“It’s just a part of getting older.”
So many women say this to me when they’re in my office, listing the uncomfortable symptoms they’ve been dealing with. I get so upset when I hear them say this because I know they’re echoing what society – and probably their health care practitioners – have told them.
And I simply disagree!
Yes, aging will happen to all of us. We come into the world as infants and live through many phases until we grow old. The process of aging is fascinating, adding unique aspects as each layer of our lives builds upon the next, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
But in other ways, the experience is far from universal. How we age, how we adapt and adjust to the changes, and what we make of it, is an intimately personal experience.
That’s why you can see a woman in her 80s running a marathon, and see another woman unable to walk unassisted. We all have unique life circumstances that impact how we age. But we all have another thing: more personal control over the aging process than we might think!
I’ve been blessed with the amazing opportunity in the past several decades to explore this process with hundreds of women through my practice. And over the years, I’ve noticed something.
My patients, my own family members, and myself all have something in common: we want to age gracefully and feel strong, both mentally and physically. Yes, there’s a desire to look younger – but we also want to feel younger; we want vibrant energy, a sharp memory, and a strong, healthy body.
Without access to a real fountain of youth, we have to rely on both practical and evolving methods to help us through the aging process, along with plenty of wisdom and courage.
We can increase our life and health span naturally, if we pay attention and gently nurture ourselves along the way. But where do we start?
You’re only as old as you feel
Have you heard that phrase before? Did it feel uplifting, or did it make you feel worse about your situation?
If you’re suffering, it probably isn’t as motivating as I think it’s intended to be. After all, I’ve known women in their 20s with physical issues that make them feel decades older than their years. But there is some truth to the phrase, and we can change our outlook if we work at it.
We live in a culture obsessed by youth.
The first thing we can do is stop believing everything we hear about aging. Negative messages associated with growing older are everywhere, and it is up to us to sort out what really applies – and, more importantly, what doesn’t.
Aging does not automatically equal a decline in health, or in looks for that matter. Active lifestyles and glowing health are actually brought about by the power of positive thinking.
As we age we face different challenges with physical functioning, social activities, employment, and other lifestyle changes. Maintaining a healthy attitude is as important as caring for our bodies. Staying connected to family and friends, exercising our brains as well as our bodies, managing stress, eating a healthy diet, and most importantly, engaging in activities we enjoy each day all contribute to a positive outlook.
Also, how we feel affects how we look. Body image is connected to how we feel physically, as well as how we think about ourselves. When we feel healthy, strong, and able, it shows, regardless of our age.
Understanding the biology behind aging
Age can creep up on us, catching us off guard sometimes. There comes a time in a woman’s life when she discovers, almost as if by surprise, that she is not as young as she used to be. The timing is different for each woman, and the reasons are as unique as she is.
Biological aging is a complex process involving cells at a molecular level. All living things are made up of cells, and these cells have their own life cycle. The balance between a cell’s ability to renew, and knowing when to die, drives the aging process.
Our cells are programmed by DNA to manage all of the systems in our body. Research shows that a cell’s life cycle depends on a special region of DNA located at the end of our chromosomes called a telomere. Telomeres actually protect the genetic information stored within the chromosomes.
Elizabeth Blackburn, a leading molecular biologist, describes the telomere like the plastic cap at the ends of shoelaces. The longer the telomere, the more frequently it can divide and remain youthful.
But with each division the telomeres shrink, lose capacity to repair and regenerate themselves, and eventually disappear. During this process, cells can become deficient and defective, and even be destroyed. That’s when you start to see signs of biological aging through physical manifestations in the body.
Research has shown a number of factors that impact telomere length. A 2014 review demonstrated that, in addition to known biological factors that impact telomere length, other factors should also be considered.
These include perceived stress, childhood adversities, major depressive disorder, education level, physical activity and sleep. That’s a lot of factors to consider – and many of them are things we can control.
Research is ongoing around the hypothesis that damaged telomeres with an inability to repair themselves, combined with oxidative stress (burdens placed on the cells by toxins and other agents) and inflammation, can make our cells simply fizzle out.
Related article: Is Stress Aging You Before Your Time?
A 2008 study linked shorter telomeres to cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and scientists are currently exploring telomere length as a marker for aging. Another study is underway looking at an enzyme called telomerase, an active and present force within cells which may help chromosomes replenish the DNA sequence that is lost each time the cell divides.
Normally telomerase slows down over time, but in certain instances, such as invasive cancers, it actually becomes more active, and enables cancer cells to thrive. Healthy aging depends on having the right amount of this enzyme to do its job.
When we are young, our long telomeres help enrich and protect our systems. For example, our heart and blood vessels are resilient, our immune cells fight off infection, our bones mineralize and stay strong, our hair follicles produce healthy hair, and our skin is elastic and supple. But as we age, our telomeres change form, and so does our body.
Biological aging can also be influenced by other things, including environmental and molecular free radicals – entities that are highly reactive and can cause damage inside of cells; maladaptive biochemical reactions; spontaneous errors in genetic coding; and nutritional issues. Some of these things are within our control, others are not.
Healthy Aging – Is Slowing Down the Aging Process Possible?
We can’t stop aging, but the good news is we can slow it down. We have the power to have a positive impact on our overall health, even as we age.
