Just because you’re getting older in years doesn’t mean your body has to do the same. Find out how to anti-age your body at cellular level, keeping your bones and muscles, not to mention your brain, at their best.

You gain you lose. When you’re young that can mean gaining muscle and losing fat, but when it comes to aging everything goes in reverse – you gain fat and lose muscle, you lose hair on your head only for it to grow in your ears and nose, you lose hormones and gain erectile dysfunction! But it doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, you can swing the balance in your favor simply by understanding the process your body is going through on a molecular level and how to adjust your diet, fitness and lifestyle accordingly. But first, let’s get down to the minutia – all the way down to DNA level, in fact to discover how you can stop the clock.

Telling Telomeres

You may not have heard of telomeres yet, but scientists researching aging are obsessed with them. First, let’s start with DNA, your genetic ‘coding’. Within your DNA are chromosomes, which are like the recipe or instruction sheet for every living thing. They dictate everything from your gender to the color of your eyes. Telomeres are like protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. When you’re young telomeres are longer – around 8,000 to 10,000 nucleotides long. (Nucleotides are the building blocks of nucleic acids, essential to all forms of life.) But as you go through life, these telomeres shorten each time a cell divides. At some point, obviously, the telomere becomes too short to keep dividing and that’s when the cell dies. They’re the canary in the coalmine of aging.

For this reason, telomeres have become the focus of anti-aging experts worldwide. And there have been some astounding results. In one study, from the University of California San Francisco, men were asked to either follow a healthy diet, along with regular exercise (30 minutes a day), yoga and meditation or do nothing different. After five years of this the telomeres were significantly longer in those who had changed their lifestyles in a positive way compared to those who had not. What’s more, the better the study participants were at sticking to the diet and lifestyle advice, the longer their telomeres were. “In a biological sense they are getting younger,” says Dr Dean Ornish, who led the study (www.ornish.com).

So while the shrinkage of your telomeres is natural to some extent, your lifestyle choices can obviously limit the shrinkage. And it’s worth doing because shorter telomeres are literally linked to every kind of possible health hazard you can think of – heart disease, dementia, cancer, a shorter lifespan, skeletal muscle aging, bone density… you name it, telomeres are involved.

Researchers are trying to figure out how to prevent telomeres from shortening, but human studies are always difficult if not impossible to undertake on a large scale, because we can’t put humans in a lab setting for years so there are always other factors that need to be taken into account. This is why the scientists focus on mice or other rodents, which aside from being fast breeders, also share genetic, biological and behavior characteristics with humans. And one such mouse study has found that a restrictive-calorie diet can improve telomere life. Research from Spain’s National Cancer Research Centre, Madrid found that mice put on a 40% lower calorie diet showed a significant improvement in telomere length. The mice not only showed longer telomere length but they also lived around 20% longer than other mice. Now while we’re reluctant to immediately extrapolate the same to humans, there is evidence that people who restrict their diets on a long-term basis are less likely to suffer with heart disease and related conditions – this could be down to longer telomeres or some other effect. The downside of long-term restrictive diets is that they can also lead to muscle loss… And who wants that? The good news is that animal and human studies on intermittent fasting suggest that it provides similar benefits – and it shouldn’t cause muscle loss, as you’re not restricting your calorie intake overall. For example, research from the University of Alabama found men who ate only during an eight hour period in the day (compared to 12 hours) didn’t gain or lose or weight (neither did the other group) but their insulin levels fell, had decreased appetite and had significantly lower blood pressure.

Nosing around Neurotransmitters

Getting your telomeres to stop shrinking is just one way to keep the cells and other parts of your body fresh and new. You also need to take care of your neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are like chemical messengers that help not only carry, but also boost signals between your nerve cells (neurons) and other cells in the body. Considering that you’ve got around 100 billion neurons that work to do everything from move your pinkie to help you squat that 250lb, you can see why neurotransmitters are so important. They’re involved in regulating your appetite, your mood, learning and concentration, your sexual desire, muscle growth, your heart rate, everything.

Here’s some uplifting news then: one of the key ways neurotransmitters keep you young is via your happiness levels.

