As we age our bodies changes in all sorts of predictable ways. Our joints stiffen, our sleep patterns alter, our heart rate slows and our brains respond differently. At the same time we are bombarded with fads that promise to make us feel stronger and look younger. Most of these fads are based on an assumption: that aging is a disease. It isn't. It's an ongoing, natural process with a few significant features:
1) A decline in heart health.
As we get older and less active the risk of heart disease increases. Our arteries become stiffer and as a consequence we are more likely to develop high blood pressure. Also, our maximum heart rate declines along with the volume of blood pumped per beat.
2) Loss of skeletal muscle mass and changes in body composition.
While the magnitude varies substantially across individuals, all of us will experience muscle mass loss with aging. At the same time it is common to experience an increase in visceral and abdominal fat accumulation, often accompanied by weight gain.
3) Degradation of bones, joints and ligaments.
Muscles and bones are linked. They either become stronger together or weaker together, so when we lose muscle mass we also lose bone strength. This means that as we age we are at greater risk of osteoporosis, arthritis, chronic back pain and fractures. The same applies to our joints, ligaments and tendons.
These aren't the only changes brought about by aging. There are many others. A decline in relative maximum oxygen consumption, weakening of the immune system and slowed recovery from injury and illness, for example.
When these things are talked about we often hear the expression, “normal aging process” as if aging is something that we have to accept and are condemned to. It is, and it isn't. But before I explain why aging isn't quite as inevitable as we think, I'd like to point something out: midlife is great.
Midlife is the perfect time to try something new because we’ve lived enough years to know ourselves. We have a good sense of who we are and when we approach something new we can pivot on our skills and passions. At middle age we tend to be better at regulating emotions and possess greater resilience, which gives us an advantage over younger people. For many of us midlife can mean complex family dynamics and tons of responsibilities, but midlife can also be a time for renewal, a time to redesign a life using the skills and experiences from previous decades. It can be a time to learn and to contribute to communities.
Our beliefs about aging influence our approach and our resulting behaviors towards it. We can choose to “slow down” and “take it easy”, or we can choose to embark on new challenges and pursue new adventures. If it is the latter we choose then it will also be helpful to know why aging isn't as inevitable as we think...
SLOWING SECONDARY AGING
The inevitability of aging is offset by recognizing the difference between primary and secondary aging. Primary aging is the progressive deterioration of our cells and our core biological functions. It is the inevitable loss of function that occurs no matter what we do. Secondary aging refers to the additional deterioration of our body due to changes caused by disease, lifestyle and environmental factors.
Many scientists and entrepreneurs are working to find ways to slow primary aging, but so far they haven’t solved the puzzle. However, due to developments in technology across the world we now live longer. So while our "lifespan" - average life expectancy - has increased quite rapidly, our "healthspan" - the period of life we can enjoy in good health and free from disease - has not. Ideally, our "healthspan" would be extended along with our "lifespan", but as no developments in the fight against primary aging seem forthcoming, we are going to have to achieve this by combating secondary aging. So let's look at a few ways in which we can do this.
- Exercise and Physical Activity
A lot of the deterioration people experience while aging can be attributed to the transition to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, not aging itself. Pharmaceuticals are improving all the time, but physical activity and exercise can do things that medicine cannot. In fact, they are considered by many researchers as the closest thing to a fountain of youth we have. Many epidemiological studies have shown that exercise is the most powerful anti-aging strategy available.
For example, many studies show that regular physical activity, exercise and a resistance training program that works your entire body can delay the loss of muscle and bone by years. Regular movement positively impacts joint function and can strengthen bone density, which in turn protects against osteoporosis and helps reduce the risk of arthritis and other injuries to tendons and ligaments.
Other studies have shown that midlife women who are physically active during menopause tend to gain less weight and experience less stress, that regular activity lessens the decline in aerobic capacity and cardiac flexibility, and that exercise prolongs brain health by reducing levels of natural stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
If you're going to do anything to limit secondary aging, make it this.
There isn’t a single best diet for all. But there is still a lot of consensus regarding which foods to avoid and which ones to add. The most common general recommendations are: avoid sugary foods, processed meats with high amounts of preservatives, sodium, and trans-fats, and eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and foods that are high in fiber.
Protein also plays an important role as we age. Since we start to lose muscle mass, making sure we ingest an adequate level of protein every day is crucial to preserve muscle and bone health. It's also worth noting that overall caloric needs decrease as we get older. This means that what we eat matters more because we actually need to eat less. So once we reach middle age a balanced diet composed of nutrient-dense foods is more important than ever.
This isn't a call to empty cupboards and start from scratch. Even small positive changes in eating habits can lower the risk of many of the conditions and diseases associated with aging and can help us live healthier, longer lives.
- The Mind
As we age the brain, like other organs, begins to work less efficiently and normal signs of decline begin to surface. But the brain is like other organs in another way, too: exercise slows the effects of aging.
An active brain is less vulnerable to memory deterioration and to the onset of diseases like dementia. So take courses, start a creative endeavor, or simply read more books. The resources available nowadays are basically unlimited and while it can be daunting the fact is we have access to more information than ever before. Ebooks, audiobooks, free online courses, apps and podcasts are just a few of the many ways we can learn online.
Choosing activities that involve social interaction and/or movement, like singing and dancing, are also good ways to keep both mind and body engaged, as is anything that involves the learning of new skills, either alone or as part of a group.
It is not only wise to seek continuous growth and explore new possibilities, but sensible. Doing so quite literally helps us stay young.
One of the most aggravating changes of aging is how we sleep. For many, middle age marks the beginning of shorter sleep of a lesser quality. Wake-up times become more erratic and actual sleep gets lighter. But when it comes to aging, adequate sleep is essential. It has an impact on memory, focus, mood, appetite and our immune system, among other things. So, what to do?
There are many strategies for improving sleep, but my favorites (which I’ve written in-depth about here and here) are: avoid caffeine, keep a consistent sleep schedule, create a sleep-inducing environment, develop a relaxing pre-sleep routine, and exercise daily.
Many adults claim they are lonely and loneliness has been linked to mental health deterioration. Studies have found that social connections and ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
The advice is obvious: cultivate friendships and strong social networks, join groups and clubs, spend time with family members and if possible, have a pet. These all provide meaningful interactions and help make getting older more fun and enjoyable.
- Smoking and Alcohol
We all know the negative effect that smoking has. For those that have been smoking for years quitting once they hit a certain age represents a real challenge. They might even wonder if it’s worth quitting. It is. As soon as someone quits smoking they will start to experience health benefits. For example, after just two days of not smoking a person’s blood pressure will drop and their sense of smell and taste will heighten. After only a month, lung function and cardiovascular capacity increases.
Concerning alcohol: there is much mixed information regarding its consumption. Many of the healthiest populations have a tradition of drinking moderate amounts of alcohol like wine. But excessive alcohol consumption has also been linked to health problems like high blood pressure and heart disease. Best to be cautious and drink less, instead of more, and if possible, gravitate to purer forms.
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A growing body of research indicates that our view of aging can have a dramatic effect on our health, happiness, and wellbeing. What we think and how we feel about getting older influences the experiences that each of us has as the years add up. Fortunately, we have the choice to learn and recognize the positive aspects of aging, and we can refuse to blame everything negative that happens to us as being down to aging. Forgetting a name, losing our car keys, or mispronouncing the title of a book are things that happen to everyone. As is aging.
We all become slower and more fragile, but it doesn't have to happen as fast as we think. We can slow the rate of secondary aging by becoming more active, eating better, learning new things, improving our sleep, investing in our relationships, and lessening our intake of cigarettes and alcohol.
I understand that it is not easy to make changes, that often we don’t know where to start. We might have a regular sleep routine but struggle to eat enough whole foods; we can be physically active but consume far too much alcohol. In most situations and for most people it's helpful to start by identifying the things that are working well and the things we struggle with. That done, we can then choose one area we want to improve in, setting small goals and implementing small steps, one by one, adding more when we feel ready.
In the game of life all positive actions count. No step forward is too small and we are never too old to continue trying.