How to live longer, slow down aging and feel awesome

Slow down agina

I often look at pictures of some people I grew up or went to school with and get scared.

Because, looking at me from the screen, are weathered, aged, overweight and tired individuals who look way beyond their biological age – and I know it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s true that none of us is getting younger with time.  Whether you like it or not – aging is an inevitable and natural biological process that affects every single living creature.  And although there seems to be some break-through in the field of anti-aging technologies – at this point you cannot reverse aging or stop aging completely.

What you can control, however, is how quickly you age and the quality of life you enjoy as you get older.  You can absolutely extend the span of your younger years and continue to look, feel and perform your best way beyond your 50s and 60s.  You can absolutely extend your life expectancy by eliminating bad habits and introducing good ones.  And the best part is – It’s not that complicated.

If you ask yourself what aging is – you will probably narrow this generic term down to a few indicators – wrinkles, forgetfulness, grey hair, limited mobility and a plethora of diseases.  But all of those are just visual and/or subjective manifestations and symptoms – not the root cause.

Nobody dies of just “old age”.  The majority succumb to disease “common” for and associated with old age – because their weakened bodies lose the ability to fight it off.

Your genetic potential probably allows you to live up to 120 and even beyond (the oldest documented age is 123).  But the average life expectancy, according to the World Health Organization does not exceed 73, with the highest being around 83 (generally, women live longer than men) – and in some countries life expectancy currently much less.

Why such a huge discrepancy?  Because the way you age – and your life expectancy – has little to do with your genetic potential and a lot to do with epigenetic external factors, as most recent studies confirm.  Your bad (or good) habits, diet, environment, activity and stress directly affect which genes get expressed or supressed – so, over the course of your life, cell-activity regulators get added to or removed from genes, dialing their activities up or down. As these changes accumulate, our muscles weaken, our minds slow down and we become more vulnerable to diseases.

Life extension in the modern medical sense becomes all about managing symptoms of chronic disease that allow you to exist (but not necessarily live a high-quality active life), essentially maintaining basic brain function (not even that, sometimes).  This is often done without even paying sufficient attention to not allowing these diseases to develop in the first place.

Finding ways to fight common diseases is definitely important – and that’s a good insurance policy when all else fails.  But what if we could attack the problem form the other end?  What if we could make our bodies and minds more resilient?  What if we limit those factors that accelerate aging and increase the role of those that make you postpone it?  Can we postpone and partially reverse aging then?

We can – and this what we will focus on today – how to live longer, stay younger and kick butt.

What aging is and why it occurs

Before we figure out how to slow down aging – let’s establish what aging is.  Biologically speaking, aging can be represented by three major mechanisms):

Decline in the rate of cell replication.  Every day millions of your cells die and get replaced by millions of others.  As you grow older, the rate at which old cells get replaced by new ones slows down, leading to accumulation of senescent cells to the point where the strength and functional capacity of tissues is compromised.

The cells stop replicating because they have a limited potential to divide – once the limit is reached, replication stops.  One of the most prevalent current theories is that this number is controlled by the length of telomeres – repeated nucleotide sequences at the end of chromosomes that are believed to protect DNA strands and prevent them from fusing with other strands. Which brings us to the second factor to consider if you want to slow down aging:

Shortening of telomeres.  Telomeres lose a little bit of their length with each cell division and become too short to replicate after a fixed number of cell divisions. Eventually, the cell will stop growing and enter cellular senescence.

As you age, telomeres become particularly susceptible to accumulation of DNA damage that cannot be repaired because of shelterin – a multiprotein complex binding to the telomeres – that prevents access of DNA repair proteins to the telomeres. Such damage at telomeres is, therefore, persistent and effectively induces cellular senescence.  Which brings us to the last point:

DNA damage.  Cellular senescence is commonly triggered by various forms of DNA damage – both from external sources (radiation, smoking, air pollution and genotoxic drugs) and from cell-intrinsic sources (replication errors, programmed double-strand breaks and reactive oxygen species).

Walking the fine line and practical methods to slow down aging

Why is all this important?  Because, under these circumstances, what becomes paramount in order to slow down aging is preventing cellular damage and maintaining normal healthy cell function.