Numerous studies link simple lifestyle changes with longer telomere length, which is an exciting prospect! A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reported that women ages 35-74 who take a daily multivitamin had telomeres that were approximately 5.1 percent longer than those who did not take multivitamins.
Another study of women ages 18-79 found that higher vitamin D levels were associated with longer telomere length. Increasing vitamin D levels simply by sensible skin exposure to the sun, or taking vitamin D supplements, may help regulate oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
Another micronutrient recently linked to aging is vitamin K, which may help offset our risk for diseases of aging, osteoporosis, and arteriosclerosis. Known as the “triage theory”, a cell uses nutrients to function, in order of importance.
When a particular nutrient is in short supply, its functions may end up at the bottom of the cell’s “to do list.” The cell uses its most important nutrients first, and when some nutrient levels remain in short supply, thus restricting their use, changes may occur, increasing our risk for disease.
There are upwards of 40 essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and fatty acids that actually “talk” to our genes. The nutrients in food make a difference.
For evidence of the difference nutrients make, just look at the results produced by the Mediterranean diet!
This diet, which reports say can effectively lower mortality, includes low consumption of meat and meat products, moderate consumption of alcohol -specifically red wine – and high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and olive oil.
We are learning more and more about how nutrition plays a key role in the messages our cells receive about activating – or blocking – disease in our bodies.
The more positive information that our cells receive from our choices in nutrition and lifestyle, the better our cells respond, and the less likely we will incur disease that we may be predisposed to in our DNA.
I hear so many patients voice concern over developing specific diseases because of family history. But more and more we are understanding how to stop these disease pathways before they start.
Hormones, resveratrol, and calorie restriction
There has been much in the media about celebrities using bioidentical hormones, such as the human growth hormone, to prevent aging. The reports have been positive, but there is controversy around this method, because we don’t really know the long term effects of using any type of hormone – synthetic or bioidentical – as a way to stay young.
Resveratrol is a potent antioxidant compound found in plants, especially the seeds and skin of red grapes (and hence red wine). In 2003, scientists discovered that resveratrol could extend the lifespan of fruit flies and yeast.
A 2012 study showed that resveratrol increased the lifespan in mice. And a 2018 review article of human research showed positive effects such as improved antioxidant capacity and decreased inflammation. The review emphasizes that much more research is necessary to really investigate the impact of resveratrol, but these studies offer some insight into how resveratrol may act in humans.
There is still a lot of work to be done around this particular methodology, but the thought is that resveratrol may reduce the risk for diseases of aging, not necessarily stop the aging process. Some of the positive effects include protecting cardiovascular health, inhibiting cancerous cells, protecting against neurological disorders, and promoting healthy metabolism.
Calorie restriction is another mechanism long debated as a way to reduce the risk of disease and lengthen longevity. It is not clear how caloric-restriction really works, or how people can commit to this regimen successfully. In fact, it could even backfire.
Blackburn discovered in her research that women who yo-yo diet, or go on and off diet plans, as opposed to making long term lifestyle choices, have shorter telomeres. The psychological stress of yo-yo dieting alone places strain on the body.
Recent research on both soy and resveratrol shows similar results to calorie restriction, without the side effects, like feeling hungry, that calorie restriction might cause.
What we can do right now
While science is working to uncover some of the ways we can increase our healthy lifespan, numerous studies link simple lifestyle changes to longevity.
Eating a nutritionally balanced diet, absorbing plenty of the right micronutrients, adding a quality multivitamin, reducing chronic stress, and getting plenty of sleep can all help maintain telomere length. These non-medical, nonsurgical approaches are not only manageable, but have proven success records.
These are just some of the things I have been telling my patients for years. I believe that a natural approach to health is always appropriate, and will certainly enhance rather than detract from our well being. Here are a few ways to feel stronger, healthier, and beautiful as you age:
- Eat a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and low in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and processed foods.
- Feed your cells the nutrient-rich information found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, healthy oils, and unrefined grains. The messages your cells receive from a cupcake are very different from those of a plate of greens drizzled with olive oil and lime juice.
- Take a top-quality multivitamin, an omega-3 supplement, and consider extra vitamin D.
- Preserve the length of your telomeres and the ability of your cells to divide by providing antioxidant-rich vitamins and the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s. Finding a quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplement not only can do wonders for your energy now, but will pay off in the future.
- Exercise – in an uplifting way! The benefits of exercise for healthy aging have been well documented. But if you hate the exercise you’re doing, you won’t stick with it. The key is to find something you look forward to rather than something you avoid or even dread. It only takes a tiny spark of motivation to get started, and a tiny spark to keep going, until exercising becomes a habit you will find you can’t live without!
- Explore ways to decrease chronic stress. There’s no doubt that chronic stress is one of the biggest health problems we face today. It contributes to inflammation and increases everyday “wear and tear” on our bodies. Make an honest effort to set aside time each day to lower your stress levels. You might try meditation, yoga, massage, or simply eliminating some unnecessary responsibility on your to-do list.
Don’t let the idea of aging paralyze you
You don’t have to fear the aging process.
With the right information, you can stay vibrant and healthy for a very long time. While the biology behind the aging process is complicated, the steps we can take each day to age gracefully are simple.
Understanding what happens to our body as we age is helpful, but if we maintain a lifestyle that supports healthy cell functioning, we won’t have to worry about what our cells are doing. We can just enjoy the vitality and joy of good health at any age!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD