How to hold back ageing has preoccupied people for thousands of years. Most ideas centre on pills and potions creating some kind of elixir of youth but that’s way off the mark. The answer is actually much simpler.
All ancient civilisations believed in eternal life in some form or another. Whole religions built up around the promise to deliver it. It’s been said that one of the main reasons that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and went on to dominate the western world was simply because it offered guaranteed eternal life if the follower obeyed its rules about belief in God.
Other great western religions like Judaism and Islam were successful for the same reasons.
Whatever our view on religion, what these beliefs spring from is the overarching desire not to die and disappear from the face of the earth; the desire to ensure that we live forever.
That is still the stuff of fiction but in the last 50 years humans has been making great strides, if not to eternal life, at least to a longer one.
The average lifespan in Europe and United States has doubled in the last 200 years, showing that holding back ageing can work.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics a boy born in in England in 1841 could expect to live to 40 years old. A girl born in the same year could expect to live to the age of 43. These are average figures, of course. Many people lived much longer while others died much earlier.
By 2011, newborn baby boys could expect an average lifespan of 79 years and the average baby girl could look forward to nearly 83 years.
The figures are more impressive the older you get. For example, a woman aged 60 in 2011 could expect to live another 25 years until she was 85.
This kind of data is used by governments to plan health care, sheltered housing and to project how much pensions are likely to cost the taxpayer in future. Insurance companies also use them to set premiums for health care policies. The older you get, the more you will have to pay for your medical insurance, although it is possible to reduce your premiums if you adopt the right lifestyle.
Better nutrition and health care together with vaccinations against many of the major illnesses are the most obvious reasons for the longer lifespan and that in turn begs the question, how much further can our lifespan be expanded.
Scientist Andrew Steele explores the causes of ageing in his book, Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, which outlines what he calls the main hallmarks of the ageing process.
His basic premise is that we’re here because of evolution and as far as the evolutionary process is concerned, the main purpose of men and women is to get together and produce babies. As it is young people who produce children, evolution has stacked all the biological odds in favour of youth.
Once we’ve created and lived long enough to raise the next generation, we’ve served our purpose and evolution has no reason to prolong our lives. What happens next is that our bodies become bombarded with assaults from all sides.
Steele outlines some of the main ones such as mutations that damage our DNA. These can be caused in lots of different ways but the most obvious are the toxins we pump into our bodies in the form of unhealthy food, cigarette smoke or other chemicals that come our way and start playing havoc with the cells in our bodies. If just one cell goes wrong, it could become the beginning of cancer as it replicates over and over again creating tumours.
Of course, people died long before the existence of processed foods, cigarettes and manmade chemicals, and the reason is that much of the damage to our bodies is caused when tiny errors occur in our normal everyday metabolism.
There are several other factors, including the problem of the trimming of telomeres. Telomeres provide a protecting cap on our chromosomes. Over time, they can start to shorten, reducing the level of protection. Shortened telomeres have been found to be present in several major diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
An obvious if harmless example of shortened telomeres is how our hair goes grey as we get older. As the telomeres shorten, they reduce the ability of our hair follicles to produce melanin, the substance that determines our hair colour.
All these processes and more create the changes in the body that we call ageing. The reason it happens is that evolution didn’t equip us with the ability to prevent these mutations and changes. Why should it? Once we produce the next generation, we’ve served our purpose. There is no evolutionary benefit in our staying alive.
What all this adds up to is that we’re facing some startling statistics according to Steele, because our chances of dying double every eight years as we get older. When we are in our 30s, the odds of death are one in a thousand each year. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because these are the years when we’re raising our replacements, the next generation.
For those who make it to 90, the odds of living one more year to see 91 are one in six. Again, in line the evolution because we’re no longer in child rearing business and so no longer needed.
However, all is not lost in terms or extending our useful lifespan.
The key to slowing down the ageing process
And so here’s key point according to Steele: you don’t just die of old age. You have to die of ‘something’. There has to be a reason, which of course, is nearly always a disease that we’ve come to associate with old age, such as cancer, heart issues, dementia and many more.
Quite often, our demise involves more than one disease, sometimes several, all brought on by the biological changes outlined above. But what if we could stop or at least delay the onset of some of those diseases? We could live longer, more active lives, spare ourselves the cost of healthcare and be all the happier for it.
The good news is that science is already on the case and there’s a lot we can do too.
Researchers across the world are developing ways to hold back ageing and to deal with diseases that may affect older people more than the young. The response to Covid19 has been a classic example of how the world can spring into action, with scientists producing several vaccines to protect against the coronavirus in a matter of months, a feat that would have been impossible 10 years ago.
These vaccines by companies like Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Moderna and others have helped to prolong the lives of millions of elderly people who might otherwise have fallen prey to Covid because their immune systems are not as good as younger people.
The Covid vaccines are just one example. There is also widespread research going on to reduce or repair the damage caused by cell mutations, telomere shortening, damage to DNA and so on, often with encouraging results. For example, researchers have developed drugs that can kill some of the cells that cause ageing in mice, enabling them to live longer and healthier lives.