Cells continue to function until they get damaged and need to be replaced – triggering replication to create another copy as well as apoptosis (programmed cell death) and autophagy (re-use of cellular organelles as building materials for new cells) of the original cell.  Even assuming that cellular damage that triggers these does not involve damage to DNA resulting in the expression of cancer-causing genes and suppression of onco-protective genes (leading to endless cell proliferation – i.e. malignant tumors), each such “normal” cell replication reduces the number of subsequent divisions.  And, as we established above – once the counter reaches zero the cell can no longer replicate – only stagnate or die.

Of course, the practical approach is not always as black-and-white as the theory.  For instance, there is a fine line between extending telomere length (and, thus, increasing the life-span of a cell) by increasing telomerase activity (telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein complex that rebuilds and extends telomeres) – and taking it too far, to a point that such unlimited cell division and replication becomes cancerous growth (telomerase maintains telomere length stability in almost all cancer cells).

Also, reactive oxygen species (ROS) that often lead to DNA and other cellular damage and lipid peroxidation often are a result of normal cellular metabolism that takes place in mitochondria.  Moreover, ROS can damage the mitochondrial DNA which becomes more liable to produce more ROS byproducts, thus establishing a positive feedback loop for ROS.

So, in a way – living, in a normal sense of this word, leads to aging.

But before you discount the effect of any of your efforts, ask yourself this: if you could dramatically limit the extent of damage to your cells by following a few very simple rules and, as a result, improve both the length and the quality of your life – would you not do it?  Even if the end result is inevitable – the timing of that end result can be very different depending on what you do (or don’t do).

So, let’s see what is in our power and how we can potentially add several years to our lifespan – and get the most out them!

Subjective indicators of aging you can control

Until scientists come up with easy, predictable, reliable and safe ways to directly manipulate your genes, we can only try to manipulate the external factors.  The good news is that those external factors are responsible for more than you might think.  Let’s take a look, then, at how you fight the conditions normally associated with old age.

Indicator of aging # 1: Cognitive performance

Whether it is full-blown senility or just simple forgetfulness and loss of mental sharpness – it is commonly assumed that as you age, your brain becomes less efficient.  But before you jump to Sudoku puzzles for help in exercising your brain – let’s look at why this may be happening and what we can do to stop the process.

Your brain’s ability to function at the top of its game depends on two main things: (1) mitochondrial efficiency of its neurons; and (2) neuroplasticity – the ability to build new connections between neurons, which eventually grow into a complicated network of neuronal pathways “upgrading” your brain power.

It is a long-held (and erroneous) belief that neurons do not re-generate – they absolutely do, like most cells in your body.  The pace of that regeneration – or, rather the net result of regeneration and cell death – is, however, controlled by several external factors.  For instance, studies confirm that physical exercise boosts neuroplasticity (at least in the short-term).  As well, it is a commonly known fact that keeping your mind “in shape” by challenging it with complex tasks (learning a foreign language, solving puzzles, etc.) helps, too.

A greater number of more efficient mitochondria in your brain means it has access to all the energy it needs for generating electric impulses and influencing neurotransmitters.

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As you might have guessed – this capacity depends a lot on your diet.  Mitochondria are energy powerhouses of a cell – and if they don’t function properly – the energy production itself is greatly compromised.

In previous articles we established that, while glucose has been traditionally considered the best food for your brain (because fat cannot cross the blood- brain barrier directly to be utilized in mitochondria) – its metabolism also has many toxic effects on cells, ranging from excessive free radical damage to insulin resistance.  In fact, the most common neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, for instance, are more and more frequently being called Type 3 diabetes (referring to the resulting inability to properly process glucose and/or get affected by insulin).

The decline in cognitive performance that is associated with old age is very often just the end result of bad dietary habits that has accumulated over the years of life – most typically, excess consumption of sugars and grains (grains – specifically, gluten, can often trigger auto-immune reactions in your body that can target tissues in your brain, thus destroying them).  Accumulation of plaque, exposure to toxic compounds that cripple or fully destroy cells, mitochondrial damage and/or inability to generate sufficient amount of energy all mean one thing – your brain cells will eventually start to fail and die.  A similar mechanism, by the way, is at play if you suffer brain trauma – the ability of damaged cells to process glucose for energy is largely compromised – and the toxic by-products of glucose metabolism (that get somewhat mitigated in a healthy cell) may just push the damaged cell over the edge straight to apoptosis.

Your brain is the most important organ in your body – so your body does a lot to protect it from damage inflicted by exogenous toxins when it can, by filtering them out with a brain blood barrier – but this system is not bulletproof and several chemicals and heavy metals can still pass through.

