A pre-industrial man could have lived to be 100, but the average was only 35. A human today could live to be 122, but the average is still only 79. Most of that gap can be laid to premature aging.
What causes us to age?
Medical science with quick and reliable treatments has more than doubled life expectancies since the 1700s. Modern medicine can even help people survive heart attacks, strokes and cancer.
But those diseases are often signs of premature aging that didn’t have to happen. A lot of what kills us now is caused by chemicals, contaminants, unhealthy sedentary lifestyles, eating rich, unhealthy foods laced with high sugar concentrations, consuming water laced with toxins, inhaling impure air laced with diesel emissions, and eat red meat cattle sickened from hormone injections and other things we inflict upon ourselves.
What is natural aging like if we could take out all those environmental and dietary risks? What causes aging other than sickness from pollution and bad habits?
Would we still age, but far more slowly? And would we remain healthy for more years at the end of our lives?
Real Aging Is Gentle
Aging is unavoidable eventually. A genetically predetermined time clock initiates the aging process with the first signs of it becoming obvious in middle age.
Somewhere around age 50, the hormones begin to decline. That’s the start of noticeable, natural aging.
However, aging, as we know it now is usually brought on by more than just low hormone levels. Numerous systems and tissue begin to deteriorate—bones weaken, skin wrinkles, autoimmune diseases like arthritis begin to occur even before the natural hormone clock should start ticking down. Something is signaling to the hormones to slow down. In many cases, the culprit is free radicals.
A free radical is a “lop-sided” molecule that has an unpaired electron. This makes it unstable because molecules normally have one proton (positive charge) for every electron (negative charge). Free radicals are apt to roam your body and either steal an electron from other places or drop its extra electron where it does not belong.
This ruthless and unpredictable process wreaks havoc on cell membranes. Though free radicals are produced by normal processes like breathing or breaking down food, those radicals tend to be short lived and serve a purpose. It’s radicals created by contaminants such as smoking and poor foods such as sugar or transfats that cause the most damage.
The body’s ability to manage free radicals, which trigger various diseases, deteriorates with time. Our failure to monitor them definitely hastens the aging phase.
In addition to free radicalsm some researchers say it’s inflammation — not sports-related inflammation, but persistent inflammation induced by sugar, white flour, and refined oils that is the main reason we age too soon.
But that involves free radicals, too. When free radicals damage cells, that sets off inflammation in the area. Then the inflammation itself causes more free radicals to form.
When Inflammation Turns Chronic, We Age Faster
Chronic inflammation “overwhelms our antioxidant defenses and activates aging diseases,” according to Eileen Silva, Ph.D., a naturopathic doctor from Texas.
“When you consider that we Americans already eat more than 160 pounds of sugar a year (on average), the extent of this rapid aging becomes apparent. It raises blood sugar levels, which causes free radical inflammation and thereby accelerates disease progression.”
While inflammation is a common factor in almost all diseases, preventing inflammation does not cancel aging. However, it would undoubtedly prolong youth.
But it’s not just injuries and illnesses that prompt inflammation. Stress releases hormones like cortisol that rapidly increase inflammation in chronic conditions as well.
That’s why stress, according to science, also accelerates the aging process and shortens life expectancy.
Cell division is another potential player in aging. On the tips of chromosomes there are cap-like shape similar to shoelace plastic tips. They are called telomeres.
Telomeres are longer in young cells. They are nubs in older cells. Some scientists believe that telomere shortening is a cause of aging, but that is still up for debate. What we do know is that when telomeres become too short, the cell cannot divide. Scientists are more confident that short telomeres are related to some signs of aging, like gray hair.
Knowing what may be causing rapid aging is a guide into knowing how to slow the process down and stay physically younger for longer.
The most effective methods for delaying the onset of aging
Strenuous exercise: Meet the optimum commitment for aerobic and strength training and never go below it. Your strength training may need to be individualized, but everyone is advised to get 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise and preferably 75 minutes or more per week of aerobic exercise. If you can’t reach those levels now, talk to your doctor and work up to those goals.
Younger people who don’t have any physical problems should include running for 30 seconds or 15 seconds during walks after their muscles are warmed up. The ability to sprint hard is one of the first items to go with an inactive aged body. The best way to keep this youthful potential is to sprint at or above full speed in these short bursts two or three times a week. Do this a few times on a walk, with a moderate pace between spurts. But avoid doing sprints like this on consecutive days unless you are very well conditioned.
Resistance training: Lift weights, too. That’s important as we begin to lose muscle mass with age. Weak muscles reduce your ability to maintain balance, prevent falls, and keep your endocrine system healthy.
Exercising to Minimize Your Age
There’s a lot to try…
Yoga: This slow and gentle practice encourages balance, which will help you prevent falling, and improves and stretches the muscles.
Walking and Jogging: Jogging burns calories. Walking outdoors is especially good for your mood and brain health.
Swimming: Exercising in the water is a good non-weight bearing practice that is especially kind to people who suffer joint pains.
Calorie restriction: Low-calorie diets extend the life of some mammals, fruit flies, and worms. It doesn’t seem to be that effective for humans, but it does prevent obesity, which is one of the most common risk factors for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other diseases.
(Picture credit: Vlada Karpovich)