Endorphins are a particular type of neurotransmitter that we all hanker after, even without knowing it. When endorphins are released you feel generally fantastic. They’re the building blocks for feeling happy, satisfied, fulfilled, elated, euphoric, all those good vibes. Why all the fuss about being happy? Because happiness not only keeps you feeling younger, it actually makes you live longer too. Research from Duke-NUS Medical School found an increase of one point on a happiness score lowered the chance of dying due to any cause by 9%, and the likelihood of dying was 19% lower for happy older people compared with their less happy counterparts. There are a number of factors at play here: feeling happy makes you more likely to get restful, restorative sleep; you’re more likely to enjoy a healthy diet rather than over-eating or eating trashy food; and all that feel-good makes you more likely to push yourself to exercise too.

The Battle Against Stress

Your biggest enemy when it comes to aging isn’t unhappiness – it’s stress. Not work-based stress, nor the stress you feel when you’re getting an ear-bashing from your partner, it’s not even environmental stress, it’s oxidative stress. There is a big difference that will dramatically impact your wellbeing.

Oxidative stress happens when healthy molecules in your body come into contact with ‘reactive oxygen’. The molecules become ‘oxidized’ which means they lose an electron and this upsets how they function. The reactive oxygen comes via free radicals – these are molecules that contain oxygen and have an uneven number of electrons. The uneven aspect is what permits them to react so effectively with other molecules, which can be bad news for you. It means that free radicals can have quite a dramatic effect on your body, from your heart to your brain to your muscles and so on.

Free radicals come from a wide range of sources – pollution, sunlight, cigarette smoke, fried foods, alcohol, and some free radicals are produced by natural, normal processes within your body. Consider this: exercise actually produces serious volumes of free radicals! That doesn’t mean you should stop doing it, obviously, but it’s important to recognize that the whole free radicals versus you battle royale isn’t quite as straightforward as you might like to imagine. Exercise types linked to the greatest free radical production are the most intense kinds – those HIIT classes, for example. But rather than give those up, get yourself a shield in the form of antioxidants.

You’ve likely heard of antioxidants, they’re touted as ingredients in health drinks, supplements, creams and all kinds of foods too. All antioxidants are able to pass that extra electron onto free radicals so they stabilize and become less reactive, protecting you. So aside from avoiding sources of free radicals you can fight the process by stuffing yourself with blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, kale, and artichokes, some of the best sources.

However, it gets more complicated. A paper by the Norwegian School of Sports Science found that high doses of vitamin C and E (yep, they’re antioxidants) can blunt the effects of endurance training. These vitamins lessened the processes within the muscles that help make you fitter. What about weights? The same paper found those who lifted weights had smaller muscle and strength gains. How or why this happened, the lab coats can’t explain, but it’s clear that sticking to whole foods post exercise, rather than industrial quantities of antioxidants is a far more productive way to refuel.

It’s not all about free radicals

Recently researchers have begun to point the finger at another substance that is critically linked to aging and keeping our bodies youthful – sugar. Well, more specifically advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These are formed either via the way your food is processed before you eat it, or during cooking time. Frying, searing, baking and barbecuing foods are all culprits here because the high heat causes sugars (glucose, fructose etc) in the food to bond, creating AGEs. To make things worse, AGEs can also form within your body. This happens when sugar molecules attach themselves to proteins. A diet high in sugar can result in high sugar levels, obviously, but this then leads to the formation of AGE in your body, in your muscle tissue, organs and even your blood vessels.

You most definitely do not want AGEs in your body. They will help stiffen your arteries, stymie the healthy functioning of your organs and even clog up your brain. But as you age, AGEs accumulate. Years of ingesting AGEs along with organs that no longer filter out the bad stuff as efficiently as they used to (kidneys, liver, for example) means that it can build up. High lipid content in your blood, as well as oxidative stress also make you more likely to suffer with AGE accumulation. And although research is ongoing, studies suggest links between AGE accumulation and a host of health issues – including chronic inflammation, premature aging, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and arthritis. In fact, researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine went so far as to say that “the accumulation of AGEs accelerate the multisystem functional decline that occurs with aging.” And to doubly confirm what we previously thought, AGEs are also linked to telomeres, too. Research published in the European Heart Journal found that AGEs contributed to shorter telomeres, along with heart aging overall.

