laughs in the face of disease. Most of us also know at least one right-eating athlete who dies of cancer at 60 or younger. The interaction between genetics and lifestyle is complex, and there's no one formula that works for everyone.
Everyone's most important factors are different. The most important life extending factor for me might be reducing stress; for you, it might be exercising regularly, or eating less. Look at your family history for clues -- what diseases are closest to home for you? If it's diabetes, double your efforts to keep blood sugar in check. If it's cancer, boost your intake of cancer-preventive nutrients (in the context of an overall healthy diet, of course).
Maybe our bodies really want to be here longer. Maybe we just get in our own way, with sedentary, high-stress lifestyles and low quality food. Or maybe there's a deeper lesson in all of this: to gracefully accept, even celebrate, the passing of time in all its physical manifestations, and the accumulated wisdom those manifestations symbolize.
What do you do to prevent, or embrace, aging? Please share your comments.