Aging was long thought to be an inevitable and uncontrollable process of functional decline, leading to chronic diseases and, eventually, death. However, aging research has uncovered some surprises in recent years, and the goal of extending the human lifespan (how long we live) and the health-span (how long we are functional and live disease-free), is close at hand. In fact, evidence suggests that people already do things to enjoy longer and healthier lives. Many of these changes are linked to lifestyle modification.
Take diet and exercise, for example. Getting regular exercise is the gold standard for a healthier, and longer life. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that a combination of endurance and resistance training can result in a longer health span. Moreover, diets that limit calorie intake and are weighted toward vegetables and fruits, along with complex carbohydrates, are associated with healthy aging. Limiting animal protein, dairy and processed foods made with simple carbohydrates are also important steps when considering a diet for living longer. Occasionally, it’s best not to eat at all! Fasting or time-restricted feeding (for instance, eating only during an eight or a twelve-hour window during the day) has shown long-term health benefits.
When considering any changes to what or how often we eat, keep in mind that diets are somewhat individualized—some people are particularly sensitive to dairy or gluten and should modify their diets accordingly. Definitely pay attention to how the body reacts when eating different foods. Also, diet and exercise are linked, and when a person makes changes to one, it can have a negative effect on the other. For example, heavy exercise tends to make people crave higher calorie diets that include higher levels of animal proteins. As mentioned above, consuming higher amounts of protein is not linked to either a longer lifespan or health-span.
More and more data suggest that stress is a major contributor to unhealthy aging. Mindfulness can be a successful strategy to reduce stress and maintain our overall, long-term health. I like to recommend different ways to increase mindfulness such as yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi. However, the first key is to recognize when you are stressed, and to take the right mitigation strategies that work best for you. Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to healthy aging. Sleep quality declines significantly with age and may have some catastrophic consequences to our health, if left unchecked. If you are having trouble getting sleep, it is best to seek medical help, before it takes a toll.
Research is pointing to other possible strategies that may ultimately have a large impact on the aging process. Proposed interventions include drugs, supplements, and, in the future, regenerative medicine and gene therapy strategies. The drug Rapamycin confers dramatic extension of lifespan and health span in animal models, and the diabetes drug Metformin also shows promise. However, drugs have side effects. Some will take potentially years to be approved, and more research needs to be performed before they can be recommended for healthy people to slow aging. In contrast, supplements with high safety profiles like Calcium Alpha-Ketoglutarate (Ca-AKG), have been shown in mammalian models to increase a healthier lifespan. Clinical and pre-clinical studies with Calcium-AKG, and other natural products are ongoing, but the data is promising.
On a final note, remember that sustainability is key when it comes to lifestyle modification. Make changes that you enjoy, and set reasonable goals that can be maintained. You will likely live longer, and you will almost definitely feel better and live healthier.