How Not to Age: A Scientific Approach to Getting Healthier as You Get Older

Portrait of senior woman lifting weights with classmates at the gym

It’s not yet possible to stop the passage of years, but it might well be within our sights to combat the effects of aging, according to Michael Greger, MD, internationally recognized lifestyle medicine physician, author and nutritionist. Synthesizing years of research on the essential pathways of aging, Dr. Greger believes the process can be slowed down with lifestyle changes, and without pharmaceutical interventions. Below are some of his most interesting findings … please note that we always encourage you to check with your physician for individual guidance before adopting new health recommendations.

A cup of tomato soupPlant-based eating holds one of the most important keys to slowing biological aging, emphasizes Dr. Greger. Borne out in large studies from the National Institutes of Health/AARP and Harvard, replacing just 3% of daily calories from animal protein with plant protein was associated with a 10% decrease in risk of overall mortality. It may also help prevent Alzheimer’s dementia, an incurable disease. “There is a growing consensus that what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads, and high levels of blood cholesterol are recognized to be a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Switching to a healthy, whole foods diet lower in animal fats, eggs and dairy can help prevent arteries in the brain from becoming clogged with atherosclerotic plaque, which is thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s,” he explains. “It may even trump genetics, as seen in Nigeria, where the plant-predominant diet may be the reason for very low rates of Alzheimer’s disease among a population with some of the world’s highest rates of the Alzheimer’s gene. Genes may load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.” In studies of older adults, the benefits of a diet rich in dark green, leafy vegetables continues to emerge, associated with improvements in the brain’s processing speed and working memory, muscle mass and strength, and potentially helping prevent age-related macular degeneration.

Cup of Cappuccino with Heart Shape over Wooden BackgroundActivate autophagy, the body’s cellular recycling system, with regular aerobic exercise of moderate intensity, and daily consumption of spermidine, a compound found in foods including: beans, tempeh (made from fermented soybeans), white button mushrooms, mangoes, edamame, green peas, lentil soup, and in its most concentrated form in wheat germ. Also given the green light by Dr. Greger is coffee, for its abundance of polyphenol chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant thought to have a protective effect that is contained in all types of the beverage (decaffeinated, instant, and especially when brewed with a paper filter).

Potato wedges inside air fryer. Best way to fry potatoes without oil at homeAvoid French fries and chips, urges Dr. Greger, as the toxin acrylamide formed during the frying process may cause inflammation and inhibit autophagy; air fry potatoes instead. Also, put down the salt shaker and opt for salt-free seasonings or substitutes. “Cutting back on sodium appears to effectively make people more than a decade younger in terms of risk of premature death,” he says.

Grilled salmon on fresh vegetables on wooden tableMinimize fish. Long viewed as a healthy choice, fish have become so contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other forever chemicals that despite their omega-3 fatty acids, there’s been a failure to consistently observe its beneficial effects, according to Dr. Greger.

Portrait of senior woman lifting weights with classmates at the gymPrevent bone fractures by focusing on strength and balance training. “The majority of age-related risk of bone fractures (85%) is due to falling, not osteoporosis, so addressing muscle loss may be more effective than the current focus on increasing bone mineral density with drugs,” says Dr. Greger. He cites multiple randomized trials showing a combination of resistance exercise to improve lower limb muscle strength and balance training can cut fracture risk nearly in half. And although boosting protein intake has been touted by others, Dr. Greger cautions: “If you put together all the randomized, controlled trials of adding extra protein to the diets of older men and women, you find no evidence that it increases muscle mass or strength, even in those with sarcopenia (excessive age-related muscle loss).”

Finally, he points to the reassuring fact that adopting just a few simple lifestyle behaviors – a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking – adds years of life no matter when you begin. “A Harvard analysis of more than 100,000 men and women followed over decades showed that starting to eat and live more healthfully at age 50 appeared to translate into 12 to 14 years of extra lifespan, at age 60, an extra 8 to 9 years, and even starting at age 80 added more years. We all have the power to turn back the clock, starting right now.”

Eight Lessons from the Blue Zones

Blue Zones are areas across the globe in which populations live longer and better than average, identified by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, who explains: “There’s no magic bullet or pill, but rather a cluster of mutually supporting factors common to these centuries-old cultures whose people are making it to ages 90-100 without disease.”

  1. Plant-slant diet, as described elsewhere in this issue. Buettner’s common sense advice: “Sit down with a plant-based cookbook, identify a dozen recipes that you think your family would enjoy and cook them instead of going on a diet or spending money on a program. Also, eliminate soda pop, one of the unhealthiest parts of the American diet.”
  2. Eat until you’re 80% full. “And have your biggest meal first,” advises Buettner, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”
  3. Family-first focus.
  4. Belonging: feeling connected to your community.
  5. Right tribe: surrounded by friends who support healthy behaviors.
  6. Natural movement throughout the day.
  7. Strong sense of purpose.
  8. Ability to de-stress.

The original Blue Zones ranged from Costa Rica to Sardinia. According to new research, these states closer to home are most likely to earn the moniker in the future: California, Minnesota, Utah, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Colorado.

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