Are You Aging Too Fast?

Odds are you look and feel younger than your mother did at the same age. But you could probably be doing even better

by Meryl Davids Landau
face of woman on hourglass body illustration image
Photograph: The Heads of State

Here’s the conundrum: “We all want to keep living; we just don’t want to age,” says Michael Rafael Moreno, MD, author of The 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging. But while we can’t help growing older, he notes, “by taking the right steps, we can mitigate some of the inevitable changes that occur as time passes.”

To help you gauge whether you’re at risk for aging faster than necessary, More developed a quiz with the help of some of the country’s top medical experts. You’ll answer questions relating to four major body systems: those connected with circulation, bones, immunity and breathing. Your results may differ from system to system, because you can age slowly in some areas, such as your heart, but not in others, such as your bones. After each section, we provide strategies for turning back the clock—or at least lessening the marks of time. When putting together your age-more-slowly plan, you should, of course, discuss any possible lifestyle and medication changes with your physician.

Quiz 1: Your Heart and Arteries

1. Take your pulse after sitting quietly for five minutes. (If you can’t find yours, use a heart-rate monitor.)
Your heart rate is:

A) 80 or fewer beats per minute (bpm)

B) More than 80 bpm

Your resting heart rate is a well-known indicator of the efficiency of your circulatory system. A number below 60 bpm means you’re in great shape, 60 to 80 is about average, and consistently more than 80 (and especially above 100) is cause for concern. Heart rates can get higher as you age, and research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that these jumps really boost the odds of dying from heart disease. For instance, study participants who moved from the 70-to-85 bpm category to the over-85 bpm group were 80 percent more likely to experience fatal heart problems over the almost 10-year research period than those who remained in the initial group. 

2. Try this test: Exercise hard on a stationary bike or walking surface until you’re totally exhausted. Stop and immediately check your pulse, then wait 60 seconds and check your pulse again. The difference between the first postexercise heart rate and the second one is: 

A) 18 or more bpm

B) Fewer than 18 bpm
If your heart rate takes a long time to return to normal, there may be a potentially unhealthy imbalance between your sympathetic nervous system (which revs you up) and the parasympathetic one (which slows you down), says Bohdan Pichurko, MD, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic. People with slow recovery rates are more likely than others to experience heart problems.

3 Pull out a measuring tape. How big is your waist?

A) 35 inches or less

B) More than 35 inches
Carrying body fat around your middle rather than your hips and thighs increases your odds of developing heart disease and other problems. A recently developed risk-assessment tool (called A Body Shape Index, or ABSI) shows the health impact of fat distribution by combining your waist measurement with the height-and-weight numbers required for calculating the widely used body mass index (BMI). Consider a 45-year-old woman who is five foot six, weighs 140 pounds and has a 35-inch waist. Her BMI is 24, which is in the normal range and suggests she has an average life expectancy. But the more accurate ABSI catapults her risk for early death to 60 percent higher than average—a definite wake-up call. To find your numbers, go to more.com/absi.

4. What is your family history of early heart disease?

A) None

B) Your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or your mother or sister had one before age 65
If you have one parent or sibling who suffered from heart disease, you are twice as likely as women without that history to experience a heart attack; your risk quadruples if two close relatives had heart disease. The good news: Inherited risk factors for heart disease, such as a propensity for hypertension or high LDL (bad) cholesterol, can often be significantly ameliorated with medication.

TOTAL B’s: _____

If you checked one or more B’s, keep reading for slow-down-the-clock strategies.

Your Action Plan
Because your heart is a muscle, you can strengthen it through aerobic workouts: The American Heart Association suggests doing, each week, at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as running). “If you exercise regularly and don’t have any underlying heart disease, your heart can actually become more efficient with age,” notes Moreno. “An older person can have the heart of a very young person.” Aerobic workouts will lower your heart rate and improve your heart-recovery rate.

In addition, a study in the September issue of the American Journal of Medicine confirmed the wisdom of eating a diet packed with plant-based foods. Over a 10-year period, women with the highest intake of heart-healthy antioxidants—they averaged seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day—experienced 20 percent fewer heart attacks than those who ate just 2.4 daily servings.

