No two 83-year olds are the same. One can run a marathon whereas another may be frail and immobile. Why do some of us appear resilient to ageing while others seem older than our years?
What can we do for ourselves and as a society to ensure that we have fulfilling, happy and fit, long lives? Our research study, The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), which followed almost 9,000 adults aged 50 and older, has generated more than 400 research papers over the past 12 years. The study covers all aspects of life – from sex to food, to physical and brain health, genetics, childhood experience, expectations, friendships, finance and much more – to illustrate why and how we age.
Differences in the pace of ageing occur because our biological changes count more than the crowd of candles on our birthday cake. One study showed a difference of 20 years in biological ageing clocks in adults as young as 38. Explanations include changes in metabolic and other cell proteins, often associated with higher inflammation in cells. We have trillions of cells that are dividing and producing new cells all of the time, but imbalances in these processes speed up cell damage and cell death and thus overall ageing.
The good news is that we control 80 per cent of our ageing biology – only 20 per cent is controlled by our genes. So it is within our power to modify and improve most of the factors that influence our biological clocks, including inflammation.
People who enjoy strong social bonds into their 80s were less likely to succumb to cognitive decline and dementia
Most of us are eager to know more about ageing and health. Yet at the same time many people in midlife tell me they can hardly bear to think about growing old, such is their dread of it.
But, the “last lap” – as one of my patients cheerily calls it – can be the most relaxed, worthwhile and contented period of our lives, especially if we prepare for it. The research confirms this. And the earlier we start, the better – although these recommendations are beneficial at any age.
As we know, diet, exercise, stopping smoking and low alcohol intake slow down ageing, but there are also unexpected and fun ways to make us more resilient to the ageing process. Here are eight simple things you can start tomorrow which will make a difference.
1. Work on your friendships
Good friends add years to our lives. Examining the association between social bonds and health, I was staggered by the powerful physical effects of friendship.
But why would the strength of our social contacts and social engagement affect mortality? It’s been suggested that they lower levels of stress and stress-related hormones, heart disease and inflammation. In fact, regular contact with friends is as good for your heart as stopping smoking or normalising your cholesterol levels.
People who enjoy strong social bonds into their 80s were less likely to succumb to cognitive decline and dementia. The fact that social, mental and physical stimulation through friendships reduce vascular diseases is relevant here too.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart irregularities, such as atrial fibrillation in midlife, are all associated with Alzheimer’s in later life.
The stress-busting effects of good friendships is another reason these relationships benefit brain health. A higher susceptibility to stress doubles the risk of dementia by triggering chronically high cortisol levels. Frequent social contacts increases the formation of new brain cells, building up capacity or “cognitive reserve” in the area that converts short-term memory to long-term memory, the area important for concentration, understanding, awareness, thought, language and consciousness, and the area governing our sense of smell.
So even if people have abnormal proteins in their brain cells (dementia pathology), they don’t show signs of the disease: their reserve capacity built through social contacts enables normal function. We laugh more when we’re with friends – laughter bonds us with others.
2. Have a good laugh
Healthy children laugh as much as 400 times per day but older adults tend to laugh only 15 times per day. Yet laughter keeps us young.
As well as boosting endorphin levels, laughter is a form of muscular exercise, good for circulation and digestion. A good belly laugh provides a workout for the diaphragm, abs, and shoulders – plus the immune system and heart.
Laughter is beneficial at a chemical level because it lowers the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. And low cortisol stabilises blood sugars and insulin, regulates blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.
Even when we only anticipate having a laugh, our positive hormonal system kicks in and rises as much as 87 per cent. The same expectation mutes stress hormones by up to 70 per cent. So, next time you search for your favourite Father Ted episode, know that you are building up your health stores and resources. (What would Dougal have to say about that, Ted?)
Laughter also increases endorphins – chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress, the “feel-good” chemicals. It raises serotonin and dopamine, which play a critical role in sensations of pleasure, motivation, memory and reward. They make us feel calm, poised, confident and relaxed.
When serotonin and dopamine levels are low, we are nervous, irritable and stressed. Endorphins also play a role in the immune response and in ‘killer’ T cells, which help to fight infections. Given that immune function declines with age, boosting endorphins is particularly beneficial in older persons.
3. De-stress once a day
Stress is ageing. Its biological impacts affect our nervous system, hormones, immune system and metabolic systems. Persistent stress can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, a fast heart rate, heart attacks and strokes. A visible measure of how acute stress can age us is that it can turn hair grey overnight. Simple techniques can provide a buffer against stress:
One is regular switch-off periods – a time each day when phone and internet are turned off. Let friends and colleagues know you are doing this so that you are not stressed when the phone is off.
