Age-Proof Your Body
How do you see yourself in your 70s, 80s, and 90s? Our personal longevity heroes include Esther Williams, still swimming and a business owner at 85; Ileana Sonnabend, a formidable presence in the art world at 92; and Ruth Gruber, 95, who published her first book of photography last month after decades as a foreign correspondent. These women need not be exceptions to the rule. Researchers tracking the health and longevity of tens of thousands of people have accumulated powerful data that provides some clear advice for all of us. The bottom line: You have more control than you think, and the time to take action is now.
"It’s not what you do when you’re 75 but what you do when you’re 40 or 50 that makes a difference," says Lewis H. Kuller, MD, a public health professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has been involved in a dozen different aging studies. "Now we know — you can move the clock back."
Surprisingly, genes have little to do with longevity. Whether your parents lived to 58 or 98, that number is neither the death sentence nor the free pass that you might imagine. "Knowing the age at which your mother or father died reduces the uncertainty about when you will die by only about three percent," says James Vaupel, PhD, executive director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. "How long you live is largely explained by your environment — are the cars safe? is good quality healthcare available? — and by your behavior." These practical do-it-now suggestions are gleaned from major aging studies.
Keep Tabs on Your Cardiac Health
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with heart disease, a slow, silent buildup of plaque in your arteries can age you before your time. The Cardiovascular Health Study at the University of Pittsburgh tracked nearly 3,000 subjects age 65 and older, testing for their degree of subclinical cardiovascular disease (SCVD), which is marked by blockage in the arteries that supply blood to the brain, heart, and muscles. During the eight years of the study, women with little or no SCVD displayed the mental and physical health of women six-and-a-half years younger.
"The health of your circulatory system has a big impact on how long you live and the quality of your life as you age," says Kuller. "Cardiovascular disease has a long, slow incubation period, and there is a lot you can do in midlife to keep it from developing later on in life."
Beyond the well-known advice for reducing your risk — don’t smoke, stay active, maintain a healthy weight, and keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check — Kuller recommends proactively managing and lowering any existing heart disease risk factors that you do have with these steps.
Schedule a Cardiac CT Scan
"If your blood pressure or cholesterol is a little elevated, but not so high that you need medication, or if you are overweight or have diabetes, get a coronary calcium study — a CT scan that reveals the amount of calcium in your coronary arteries — as a baseline when you are 55 or 60," he says. "That will let you know how aggressive you need to be with your risk factors." (Cardiac CT scans are widely available, and more insurers are covering them.)
Lower High Blood Pressure
If you’re hypertensive in midlife, the length of time you’ll live without heart disease shrinks by 7.2 years compared with women with normal pressure. Even high-normal readings cut two years off your heart-disease-free life expectancy, according to the Framingham Heart Study. "It’s not enough just to take your blood pressure medication. Get your pressure checked frequently and make sure that you reach adequate levels of blood pressure control with medication, physical activity, and a healthful diet," says Oscar H. Franco, MD, of the University Medical Center in Rotterdam.
Assess Your Hearing
A little-known sign of cardiovascular risk: high-frequency hearing loss as you age. It’s most likely the result of high insulin levels and stiff arteries, according to researchers with the Health, Aging, and Body Composition Study of the National Institute of Aging. These may damage or reduce blood flow to vessels in the inner ear.
Keep Yourself Moving
Have you slacked off on exercise lately? Here’s a fact that should get you back on your feet. According to the Framingham Heart Study, women who are moderately active (the equivalent of walking 30 minutes five days a week) gain one-and-a-half years in life expectancy over couch potatoes, and highly active women boost that benefit by three-and-a-half years.
"Exercise increases the number of years you can live without heart disease and decreases the risk of a second heart attack or stroke in women who have already had one," Franco says. And it’s never too late: "You can become active at 50 or 60 and still increase your life expectancy."
Gauge Your Physical Abilities
Jot down how long it takes you to walk one-quarter of a mile (one lap around a school track); repeat every few months. If your time increases, it means you’re moving more slowly and may need to boost your exercise routine or ask your doctor for a cardiovascular disease check. "As you lose fitness, sooner or later even normal activities make you short of breath; then frailty kicks in," Kuller says.
Don’t Just Cut Calories, Burn Them
Dieting to lose weight? Add exercise. When 50- to 60-year-olds in a pilot study at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis lost weight by dieting alone, they also lost bone density, muscle mass, strength, and aerobic conditioning. But those who shed the same number of pounds through exercise maintained or improved their muscle function and bone density.
Don’t Think That Size Protects You from Frailty
Thin, fragile-looking women with low energy are recognizable as frail. "But a woman who is quite overweight may have little muscle and be at risk of becoming frail — unable to do ordinary activities," says Linda P. Fried, MD, chief of geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore.
Get Back on Your Feet After Illness or Injury
"Start moving right away to rebuild lost muscle mass, strength, and fitness," Franco advises. Muscle loss is greatest in the first two weeks after illness or injury, and the older you get, the more muscle you lose during periods of inactivity.
Adjust Your Attitude
Ever call brain freeze a "senior moment"? Don’t do it in front of Becca Levy, PhD, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Her work has demonstrated that negative expectations about aging may be self-fulfilling and downright dangerous to your health. Her study started in the 1970s, when more than 1,100 people (two-thirds of the over-50 residents of Oxford, Ohio) signed up for the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. The initial evaluation contained several statements that revealed participants’ expectations of aging (such as "As you get older, you are less useful" or "Things keep getting worse as I get older"). Twenty-three years later, Levy found that those who had more positive perceptions of aging (such as "I have as much pep as I did last year" and "As I get older, things are better than I thought they would be") had survival rates that were more than seven years longer than those with less positive impressions. "When it comes to longevity," Levy says, "self-perception is more important than gender, loneliness, physical ability, or socioeconomic status." Here, ways you can think — and be — younger.