Here are other good ways to improve your circulatory system: 

Eat more low-fat yogurt
In research presented at an American Heart Association meeting this fall, adults who consumed six ounces of low-fat yogurt at least every three days over a 15-year period were significantly less likely than others in the study to develop high blood pressure. The finding is important because hypertension, defined as a reading of 140/90 mm Hg and above, tends to increase with age and is dangerous if not treated: It boosts your risk of heart attack and stroke threefold. Why would yogurt benefit your arteries? “It could be because dairy products are high in potassium, and we know that potassium has a blood-pressure-lowering effect,” says Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “Potassium lessens the effects of sodium on blood pressure,” she explains.

Up your C  
In trials lasting eight weeks on average, taking about 500 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C was associated with a reduction in blood pressure of 3.84 mm Hg for healthy subjects and 4.85 mm Hg for hypertensive ones—much less than the typical 10 mm Hg dip that comes from taking blood pressure drugs such as ACE inhibitors and diuretics but still clinically significant. Cautioning that the results are preliminary, the Johns Hopkins researchers speculate that vitamin C acts like a diuretic, helping the kidneys remove more water and sodium so blood vessel walls relax and lower blood pressure.

Change your oil
If you’re up for cooking every day with a fairly exotic blend of oils—a mix that’s 20 percent sesame oil and 80 percent rice-bran oil—then you might dramatically lower some of your risk factors for heart disease, according to a just-published study. After two months of frying or otherwise cooking with an ounce a day of this blend, hypertensive adults saw a 26 percent drop in LDL cholesterol and a 9.5 percent increase in HDL, the good kind. Their blood pressure also fell 14 points. The high antioxidant content of these two oils is probably responsible for the health benefits, says lead author Devarajan Sankar, MD, a research scientist in the department of cardiovascular disease at Fukuoka University Chikushi Hospital in Chikushino, Japan. If you can’t find these oils at your local supermarket, go to Amazon.com.

Quiz 2: Your Bones

1. How much alcohol do you drink?

A) On average, one to two drinks a day

B) Either no alcohol or three or more drinks a day

Your bones seem solid, but they are actually in a constant state of flux during which old minerals are removed and new ones added. If your bones lose more matter than they gain, they can become brittle and fracture easily—a situation that accelerates after menopause, when your body’s production of estrogen drastically declines. Experts estimate that about half of non-Hispanic Caucasian and Asian women over 50 have low bone density; a fifth suffer from the serious bone thinning called osteoporosis. According to a small study published this year in Menopause, moderate drinking improves your bones’ ability to rebuild. On the other hand, too much alcohol—three or more drinks a day—seems to damage the remodeling process.

2. How much height have you lost since you were 25?

A) None, or less than two inches

B) Two or more inches

A study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that older women who reported shrinking two or more inches in stature were nearly 50 percent more likely than others to fracture their hips as they aged. One possible reason for this association is that height loss can result from undiagnosed, silent fractures in the spine, indicating that skeletal bones are weak, says lead author Teresa A. Hillier, MD, an endocrinologist and senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Northwest in Portland, Oregon.

3. How does the flab in your abdomen feel?

A) Soft and squishy; I can easily pinch it with my fingers

B) Hard to the touch, buried deep below the skin

For years, doctors assumed that obese women had extra protection from osteoporosis, because the added pounds might make bones stronger. However, a Harvard Medical School study of overweight women found that those with high levels of deep abdominal (or visceral) fat had less dense bones than those whose fat was just below the skin (the pinchable, subcutaneous fat). This is likely because visceral fat affects the body’s hormones, and hormones influence bone breakdown and rebuilding, says study author Miriam A. Bredella, MD, associate professor of radiology. 

4. As an adult, have you broken your wrist, ankle or other bones after tripping?

A) No

B) Yes

Along with your T-score (a measure of bone density provided by a bone scan), a previous history of broken bones is a common predictor of hip and other fractures later in life. Your experience factors into an algorithm developed by the World Health Organization that estimates your odds of breaking a bone within the next 10 years. While this formula, called FRAX, is most accurate if you have taken a bone-density test and know your T-score, you can still estimate your risk level (at shef.ac.uk/FRAX) without that number. 

TOTAL B’s: _____

If you checked one or more B’s, keep reading for slow-down-the-clock strategies.

