This past weekend my husband’s grandfather celebrated his 90th birthday. Four generations sat around the table and looking at the different faces I began to think about the factors that affect how we age.
It happens all the time at CrossFit. Someone will reveal their age and a chorus of NO WAYs goes through the group because it seems impossible that someone “that age” could look so young and perform so well. Are these people blessed with freakishly good genetics, or do they know something that the rest of aren’t clued into yet?
When it comes to things like aging and obesity, many of us are quick to blame our genes. We’ve been led to believe that we are programmed by our genetics and what we see in the mirror is the result of something we have no control over. But are we really at the mercy of our genetics or do we have more control than we’d like to admit?
Recently, little bits of DNA called telomeres, found on the ends of each of our chromosomes, have been linked with determining how we age, our life span, and our susceptibility to certain diseases. Telomeres act like the plastic ends of shoelaces and protect our DNA from damage as our cells divide. Each time our cells divide, the telomeres get shorter and the cell “ages.” When telomeres become too short to provide protection from DNA damage, the cell dies and a new cell takes its place. The slower cell replacement happens, the faster we show signs of aging.
But, our telomere length, our chronological age, and our gender together only account for between 20 – 40 percent of our aging process. So, what is responsible for the other 60 – 80 percent of what happens to us as we age? Simply put – your lifestyle choices. Actions speak louder than years.
Remember the adage determining how a husband can tell how his wife will age – that he only need look at his mother-in-law to tell. Like most adages, this one holds a nugget of truth. Not just in the obvious genetic connection, but more importantly in where you first learn lifestyle habits. We spend our childhood mimicking the actions of the adults around us. If your parents have aged gracefully, the chances are good that they exhibited, and you’ve mimicked, the lifestyle habits that will help you age gracefully as well.
Another good place to look – your spouse, your friends and your co-workers. Though you all may be similar ages, these are people with whom you spend a significant amount of time and whether you like it or not you are influenced by each others actions. Just like in families, friends mirror each other’s habits that those which you share in common will influence how you age for better or for worse.
So, what good habits have you already established, and what new habits could you incorporate, to keep you looking and feeling young?
Eat a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. A major cause of aging is “oxidative stress” – damage to DNA and the proteins and lipids (fatty substances) that make up components of the body. Environmental pollutants, sun exposure, systemic inflammation, and the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes all increase oxidative stress in the body. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, substances that neutralize oxidants, and mitigate potential damage to our DNA and cells.
Avoid processed foods and excessive sugar consumption. Sugar has a nasty little habit of sticking to our DNA, proteins, and lipids leaving them incapable of carrying out their jobs. Processed foods are full of additives which decrease the body’s ability to function optimally.
Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is your body’s chance to rest and repair itself. Short change on sleep and your only reward is a shortened lifespan.
Relax. Physical and emotional stress tax the body and thereby accelerate the aging process. Do yourself a favor – take that vacation, go for that massage. You’ll look and feel better.
Drink plenty of water. Water helps keep your cells plump, your brain sharp and your body running right.
Do weight bearing exercise. Loss of muscle mass in one of the greatest factors in the debilitating effects of aging. Lack of muscle hinders metabolic functioning, makes day-to-day activities increasingly difficult, reduces over all quality of life, and may prevent complete recovery from illness, trauma or surgery. Try these weight bearing exercise to maintain your lean muscle mass:
- jumping rope