By Tahiat Mahboob  

Let's face it — aging is inevitable.

But more and more scientific research is shaping how people think about aging and exploring how to stave off biological decline. From a simple test you can do yourself that predicts mortality risks in elders, to the study of a rare genetic disorder that keeps diabetes and cancer at bay, scientists are focusing on aging and how to slow it down from all different angles.

As the documentary How to Stay Young illustrates, diet, exercise, stress, and overall lifestyle all play a role in the aging process. There’s no one-size-fits-all explanation for what accelerates aging and how to slow it down.

How to Stay Young

However, scientists in the film are taking a closer look at how certain diets, specific types of exercise, and a new form of stress therapy are having greater impacts on the communities and study groups that are practising them. Here’s a look at three examples.

More meat, more problem

In a city 95 km east of Los Angeles, many residents have lived well into their 80s or 90s and beyond. Loma Linda, California is home to a large Seventh-day Adventist community with one of the highest rates of longevity in the world according to some estimates. The secret? No smoking, no alcohol, a lot of exercise and little or no meat or fish, as instructed by their faith.

Since 1958, organizations like the National Health Institute and the American Cancer Society have studied the community’s health. Loma Linda University, owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has similarly collected data from more than 95,000 people in the area to study the effects of their dietary habits and lifestyle. The results show lower overall mortality compared to meat eaters as well as a lower chance of getting heart disease and certain types of cancer.

PE_how_to_stay_young_STORY_Loma_Linda_MarketA scene from the documentary How to Stay Young that shows a grocery store in Loma Linda, California that sells no meat.

One reason why limiting meat consumption in their diets may have slowed down aging in Loma Linda could be due to the impact of animal protein. Animal protein is said to stimulate a hormone that people need for growth. But as we grow older, that same hormone speeds up aging — especially when people hit middle age.

While no one is prescribing a completely vegan diet to prevent aging, those who limit the amount of meat they eat will certainly feel some benefits.

Dancing might be a more effective workout than your gym routine

Recent research into which exercise is best at making us stronger as we age has come up with some surprising results. And yes, finding a type of exercise that people actually enjoy doing does matter.

A study led by Professor Marco Narici at Magdeburg University in Germany wanted to discover which of two physical activities was better at keeping frailty at bay. While 20 elderly Germans danced three times a week, another group trained for exactly the same amount of time in the gym, doing typical gym-based exercises such as cycling. Both groups participated in their assigned activities for three hours a week, for a total of six months. For an accurate assessment, both groups had to exercise to the same music to keep the level of exertion roughly equal.

PE_how_to_stay_young_STORY_DANCEA scene from the documentary How to Stay Young that shows a group of elderly Germans dancing.

To assess the impact, researchers looked for a protein in the blood of each participant that assesses muscle strength. Tests after six months revealed that the gym group had little difference but the dancers had a 15 per cent improvement in muscle strength.

Marco explained that unlike typical gym workouts that are repetitive and exercise one or a small group of muscles, dancing targets multiple spots at the same time. Dancing requires balance and flexibility and stimulates many more systems — the brain, ligaments, muscles, tendons — making it a more comprehensive and holistic form of exercise.

In the course of the study, Marco made another unexpected discovery — dancing had a positive effect on the junction between muscles and nerves.

“Dancing facilitates the crosstalk between the muscle and the nerve,” says Narici.

Dancing requires more input from the nerves. This, in turn, strengthens the junctions between the muscles and nerves and leads to the strengthening of muscles.

So try ditching those dumbbells for some dancing shoes. Or at the very least, change up those typical cardiovascular exercises with workout routines that use multiple sets of muscles. And make sure to find a workout routine that you actually enjoy doing.

Dogs as stress-relievers

Studies show that stress and aging go hand in hand. Stress makes people’s bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. And living in a constant state of fight-or-flight from ongoing stress can take a toll on people’s health such as increasing the risk of heart disease and other dangerous conditions.

Now there’s a slightly unorthodox method to combat the problem — dogs.

PE_how_to_stay_young_STORY_DOGA scene from the documentary How to Stay Young that shows a workplace that brings in dogs to help relieve stress.

Two studies that looked at the impacts of dogs in the workplace on stress and well-being found that “the presence of a dog is associated with reduction in physiological indicators of stress (even more effectively than friends and family in some cases) and improved performance.” The studies also showed that employees who did not bring dogs to work had significantly higher perceived stress.

But it’s not just in the workplace. According to a major 12-year study that followed 3.4 million people in Sweden, having a dog is associated with a lower risk of death from cardiac diseases such as heart failure, stroke, or heart attack.

Battling stress with dog therapy is not new. Back in 2011, Yale Law School piloted a dog therapy program for their students. Harvard Medical School soon followed suit.

While owning a dog or bringing one to work might not be feasible for everyone, finding a suitable way to reduce stress  — be it through exercise, meditation or simply me-time — is a crucial part of offsetting the effects of aging.