Your Action Plan

First, boost your intake of calcium so there’s more available for your bones to use. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 1,000 mg per day of total calcium for women under 50 and 1,200 for those 50 and older. Second, stimulate your bones’ uptake of that calcium by doing at least two 30- to 45-minute sessions of strength training each week. In the classic 1994 study proving the benefits of this regimen, postmenopausal women who worked out for a year gained 1 percent of bone mass, while nonexercisers lost 2 percent, notes Wayne Westcott, PhD, director of exercise science at Quincy College in Massachusetts.

Additional bone boosters:

Take more than 800 IU of D a day
Getting 800 IU or more of vitamin D a day lowered the risk for hip fractures by 30 percent and non-spine-related fractures by 14 percent in a large study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. Most of the participants were over 65, and more than 90 percent were women. A dose of 800 IU is generally considered safe; 4,000 IU is the upper limit.

Switch to a Mediterranean diet loaded with olive oil   
You already know that a Mediterranean diet—one filled with grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, olive oil and fish but low in meat—reduces the risk of heart disease. Now a Spanish study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology shows that including a specific minimum amount of olive oil (almost 3½tablespoons) a day for two years also boosts blood levels of a marker for bone formation. In other words, the olive oil helps preserve your bones.

Go easy on the cola (diet or otherwise)  
Women who drink cola everyday have 3.7 to 5.4 percent less bone density in their hips than those who consume less than one daily serving, says a study led by Katherine L. Tucker, PhD, now professor of nutritional epidemiology at Northeastern University in Boston. Drinking other carbonated soft drinks has no effect. Cola’s impact may stem partly from its caffeine content (caffeine has a negative impact on bone density) but probably also from its phosphorus level. “When you take in regular doses of phosphorus without consuming other nutrients at the same time, calcium in your body may bind to the phosphorus and thus become unavailable for bone remodeling. Over time this could lead to bone loss,” says Tucker.

Quiz 3: Your Defense System

1. You used to get one or two colds a year; in the past few years, you’ve gotten:

A) None, one or two a year

B) Three or more a year; it seems as if anytime someone sneezes near you, you catch a respiratory infection

“The immune system has many germ-stopping safeguards, such as your skin, which blocks invaders from entering, and antibodies, which disable them,” says Roxanne Sukol, MD, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Enterprise. “If you’re getting sick a lot, some part of that system may not be working as it should.”

2. Your stress level is . . .

A) Manageable

B) More than you can handle

A large body of research says that long-term stress lowers the effectiveness of your immune system, making you more likely to develop diseases and increasing the time it takes to recover from them. 

3. How much sleep do you typically get?

A) Less than seven hours a night

B) Seven or more hours a night

 Sleep deprivation suppresses your immune system by, for example, lowering the activity level of natural killer cells. In a 2009 Archives of Internal Medicine article, researchers demonstrated that this reduced resistance affects your ability to fend off infections. Sleep quality matters, too, reports a study in the online Journal of Aging Research. Compared with women who said they sleep well, those who reported troubled slumber had immune cells with shorter telomeres, or chromosome endings. This means women who slept poorly had immune cells that were biologically older than other women’s.

4. In general, how do you feel?

A) Pretty good

B) Not as good as you think you should

“If you don’t feel quite healthy, if you feel tired or rundown, these are clues that your immune system is flagging,” says Moreno.

TOTAL B’s: _____

If you checked one or more B’s, keep reading for slow-down-the-clock strategies.

Your Action Plan

It’s a fact of aging: The immune system tends to become less effective at fending off disease, says Moreno. Your arsenal, in effect, becomes smaller: You produce fewer antibodies, natural killer cells and white blood cells, especially a type known as T cells that protect you from bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. But, says Moreno, you can bolster your system by following a healthy diet, one packed with nutrientrich fruits, vegetables and lean protein; getting enough sleep; and trying to reduce stress.

More suggestions:

Meditate   
A regular mindfulness-meditation routine may help you sail through cold and flu season without much—or even any—sniffling, according to a study in the Annals of Family Medicine that tracked upper respiratory infections among a group of healthy middle-aged adults for eight months after they had undergone training in the technique. Compared with a control group, those who meditated caught fewer respiratory-tract infections, and when they did get ill, their symptoms were 60 percent milder and lasted for 43 percent less time. Plus, they had fewer sick days.

You can find a training program in mindfulness meditation near you at more.com/mindful. Or read Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation—A 28-Day Program, by Sharon Salzberg.