Holding back the years…you can do it
Unfortunately, there’s quite a distance between doing this with mice and doing it with humans so workable, cost-efficient solutions may still be a long way off.
In the meantime, Steele believes our best approach is to adopt the kind of lifestyle that will help reduce the effects of ageing naturally so we might improve on the hand that nature dealt us. At this point, you might be expecting some ground breaking new ideas that provide the Holy Grail to a longer, better life. The reality, however, is much more familiar.
Here are the five key bullet points for improving your health, boosting your immunity system and paving the way for a longer happier life.
Be careful what you eat
This can’t be stressed enough because a poor diet, especially if it leads to being overweight, is like rocket fuel for speeding up the ageing process.
Fat, especially visceral fat that clings to our organs, can cause inflammation which damages those organs and shorten our lives.
The exact reasons are still subject to extensive research because there are so many variables relating to diet, social conditions, levels of exercise that it can be difficult to tell for certain what is causing what. What all scientists and doctors agree on, however, is that what the specific reasons in each case, being overweight is bad for your health and your immunity. It will speed up the ageing process…and the more overweight you are the worse it becomes.
The answer is to make sure you don’t eat too much, and if you are already overweight, reduce your food intake so you start losing a few pounds each week until you’re a healthy weight for your height. You don’t have to be too dogmatic about it but if you want to live longer and be healthy, you do have to do what is necessary to help yourself.
Steele, like virtually all doctors and nutritionists across the world, recommends eating a good mix of different foods, especially fruit and vegetables and cut down on sugar, fats and processed foods.
Be as active as you can
Along with a healthy diet, being active is the simplest and easiest way to improve your health and prolong your life.
Instead of saying, be active, we could say exercise but that can turn people off because they associate exercise with gyms or jogging and don’t want anything to do with it. But exercise can be all sorts of things from walking to dancing to playing with your grandchildren…basically, just get moving.
The benefits to your body are as long as your arm. It improves your metabolism, circulation, benefits your heart, strengthens your muscles, boosts the nerve system connecting your muscles with your brain, increases the length of those telomeres thereby delaying the ageing process…the list of benefits could go on to such a point that it would be easier to say what part of you doesn’t do benefit from the exercise…and the answer to that is none.
Every part of you will be better for getting out there and moving, walking to the shops, dancing, gardening, active play with grandchildren…anything that gets you moving will help.
Be a beautiful dreamer
Or to put it less poetically, get plenty of sleep. It’s like a car service for the body in which all sorts of wear and tear issues are dealt with, leaving you refreshed for the next day; a bit like switching your computer off and on to get rid of the little glitches that can appear over time.
Steele points out that sleep also flushes “out the toxic amyloid that is implicated with Alzheimer’s disease”.
Get smart about your health
There’s no shortage of good advice from reliable health care sources about how to look after yourself. Make sure you take it. Get vaccinations against things like flu and Covid when they’re available. Get medical check-ups whenever you can; health care providers in many countries provide them free or at discounted rates. Having such check-ups may even reduce your health care insurance, or other insurance policies such as travel.
Make sure to act on advice from experts. The messages are generally simple and there is an almost unanimous consensus from health professionals around the world as to what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Get on board and you’ll feel better for it.
You may also find that your health insurance company provides advice on how to avoid illnesses; if so, take note. They’re not being nice, they just want to reduce the odds of them having to pay out on your policy. You may also find your insurance premiums are reduced if you lead a healthier lifestyle.
Look after your teeth
Of the five bullet points provided by Steele, this might the least well known.
Most people, of course, will want to look after their teeth but mainly so they can continue to eat comfortably and retain their smile.
The bonus news is that looking after your teeth and gums brings other health benefits. The problem is that your mouth is a war zone with your body’s immune system constantly fighting bacteria that likes nothing better than to give you gum disease and tooth decay.
This is not only bad for your mouth and teeth. The damage caused by the bacteria can in turn create more inflammatory molecules that, you guessed it, can speed up the ageing process. Science is even now exploring a link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This may seem a quite a leap of cause and effect and more research is needed but, as Steele points out, the bacteria that causes gum problems has also been found in amyloid plaques, which are associated with Alzheimer’s.
It all adds up to yet another reason to get brushing, mouth washing and try to floss more often instead of always putting it off to tomorrow night.
Steele’s book is called Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old by Andrew Steele, Bloomsbury.
See book cover and link at the bottom of this article for more details.
It’s a good overview of the study of ageing, which is still in its relative infancy. It includes plenty of medical and scientific references, which can be complex but not so much as to prevent the lay reader from following the gist of what is being said and understanding the main points involved.
All of which brings us back to the original point. You don’t just die, you have to die of something.
Thankfully, as Steele points out, we can have some say in this. We can look at our lifestyles and adapt them to delay those fatal diseases.
There is no elixir of youth but there are simple steps we can take to improve our health long into old age.
In the process, we will not only live longer but we’ll better and fitter so we can make the most of those extra years. You may also find that your health insurance gets cheaper. It’s a win, win bonus with no downside.