The solution is relatively simple.  To slow down aging of your brain and maintain sharp mind make sure that you:

  • Actually do engage in complex mental tasks to initiate new connections in your brain;
  • Exercise regularly (yes, exercise has as big of an effect on the health of your brain as it does on the health of the rest of your body);
  • Rest sufficiently – sleep, often neglected by people as they age, remains one of the most effective method to support brain cell regeneration and development;
  • Eat a diet that is low or at least greatly reduced in carbohydrates, especially simple carbs like sugars and grains. Those are often your silent killers
  • (Ideally – test for and then, if necessary) supplement with vitamins and minerals, as well as as well as Omega 3 – a lot of them enhance cognitive ability.

There are other tricks – such as supplementing with high-quality medium chain triglycerides, which quickly get converted into ketone bodies – or even with exogenous ketones – to give your brain an additional boost of energy, but if you address the first five above – you will be well on your way to a healthier, younger brain.

Indicator of aging # 2: Physical strength

Once again, we are almost preprogrammed to expect that physical strength, agility and endurance not only decline with age, but, basically, disappear altogether.  We are taught to offer vacant seats to the elderly, shield them from any meaningful physical activity and treat them as overly fragile and susceptible to damage.  TV commercials for mobility and security devices often picture helpless seniors who fall and lack the strength to even get up (that’s if they don’t break half the bones in their bodies).

It doesn’t have to be this way – but it will be if you don’t take early precautions.  Sure, you may be far away from the age that is typically associated with these problems, but they don’t just arrive overnight.  They are also an accumulation of bad habits and lack of meaningful physical activity over several decades.

As you grow older – and pretty much starting in your early thirties – your muscle mass is pre-programmed to recede up to 5% per year in a process called sarcopenia.  At such rate – it doesn’t take long for it to atrophy to a point where a simple physical activity becomes challenging.  Unless, of course, you do something about it and prepare in advance.

If you can still lift heavy weights and engage in demanding physical activity, no matter your biological age – people will never call you “old”.  To ensure that you can, you need to have strong muscles, dense and strong bones, healthy connective tissues and healthy heart.  To get there:

  1. Start engaging in heavy resistance exercise – preferably do this early in life, but if you haven’t yet – it’s never too late to start;
  2. Make sure you get (or supplement with, if deficient in) vitamins and minerals that are essential for proper bone and connective tissue density. Specifically – make sure you get enough:
    1. Vitamin D, either through exposure to sunlight (ideal) or through supplementing with D3 (cholecalciferol);
    2. Vitamin K2 – this one is hard to get as part of a regular diet, especially if your diet is lacking in fermented foods, as well as meat and fat from grass-fed animals, so in most cases you will probably need extra supplementation;
    3. Collagen – it is not only responsible for helping maintain skin tightness (which is what it is being most advertised for), but also for any connective tissue health. Without collagen in your bones, they would be brittle – collagen adds some (albeit not very visually evident) elasticity and ensures that bones properly absorb and cushion mechanical shock without immediately breaking.  Osteoporosis, which is considered “common” for old age and results in increased bone fragility is not only a result of lacking proper minerals, but also a direct result of not having enough collagen.  You can supplement with collagen powder (or gelatin – which is, essentially, pretty much the same thing – just make sure you go for high-quality stuff that doesn’t have a ton of artificial colors and flavors added) or simply make bone broth a regular menu item.
    4. On a similar note, Vitamin C does not only do a good job fighting disease and boosting production of glutathione in your liver – it is also used in the synthesis of collagen – which, as we have seen above, plays a very important role in slowing down bone and connective tissue degradation and, thus, physical aging.
    5. Antioxidants – you can get them from a wide variety of plant polyphenols (preferably in fresh natural form, as opposed to supplements, but the latter would work in a pinch). They counter oxidative stress which is one of the main causes of aging itself.
  3. Make sure you support your physical activity by consuming enough high-quality protein. This is essential to support muscle growth or maintain muscle mass and prevent sarcopenia.  How much is “enough” for you depends on your personal circumstances and needs to be established individually – but make sure you don’t overdo it, as too much protein may be as bad as (or worse than) too little protein (hint: it will probably ultimately convert into body fat).

Indicator of aging # 3: Body composition

Frankly, I was debating whether to include this as a separate item.  In the end – body composition is only a by-product of what you eat and how you exercise, so if you address those two – you wouldn’t even have to consider this point separately.