Eat less   
A small study done at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that cutting calories by either 10 percent or 30 percent over a six-month period helped a group of overweight adults drop pounds and improve the functioning of their T cells. The improvements were greatest for those who reduced their eating the most.

Take up laughter yoga   
Laughing has been shown to boost your immune functions. Moreno recommends getting your healthy quota of chuckles by taking up laughter yoga, a combination of movement and laughter developed in 1995 by a Mumbai physician named Madan Kataria. At social clubs (find one at laughteryoga.org) led by volunteers, participants clap, dance and do improv-like exercises, which generally lead to laughter. If this sounds too weird, you can also seek out guffaws by watching YouTube, Moreno suggests.

Quiz 4: Your Lungs

1. When you climb stairs or run for a bus, do you feel more winded than you might have a few years ago?

A) No

B) Yes

The concern isn’t so much what you can do now as how much you have slipped from your previous perch, says the Cleveland Clinic’s Bohdan Pichurko. The good news: Everyone has plenty of spare capacity, so lung function has to drop pretty far before you’re in trouble.

2. Which phrase better describes where you live?

A) A quiet, hardly traveled street

B) A road with heavy traffic

Swedish researchers discovered that people whose homes are closer than 300 feet to a road where an average of 10 or more cars pass each minute are more likely to develop allergic asthma. While they can’t be absolutely certain that car exhaust brings on the asthma, other studies have found similar correlations, notes study coauthor Anna Lindgren, MD.

3. In the past 15 years, you have smoked cigarettes:

A) Never or almost never

B) Anywhere from a single cigarette a day to several packs a day

The more you smoke, the greater the chance you have of dying from lung cancer. But even light puffing, which is on the rise in this country, poses serious risks. According to one review, women ages 35 to 49 who smoke one to four cigarettes a day have quintuple the risk of developing lung cancer that nonsmokers have.

4. Think back to your last cold. your accompanying cough:

A) Stopped completely within a month

B) Remained after a month

A lingering cough could be a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Other symptoms of this serious condition include shortness of breath, wheezing and lots of phlegm. While smokers and ex-smokers are especially prone, people exposed to lung irritants like air pollution are also vulnerable, says Donald Rollins, MD, associate professor in the pulmonary division at National Jewish Health in Denver. “You could be in the early stages and not have a clue,” he says. Make sure to get checked out by a doctor.

TOTAL B’s: _____

If you checked one or more B’s, keep reading for slow-down-the-clock strategies.

Your Action Plan

“By the time we hit our forties, we often become breathless after racing up stairs, running to the gate to catch a flight or having sex,” says Moreno. “But aging doesn’t cause breathlessness. If you walk, jog, swim or bike regularly—and do not smoke—you have enough respiratory capacity to breathe easy throughout your life.” For further protection, do as much as you can to prevent colds or flu, which could lead to lung infections (e.g., wash your hands frequently). And try to maintain a healthy weight. “Carrying extra pounds in your torsoand abs makes it harder for your diaphragm to expand. It’s as if someone were sitting on your stomach,” says Moreno.

More advice:

Exercise your chest muscles  
Strengthening the muscles that stretch from your neck to your collarbone and out to the ends of your shoulders—the ones that lift when you inhale deeply—can make breathing more efficient, says Marie Budev, MD, medical director of the lung and heart-lung transplant program at the Cleveland Clinic. She recommends 20 minutes of hand pedaling a day with a $50-to-$70 mini cycling machine you can pick up at a sporting goods store. Any arm-strengthening exercise will also work.

Avoid outdoor and indoor pollution   
Steer clear of any place filled with smoke, air pollution or chemicals, Moreno counsels, and don’t exercise outdoors on bad air-quality days (the faster you inhale, the more pollutants you breathe in). And if you cook on a gas stove, protect yourself from the high pollution levels it produces by cooking on the back burner and turning on an over-the-range hood.

Practice deep breathing  
Several studies suggest that doing yoga regularly can improve your lung capacity, and the benefit seems to stem mainly from its breathing exercises, according to a recent review in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Moreno recommends doing a simple exercise called straw breathing a few times a week. Start by putting a straw in your mouth. Then “pinch your nose and keep your lips sealed around the straw. Breathe for one minute. If you feel dizzy, stop,” he says.

Additional reporting by Norine Dworkin-McDaniel.

Next: Is Your Digestive System Aging Too Fast?

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First Published Wed, 2012-10-24 13:36

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