Share your worries with a friend. Research shows that “a problem shared is a problem halved” – and, indeed, reduces stress by lowering cortisol.
Take up gardening. A recent paper analysed 22 studies on gardening and health. The host of positive effects included reductions in depression, anxiety, and BMI, plus a rise in life satisfaction and quality of life.
Walks in nature, forests and green spaces have a notably calming effect: stress levels fall and creativity increases dramatically.
Spend one minute doing controlled breathing a few times a day.
Do meditation for five minutes each morning. Brain scans show that meditation preserves the brain’s main structural tissues. It also potentially suppresses processes that contribute to brain ageing.
Dispositional mindfulness – focusing attention to present thoughts and feelings – has physical, psychological and cognitive benefits (it’s the opposite of letting our mind wander and fretting about the future).
4. Stand on one leg
Falls are the main cause of accidental deaths and of fractures as we get older. Almost half of people who break a hip never regain their previous independence or vitality. Balance starts to decline after age 40 and is one of the commonest reasons for falls.
So work on balance. A good start is to stand on one leg while brushing your teeth or at the kitchen sink. Can you stand on one leg for 30 seconds eyes open and 10 seconds eyes closed? That should be your target. Pilates also improves balance and core strength.
5. Cold shower every morning
Cold water immersion provides a stimulus to our physiological systems, which is related to the phenomenon of hormesis, whereby small amounts of a harmful or painful agent are actually good for us and for the ageing process.
Exposure of the skin to cold water increases release of important nerve signals and chemicals. Chemicals such as noradrenaline, endorphins and opioids are increased and boost performance of cells in both the brain and body that regulate a host of functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to muscles, power of contraction of skeletal muscles and release of energy.
Neurotransmission in brain areas that control emotions including depression, concentration, memory and alertness are improved. Because responsiveness to noradrenaline declines with age, any stimulus that enhances its activity is important to “ageing” physiology.
Hormesis also boosts immune responses and reduces frequency of chest infections. Start at 20 seconds after completing ablutions in warm water and gradually work up to two minutes. You’ll eventually find it is addictive. Try it and see.
6. Turn off blue light one hour before bed
Until recently, humans were predominantly exposed to, and their lives and evolution depended on, yellow light (wavelength 570-590nm). Blue light (wavelength 450-495nm) exposure was limited to a few hours in winter.
However, over the past few decades blue light has been used more and more, emitting from devices such as televisions, phones and computers. Blue light suppresses melatonin, which is our bodies’ natural “sleeping tablet”, thereby causing sleep disorders and insomnia.
Melatonin declines with ageing. So to help with sleep, which plays a major role in the ageing process, and during which our memory stores are refreshed, avoid blue light for at least one hour before bed. Taking a hot bath will also help to enhance sleep and fill the time that you would normally use looking at a device.
7. Start yoga
As well as improving balance and flexibility at a cellular level, yoga reduces inflammation and thereby slows biological ageing. Several studies show that yoga increases the length of telomeres – the protective coverings at the end of chromosomes which stop chromosomal damage. With ageing, telomeres shorten, chromosomes are damaged, cells decay and die.
8. Eat within an eight-hour window
Fascinating animal studies show that if two groups of animals are fed the same amount of food within 24 hours, but one group just gets all the food within eight hours and the other over 24 hours, the latter become obese and the former do not.
Much research supports the fact that metabolic proteins and hormones are some of the most important in respect of cell ageing and that restricting foods and periods of fasting switch on protective cell mechanisms beneficial for longevity. “Grazing” throughout the day is bad news. So try to stick to eating within an eight-hour window and no snacks.
As young as you feel
The science shows that you are as young as you feel – be optimistic about your biological age – it will affect how you age. Our studies show that people who feel their chronological age are more likely to develop physical frailty and poor brain health in subsequent years than those who claim to feel younger than they are.
Older adults with negative perceptions about ageing are likely to die seven and a half years earlier, mostly because of higher rates of heart disease. A positive attitude towards getting older changes cell chemicals beneficially, possibly by reducing inflammation (low-grade chronic inflammation, from impaired immune responses, is associated with accelerated ageing and many age-related conditions).
Even if we have health problems, attitude dominates. Employing the strategies above will help you to feel younger than your “number”.
Age Proof: The New Science of Living a Longer and Healthier Life by Prof Rose Anne Kenny is published by Lagom. Prof Kenny holds the chair of medical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and is the founder and principal investigator of The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), Ireland’s flagship research project in ageing