Scientists haven’t found a way to stop aging, but they have found ways to do it better. And it’s a lot easier and sometimes more fun than you think, which is good news for baby boomers, 10,000 of whom will turn 65 years old every day for the next 19 years.
Small lifestyle changes, such as staying more connected to family and friends, getting more sleep and preparing foods differently, can go a long way in slowing aging and the onset of related diseases, researchers say. And of course, there are the more obvious prescriptions, such as exercise and good nutrition.
“The single most important thing, in my opinion, is exercise,” said Dr. James S. Goodwin, director of the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Goodwin said he often encounters patients who insist that because they run around all day on errands they don’t need a formal routine. But exercise should be consistent and focused, he said.
“It must have some sort of spiritual effect of being away from the rest of your life — just walking and concentrating on that,” Goodwin said.
And there’s a brain benefit to exercise that few people think about. Recent studies making headlines conclude that exercise can improve brain function, mood and memory — and even slow brain aging.
“People who exercise don’t become demented as quickly,” Goodwin said.
A study released last month by the Cooper Institute in Dallas concluded that if you’re physically active during your middle-aged years, you may be less likely to develop dementia. Staying physically active in your golden years also will increase brain power, according to the study.
Scientists also are learning that our social connections can affect our brains as we age.
A study published in the Jan. 20, 2009 issue of Neurology concludes that people who are socially active and not easily stressed may be less likely to develop dementia.
When we’re younger, connections come to us through work, children and daily life. As we get older, or after we retire, we often have to seek out connections and work to maintain them, Goodwin said.
Goodwin often directs his patients to join at least two groups or organizations and report back in three months. They can be religious groups or organizations related to hobbies, he said. He also assigns specific tasks, such as tracking down three high school classmates. Social interactions help keep the brain engaged but also makes people happy, which is an important part of aging well, Goodwin said.
Social connections also offer support in a life that becomes less predictable as we age, Goodwin said.
“Socially engaged people are their own reward,” Goodwin said.
Turn Off The TV
Dr. Robert Hirschfeld, chairman of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at the medical branch, also advocates staying active — both physically and cognitively — to slow the effects of aging. That means turning off the TV and getting out there.
“Everything slows down and comes to a screeching halt if you don’t move,” Hirschfeld said. He recommends doing activities that tax the mind and also staying connected with friends. People who are isolated do less and become more prone to depression. They withdraw from others, stop moving and have low energy.
“It becomes a vicious cycle, and everything becomes worse,” he said.
‘A Universal Desire’
All people can incorporate routines to help them age better, no matter their age. And it doesn’t have to be daunting.
In her book “Cheat the Clock: How New Science Can Help You Look and Feel Younger,” Margaret Webb Pressler explains how small lifestyle adjustments can accrue to slow the aging process at the cellular level.
Pressler, a Washington Post reporter, was inspired by the experience of her own husband, whose health and youthful looks at age 64 invariably generated comments from friends and family. The science validated her husband’s routines, she said.
“Everyone wants to age well; it’s a universal desire,” Pressler said. “It is truly possible to age more slowly by just making a few small changes.”
Small changes are more manageable and actionable, meaning we’re likely to stick with them or quickly incorporate them into our routine without discomfort. It’s not one thing but many and varied daily habits that can help you “cheat the clock,” Pressler said.
AGEing In Our Kitchens
Some of Pressler’s advice is based on established research, some on cutting-edge thinking.
For example, it’s only recently that researchers have understood the way we prepare foods can accelerate aging.
Researchers believe that when food is cooked at a very high temperature it can develop what’s called advanced glycation end products, aptly known as AGEs, compounds that accelerate inflammation and may lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. That’s the finding in a 2010 study whose lead researcher was Jaime Uribarri, a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Based on the ﬁndings, dry heat promotes AGE formation. Animal-derived foods high in fat and protein are generally prone to AGE formation during cooking, according to the study. Carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.
The take-away? Limit the amount of charred, grilled, broiled, fried and microwaved meats in your diet. Scramble eggs instead of frying, Pressler said. Reduce the cooking temperature of meats and proteins. Steam fish and seafood, simmer chicken in a sauce and prepare red meat in a liquid. And cut down on processed foods because most are exposed to high cooking temperatures, Pressler said.
Healing Power Of Food
In a telephone interview, Pressler cited a study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health that concluded an extra daily serving of unprocessed red meat increased the risk of dying prematurely by 13 percent. Processed red meat (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and the like) upped the risk by 20 percent.
“That’s one serving a day,” Pressler said. “Eat something else; eat chicken. Who wouldn’t want a 20 percent lower risk in death from any cause?”
While she and her husband aren’t vegetarians, their diet is largely made of plant-based foods, which are loaded with phytochemicals, which have protective or disease preventive properties.
“Phytochemicals perform functions in our bodies we will never understand fully,” Pressler said.
New anti-aging properties are being discovered in foods all the time. Watermelons lower blood pressure; prunes reverse bone loss. Those are just some examples Pressler cites in “Cheat the Clock.”
Don’t like vegetables? Try to be more open-minded and experiment with them until you do, she advises. The more servings of fruits and vegetables, the better, but start with the goal of increasing your daily serving by one, she said.
Moderation, Magic Numbers
Pressler also wants people to realize that moderate exercise a few times a week not only can slow but even reverse the aging process. Just walking one mile a day, five days a week, for example, increases the size of the brain by 2 percent in a year, while not walking causes the brain to shrink by 1 percent, according to research.
And the notion that something as sweet as sleeping seven hours can slow down aging is among the research highlights in Pressler’s book. Anything below that magic number compromises the immune system, increases stress and causes weight gain, all of which can speed up cellular aging, researchers say.
“The science is very clear that small changes made consistently over time is what makes the biggest difference in aging well,” Pressler said.