Change Your Language
On memory tasks, older people who were read positive aging words just prior to testing (sage, wise, insightful, accomplished) scored significantly better than those who heard negative ones (decrepit, senile, incompetent). Reframe your reality by using positive words instead of negative ones.
Don’t Age Yourself
Stop automatically ascribing forgetfulness or some passing pain or weakness to age. Ask yourself whether you might have had trouble recalling the same information at a younger age, or whether you might simply be tired or have a lot on your mind, Levy suggests.
Eat Yourself Younger
Eating what’s good for you may be at least as important as avoiding what’s bad for you. As part of Sweden’s Mammography Screening Cohort, 59,038 women age 40 to 79 told researchers how often they consumed 60 different foods. Ten years later, women who ate 16 to 17 different healthful foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and low-fat dairy products) on a regular basis were a striking 42 percent more likely to be alive than women who regularly ate eight or fewer from that list. "The number of less nutritious foods they ate (sugars, fats, fatty meats) did not increase death rates but were associated with more cancers of all types," notes Alicja Wolk, professor of epidemiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Women younger than 40 showed no relationship between diet and longevity. Here, more food for thought.
Make It Mediterranean
In a study conducted last summer by Wolk, more than 40,000 Swedish women age 30 to 49 were encouraged to follow a Mediterranean diet: They got points for eating healthful foods and lost points for eating fatty meats and other foods associated with a Western diet. For women in their 40s, an increase of more than two points on the Mediterranean diet scale led to a 13 percent reduction in mortality and a 16 percent reduction in cancer deaths.
Quaff Some Coffee
Whether decaf or high-test, coffee seems to decrease the inflammation linked to chronic conditions such as heart disease. In the Iowa Women’s Health Study of 40,000, women who drank one to three cups a day were 16 percent less likely to die in the 15-year follow-up period than coffee skippers.
Eat Almost Everything
In the Okinawa Centenarian Study, Bradley J. Willcox, MD, of the University of Hawaii, examined the Okinawan lifestyle. Instead of being admonished to "clean your plate," elders tell children to "hara hachi bu" — stop eating when they are 80 percent full.
The New Frontier: Anti-Aging Supplements
Longevity researchers are focusing on our cells’ mitochondria to slow aging. These mini combustion engines burn fat and carbohydrates to form ATP, the fuel for all your cells. With age, production falters, which creates damaging by-products: the notorious free radicals. In a vicious cycle, free radicals damage mitochondria, generating less fuel and more free radicals. "Many degenerative diseases associated with aging (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes) involve decay in the mitochondria," says Bruce Ames, PhD, a 78-year-old biochemist. Can we live longer and healthier lives with the proper care of our mitochondria? Ames and other scientists think so and have introduced some mitochondria-protecting products to the market.
To boost mitochondrial fuel efficiency and decrease free-radical production, Ames combined acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid to create Juvenon (juvenon.com). Preliminary studies in humans indicate that Juvenon may lower blood pressure, and tests on memory are now under way.
Herbal Enzyme Booster
To maintain levels of antioxidant enzymes in mitochondria, University of Colorado researchers extracted active ingredients from five herbs proven to increase enzyme production to yield Protandim (protandim.com). "We have statins to lower cholesterol and medications to lower blood pressure, but until now we haven’t had a pill for free-radical damage," says Sally K. Nelson, PhD, of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Independent studies are starting to test the supplement in people with liver and heart disease.
A Daily Multivitamin
Not new per se, but according to Ames’s research, deficiencies of vitamins and minerals lead to mitochondrial decay. His fix: a daily multivitamin.
Foods That Increase Your Shelf Life
There seems to be a recipe for living longer, and physician and chef Ralph Felder, MD, author of The Bonus Years Diet, has the stats to back it up. "By enjoying the right foods, women can live 4.6 years longer, three and a half of those without heart disease," he says. "Men, because they’re more prone to cardiovascular disease, gain even more time." He based his recommendations on the results of the Framingham Heart Study, but he thinks the longevity claims may vastly underestimate the diet’s benefits, since only cardiovascular risk reductions were included. What’s on the menu?
Wine, because it boosts HDL cholesterol and makes blood cells less sticky. It cuts cardiovascular disease risk by a third. Daily dose: one 5-ounce glass, preferably red.
Dark chocolate, because it lowers blood pressure, relaxes artery walls, and reduces the risk of heart disease by 11 percent. Daily dose: 2 ounces with at least 60 percent cocoa content (1 ounce if you need to lose weight).
Fruits and vegetables, because they lower blood pressure and protect blood vessel linings, cutting cardiovascular disease risk by 21 percent. Daily dose: 4 or more cups (variety counts; potatoes don’t).
Fish, because it cuts heart disease risk by 14 percent by lowering triglycerides and preventing blood clots, arrhythmias, and inflammation. Dose: at least three 5- to 6-ounce servings a week.
Garlic, because some studies say that it helps to reduce cholesterol production by the liver and lowers LDL, lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease 25 percent. Daily dose: one clove, cooked or raw.
Nuts, because they lower LDL and triglycerides, cutting heart disease risk by more than 12 percent. Daily dose: 2 ounces (1 if you need to lose weight).
Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2007.