Like other substances that affect the health of your arteries, AGEs impact your ability to grow muscle. Because the stiffer your arteries are, the harder it is for your body to supply much-needed oxygen-rich blood to your muscles when you work out. Similarly, your heart needs to be in top shape if you’re going to crack that Iron Man contest or run that marathon. AGEs are your enemy in this. And sources of AGEs such as fried foods shouldn’t be part of your diet anyway. They’re never going to be your best choice when it comes to building a lean muscular physique purely because the oil adds unwanted calories in the form of fat and unhealthy fat at that. Even olive oil, generally considered very healthy, will see a breakdown of its monounsaturated fatty acids when heated beyond its smoking point, leaving it without the health benefits it had before. Similarly, processed foods (also high on the AGE content) are best left on the shelf if you want to build muscle. High in sodium and hidden calories, processed foods are not your friend.

It’s not only about your muscle tissues, heart and other organs. This effect of AGEs is so pronounced some scientists claim they can tell how much sugar a person eats just by looking at their skin. When glycation occurs (when sugar bonds with a protein), collagen and elastin, essential building blocks of healthy skin, can’t function properly and skin cells can’t regenerate as well, leaving you looking saggy, old and with deeper wrinkles. Although this kind of look is termed ‘sugar face’ by dermatologists, it’s not just about eating chocolate, biscuits and cakes. Because all carbohydrates turn to sugar, it’s also down to our high-bread/pasta/rice diets. Stick to your high-veg and fruit, high-protein diet and you’ll avoid this ugly effect.

The Weight Of Information

You’ve probably heard of sarcopenia. It’s just as scary as it sounds. It’s the loss of muscle tissue as you age. At around the age of 30 you start to lose around 0.5% muscle mass per year until 50 when, unless you change the way you exercise, you’ll hit the high speed button on muscle loss. The average 50-year-old will lose another 30% of muscle by the time they’re 70.

But you can still build muscle as you age. The reason sarcopenia can and does occur is largely attributed to motor neurons. These messengers signal between your brain and muscles, telling them to move. Over the years the number of your motor neurons falls. But here’s the thing – while those motor neuron levels might fall naturally, the less you use those muscles the weaker the neurons become. Which begs the question, do your muscles atrophy because of falling numbers of neurons, or do the neurons fall in number because you’re not using your muscles as much? Research is ongoing on this but a study on athletes in their 80s from the Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, suggests that muscle disuse could be a culprit of sarcopenia. That would suggest that by maintaining use, or even increasing use, you could avoid this outcome.

Naturally, there are other factors at play too. As older people experience higher oxidative damage to their DNA, the level of antioxidant proteins in their bodies falls dramatically. What’s more, this DNA damage leads to lower levels in protein synthesis on a mitochondrial level, meaning the muscle fibers can’t get the energy they need to function and grow. This means that age-related sarcopenia could also be a side effect of DNA damage, triggered by oxidation and, yep, free radical damage again (see above).

The keys to beating the biological clock then is to fight free radical damage, keep your telomeres long, avoid AGEs, and enjoy life… your body will remain young as you keep growing wiser and more muscled.

Why It’s Not All Bad

Youth is wasted on the young, so they say, but there are reasons to look forward to getting old, too.

Fewer colds

As you age, you’ll be exposed to viruses, become immune to them and carry on. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there are around 200 viruses that cause colds. As a child, you get around eight colds a year; as an adult you’ll get two to three. Once you’re retired, that’ll drop even further to just 1 a year.

You can stay up later

Research from Harvard Medical School found that those aged 60-72 needed less sleep per 24-hour period than those aged between 18 and 32.

More sex appeal

Forty percent of women polled by Glamour magazine said they thought gray hair was sexy on a man.

Less stress

According to a Harris Poll, only 9% of those over 60 reported feeling ‘a lot of stress’ compared to 25% of younger adults.

Happier overall

Several studies have shown that while midlife is the time we are most likely to report being unhappy, being very young or very old are the happiest times of our lives.