Unless you are a professional model, actor or something along the same lines – body composition is typically not the ultimate goal.  It is not about vanity or bragging rights.   There are many ways to achieve the desired body shape, whether it involves adding or reducing sizes (ranging from ingesting some questionable substances that are virtually guaranteed to ruin your health to deliberately starving to reduce the total weight displayed on your bathroom scale with no regard to what, when or how much of whatever you allow yourself to eat you consume).  But there are very few ways to do this virtually risk-free.

Most of you should not need to set goals specifically around your body composition (“I want 10% body fat!” or “I want a 30-inch biceps!”) – when you do, the whole point of your exercise is lost in an attempt to get to that goal no matter what.  Such approach has zero regard to your genetics, schedule, personal circumstances, gender and a myriad of other factors.  So – at least in this case – don’t start with the end in mind.  Just keep chugging along and the improvement in your body composition will happen by itself.

That said – body composition is an important factor that affects your biological age.  You may notice that typically, as people get older – they get chubbier.  Pant size creeps up and even previously lean bodies get softer and flabbier.  It is not, however, some “old age curse” that you cannot control – it is a direct result of having bad dietary habits, reduction in physical activity and declining hormone levels.

So here is what you do to look lean, active and young:

  1. Start shifting your diet towards lower amount of carbs and higher amounts of high-quality fats. Again – this can range from general reduction in simple carbs to intermittent fasting to full ketosis.  Reduction in carbs actually becomes more important with age because:
    1. Your body loses the ability to process carbs as efficiently as before;
    2. You are probably getting less active generally, which means you now need a reduced amount of quick energy to support the remaining activity – anything in excess will be stored as body fat (especially if you lack muscle mass and are somewhat insulin resistant – both a very common condition for your average senior);
    3. Destruction of cells triggered by the oxidative stress from the metabolism of carbohydrates is not a very desired outcome in the environment when cell re-generation is naturally slowing down;
    4. As we have seen above – when you substitute carbs with high-quality fats, you get additional cognitive benefits because of additional ketone bodies fueling your brain.
  2. Do not waste time doing your typical gym cardio workouts, mild dance classes, water yoga or whatever “gentle” activities are typically offered to seniors who are perceived (and often – expected) to be frail. To really slow down aging, engage in strength-training exercise that gives you the most bang for your buck.  Lift weights that are heavy for your level – even if you have never done this before properly.  You only need a very limited amount of time in the gym, but make sure you spend it in the most effective way possible.  Then – make sure you recover sufficiently (unfortunately, as you age, you will need more time to recover from strenuous exercise – understand and acknowledge that limitation and factor enough time into your workouts).
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If you address these two – you will inevitably improve your body composition and shape.  Perhaps to a point when much younger people would start envying you.

Indicator of aging # 4: Skin

Skin remains one of the best visual indicators of age – and that’s why the industry is making billions with topical creams, wrinkle concealers, botox injections and other chemical soups.

It’s no wonder that so many people try to make their skin look younger.  Typically it involves getting rid of wrinkles and making sure the skin looks generally radiant and healthy.  But simply smothering it with regular over-the-counter moisturizers, nourishing lotions and face masks would probably not do the trick – especially if everything else in your lifestyle is far less than ideal.  So, here are a few pointers on your skin health:

  1. Most importantly, if you follow the rest of recommendations in this (and other) articles – everything related to your skin sort of falls into place by itself. No need to buy overly expensive cosmetic solutions.
  2. There is a bit of a balance you have to strike with sun. Be careful with sunscreens – it is true that too much sun exposure may cause premature skin aging, but too little of it (which is a far more prevalent case in our day and age) deprives you of the best form of vitamin D you can get – if you add your typical sunscreen into the mix, which contains a wide variety of harmful chemicals – you are actually making things worse.
  3. Your skin and face in general is only a reflection of what’s going on in your body. Acne is often an indication of a yeast overgrowth (a telltale sign of a bad diet that contains too much sugars and grains, which creates ideal conditions for yeast to multiply).  Wrinkles are often an indication of insufficient consumption of proper fats (topical applications rarely play any major role in hydrating skin cells, as water typically can’t get inside the cell through a lipid barrier – the moisture inside the cell is more often a by-product of fat metabolism, so by maintaining that fat metabolism at the right level helps hydrate the cells from within.  Overactive sebaceous glands that produce oily skin is often an indication of overuse of bad face washes and bad dietary habits.
  4. Collagen, obviously, plays a huge role in skin smoothness and pliability – so read the bit on collagen above
  5. Make sure you pay attention to the proper ratio of the right fats in your diet – they control the degree of rigidity of lipid membranes around your cells (and, thus, indirectly – their health and lifespan). The smoothness and stretchiness of your skin (and its ability to resist stretch marks, wrinkles and scars) depends greatly on that.
  6. Lastly – pay extremely close attention to anything you put on your skin. Cosmetic solutions that promise you magical effects often come with a huge list of harmful chemicals – not only do they get absorbed through your skin and can disrupt multiple systems in your body, but they can directly influence the health of your skin – in the way opposite to what you would expect – a partial refresher on this can be found in the article on sunscreens.  If you must use cosmetics, go for those that contain only natural organic ingredients in limited quantities, are free from phthalates, parabens, fragrances, artificial colors (you would be amazed to find out how many use colors unnecessarily – just read the labels) and the like.

