By Graham Duggan  

From wrinkles to the sudden need for reading glasses, no one is immune to the effects of aging. Still, some of us seem to age more quickly than others, and experts have been trying to understand why. Many scientists now refer to our two ages: our birth age and our body age. Lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of activity, erratic sleep and high stress are thought to potentially accelerate our body’s aging process. But how much is within our control?

To study body aging, scientists in the U.K. set up a unique laboratory, shown in a series of documentaries about longevity from The Passionate Eye.

WATCH
How To Stay Younger
Stop Your Aging!
Reversing Your Body Clock

The researchers found volunteers who felt they were aging too fast and tested them from head to toe for risk factors including high blood pressure, cholesterol and body fat, and poor muscle strength and full-body fitness. These tests determined the participants’ true body age and some of the changes they needed to make in order to slow down, or even reverse their body’s aging process.

Here are a few things we learned.

Pump some iron

Muscles store lots of amino acids, the building blocks of our organs and tissues. When we fall ill or injure ourselves, our bodies rely on those amino acids to heal properly. But as we age, we begin to lose muscle mass, as much as three to five per cent every decade after age 30. With less muscle mass, we become weaker and are at greater risk of falls and serious fractures.

“Low levels of muscle mass in old age are associated with early death,” says Leigh Breen, an expert in muscle metabolism and lecturer at the University of Birmingham. So if we aren’t taking care of our muscles, they aren’t able to take care of us.

To slow down the body’s aging process, start pumping some iron. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger; some basic resistance training is all you need. “Resistance exercises … are vital for maintaining muscle mass and strength in old age,” says Breen. Experts recommend focusing on leg muscles since they are most responsible for movement.

You can incorporate resistance training into your workout by using light weights or machines at the gym, or try doing simple body weight exercises — such as squats, step-ups and pushups — at home.

Get your heart rate up

As we get older, our arteries can begin to stiffen, and high blood pressure becomes more common. Our risk of developing heart disease also increases with age. But certain actions can help offset these risks. 

One of the best things to do to ensure a healthier heart is to stay active. Taking frequent walks is one way to keep moving, but experts recommend doing an activity that raises your heart rate for at least 150 minutes per week.

Pick an exercise you enjoy. Don’t like jogging? Try swimming, doing some yard work or taking a dance class — any activity that gets you moving, increases your heart rate and feels good will contribute to a healthy lifestyle and help your heart.

Catch some Zs

A good night’s sleep keeps you mentally sharp, may reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension and depression, and keep you looking younger. You may be thinking “Perfect! I spend so much time in bed that I’m going to live forever!” But sleep expert Kevin Morgan, a professor at Loughborough University, says it’s more complicated than that: To stay healthy, you need to sleep “efficiently.”

“Sleep is that period during which certain processes take place that help to restore wear and tear, both in our bodies and in our brains,” says Morgan. “We have to give them an opportunity to work. It’s very important for healthy aging.”

Morgan tells patients suffering from erratic sleep to remove distractions like TVs from the bedroom, which can teach you to stay awake in bed. A restrictive sleep regimen may also help. Try waiting until midnight to go to bed and set your alarm for 6 a.m. — no dozing allowed! Limiting your time in bed should make you sleepier and encourage you to sleep more soundly and efficiently when bedtime comes.

Add some colour to your dinner plate

It’s easy to fall into bad eating habits with all the salty, fatty and sugary foods available to us. But the good news is that a few simple changes can get you back on the right track.

Instead of processed meats, eat healthier proteins, such as eggs, fish, beans or yogurt, throughout the day to nourish your aging muscles. Swap out the potato chips for some nuts, high in fibre and monounsaturated fats, to keep your heart healthy. And most importantly, add a variety of colourful foods to your diet.

“Fresh, unprocessed and colourful foods … work together to protect your body from the things that age you too fast,” says Paula Moynihan, a professor of nutrition who has worked with the World Health Organization. Vegetables like spinach and tomatoes, for instance, are rich in carotenoids, antioxidants which can help protect against aging. These kinds of foods can also “help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other diseases,” says Moynihan.

Learn something new

It’s never too late to take up a new hobby or learn a new language. In fact, according to experts, it can benefit your health.

As we age, our brains’ ability to process information can degrade if we don’t use them enough, just like our muscles weaken if we don’t flex them. To keep our cognitive capacities sharp, we need to exercise our brains.

When we process unfamiliar information, new connections — or neural pathways — are created between brain cells. This builds “brain plasticity” and improves our ability to deal with information old and new. Brain games such as crosswords and puzzles can improve working memory, but research suggests they may not enhance reasoning and problem-solving capabilities. Challenging skills or language classes were shown to have better effects overall and over the long term.

In essence, for healthy brain aging, never stop learning!

Reduce your stress

When we’re under stress, our adrenalin levels rise, our heart rate quickens and our blood vessels constrict, prompting our blood pressure to rise. If those levels stay high or take a long time to return to normal, our body’s health could be negatively affected.

“Some people show a very prompt recovery … [for] other people, the responses are sustained for minutes or even hours,” says Andrew Steptoe, an aging researcher and professor at University College London. “We think that that’s a particularly problematic type of response which could contribute to health risk and to aging.” Specifically, chronic stress may contribute to heart disease, impair memory and cause weight gain. But you can take steps to combat it.

People who are physically fit tend to recover more rapidly from mental stress, Steptoe says, meaning exercise may be one of the best ways to prevent the effects of stress. It also produces endorphins, which naturally reduce anxiety and make us feel good.

Or, try mindfulness — a meditation technique that encourages participants to be aware of their thoughts and feelings while focusing on their surrounding environment (focusing on the present, instead of worrying about the future or past). Mindfulness has been shown to improve mental well-being, can change the way you react to negative events and may even affect how your body reacts to stress on a genetic level. Just 10 minutes a day could aid in reducing overall stress levels.

Eat less sugar for younger skin

While it’s important to take care of what’s happening inside our bodies with age, that doesn’t mean we should forget about the outside — and how it makes us look and feel.

Aging skin is something we all experience, since its composition does change significantly over time. Our skin contains collagen and elastin, which give it structure and elasticity, but it produces less collagen and loses elasticity as we age. This results in wrinkles and sagging skin, some of the first signs of an aging body.

According to Mark Birch-Machin, a professor of molecular dermatology at Newcastle University, excess glucose can damage the structure of collagen. “[With] high blood sugar glucose in your body … essentially, the structure of your skin begins to change. It becomes a more distressed state and actually increases the amount of damage you have to skin cells.”

To mitigate these effects, limit sugary foods and go for healthy options such as cooked tomatoes, which contain lycopene, an antioxidant thought to protect skin from DNA damage and decrease our risk of heart disease and cancer.

And, of course, always wear sunscreen and limit prolonged sun exposure to prevent damage to skin cells that can result in disease and premature aging of the skin.

For more ways to Stop Your Aging and Reverse Your Body Clock, watch these, and How To Stay Younger on The Passionate Eye.