Indicator of aging # 5: Hormones

Hormone levels generally start to decline as you get older – and given how huge of a role they play in a wide variety of your biological processes, this is a problem.  The change in hormonal activity may result in a wide variety of things – from fat gain, to muscle loss, to mood swings, to strength decline, to fatigue and depression.  Generally speaking – there is little you can do to fully prevent this – but there is a lot you can do to slow the process down and/or delay it as much as possible.

(Obviously, before you decide to experiment with anything hormone-related – you absolutely must get your levels tested.  Preferably multiple times at multiple locations, to get the average baseline).

For instance – and we talked about this many times before – optimizing testosterone (for both genders) has a profound impact on lean muscle growth, reduction in body fat and increase in sex drive.  Optimizing leptin/ghrelin levels through a proper diet makes sure you eat as much as you need and don’t store body fat.  Optimizing thyroid hormones means all of the above and generally having more energy and stamina.

Here is what you should do to optimize your hormones:

  1. Get tested. Seriously – it really does warrant another mention – self-experimentation is not allowed.
  2. Get a lot of sleep. This is the easiest hack you can introduce to optimize your hormones.  Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on them.
  3. Eat enough high-quality fats. Fats – especially saturated fats – are often precursors to several hormones and by reducing their amount in your diet (or substituting them with man-made low-quality junk fats) you are seriously compromising your hormonal health (that’s only one compelling reason why “low-fat” diets are horrible for you).
  4. If your levels are dramatically low (as confirmed by testing) – talk to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Although this may have some bad rap among several people, there is nothing wrong or scary with this kind of intervention.  It’s far better than having hormonal levels that are chronically low and compromising multiple processes as a result.  With hormone replacement therapy – a tiny dose goes a long way (HRT requires more of a surgical precision rather than brute force), so make absolutely sure you follow prescribed doses and do not experiment by increasing (or decreasing) them.  Lifestyle changes may impact hormone levels quite significantly, so regular re-testing and dose adjustment will be required.
  5. Eliminate hormone-disrupting chemicals from your life – this involves chemicals in products that you use topically (such as parabens, phthalates), with food (phytoestrogens) or even through the use of common household items (such as plastics). Generally speaking, it is prudent to suspect that most chemical ingredients in anything that comes in contact with your skin, lungs and gastro-intestinal system (and, thus, can get absorbed) are toxic one way or the other – so the less of those you are exposed to, the better.  This can be achieved relatively easily if your diet generally consists of foods that are mono-ingredients (e.g. a naturally-grown broccoli has only one ingredient – “broccoli”, whereas packaged orange juice may have dozens – including artificial coloring agents, artificial flavors, preservatives, texture enhancers and who knows what else food chemists decide to put into it) and you avoid the use of industrially produced cosmetics.

A few words on general health

Not surprisingly, the unifying theme that marks most of the items in this article is this: eat better, be physically active.  These two pieces of very general advice have a wide range of interpretations – and a wide range of results.  But so much of your health and longevity depends on what you put in your mouth that the point needs to be driven home – by making only a few simple changes with those two you can profoundly impact many aspects of your life – including how long you live and how young you look.

These changes are not hard to introduce and follow.  Most of them are well-known and, perhaps, even common-sense.  Yet, few people take them seriously – until it may be too late.

Hopefully, you are not one of these people.  So don’t waste your time on trying to conceal your age – when you do everything right, you will be proud to brag about your birth date – because the way you will actually look and perform will be very different from the mere number of years that elapsed since then.