From tea to squats: 15 tips to turn back the clock on ageing
It's a question that gets asked time and time again - can you turn back the clock on ageing? Well, it depends who you ask, as Joel Snape finds out from the experts...
Are you really only as old as you feel? New research into the ageing process says it's not quite that simple - but, if it turns out you're older than your passport suggests, it's not too late to take action.
In recent years, in-gym assessments, online quizzes and the TV show How To Stay Young have popularised the idea that "chronological" age really is nothing but a number, a view endorsed by the 33-year-old footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, who claims a "biological age" of just 23.
Now, more scientific methods offer to dig into your genes to discover just how long you've got left and what you can expect as the years tick by. But do any of them work? And, if you discover that you're blessed - or cursed - with the genes of a premature octogenarian, is there anything you can actually do about it?
From tea to squats... 15 age-lowering tips
Even if you can't rewind your underlying biological clock, you might be able to oil the gears. Here's how to stave off the ravages of age, according to trainers, nutritionists, medical professionals and the latest science.
1 Breakfast on mackerel
It's one of the top seafoods for omega-3 fats and vitamin D, both of which are associated with longer telomeres - but if that isn't persuasive, it's also a double-whammy with links to better bone health and a stronger immune system. Mix in a dash of harissa paste and Greek yogurt and serve it up on toast for breakfast.
2 Get a firmer handshake
It's not just about sending a message at parties. "A weak grip can be a sign for reduced muscle mass and bone density - or osteoporosis - as you age, resulting in increased frailty, risk of falls and fractures, disability, and even mortality," says Sarah Lindsay, personal trainer and ex-Olympian. "High grip strength is just an indicator of muscle mass, but stronger ones let you transfer more force to a barbell or pull-up bar, letting you squeeze out more reps. "Fat Gripz" - google them - will make any move tougher and help your power-squeeze.
3 Cut back on the booze
Drinking too much alcohol over time can worsen age-related conditions including osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure and risk of stroke - and sticking to red wine won't help much. "Resveratrol, the polyphenol that's theorised to protect against age-related decline, is the main 'benefit' of wine, but it's much more abundant in blueberries and grapes," says Precision Nutrition coach Jess Wolny. "And you should have at least two consecutive days off a week." Make a simple switch by saying: "I don't drink on weekdays", rather than "I can't" or "I shouldn't" - studies suggest the change in language aids your willpower.
4 Squeeze in some squats
"Studies suggest adults can lose up to 8pc of muscle mass each decade after the age of 40," says Bupa Health Clinics' Dr Ann Robinson. "This makes us gain weight, become more frail, and more prone to disease and accelerated ageing. Exercise, especially strength training, can reduce and even reverse age-related muscle loss. It can be as easy as taking the stairs wherever possible, doing 15 squats every ad break while you watch your favourite TV show or after you brush your teeth every day, or doing some angled push-ups on the kitchen counter top while you wait for the kettle to boil."
5 Balance on one leg
Try this one now: stand on one leg, close your eyes, and count to 10, slowly. "If you can't quite manage it, it could be a symptom of an injury or imbalance you've never quite addressed - a lack of core strength, or even something more serious, like nerve damage or an inner ear disorder," says Wolny. "If it doesn't improve with practice, consider getting it checked out."
6 Protect your brain
"Alzheimer's disease can start developing in your brain 20 or 25 years before you even notice the slightest warning sign," says Dr Robinson. "So if it starts developing in your brain when you're 40, you won't notice until you're well into your 60s. Along with maintaining a healthy lifestyle including keeping active, studies also show that learning another language can help prevent Alzheimer's - it takes two minutes to download a language learning app, and you can use it anywhere."
7 Spend longer in bed...
"According to one study, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200pc more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night," says Lindsay. "The same sleep deficit can significantly raise the risk of developing Alzheimer's. Getting an extra hour or two of sleep could have life-changing results."
If you're having trouble dropping off, invest in a set of blackout curtains and eliminate light - including TV standby LEDs and mobile phone charging lights - from the bedroom. Having a consistent bedtime and cutting down on caffeine post-3pm will help.
8 ...And while you're there...
In a 10-year study conducted by Dr David Weeks, a consultant clinical psychologist, researchers concluded that regular sex made both men and women look between five and seven years younger. The mechanism isn't entirely clear, but one possible cause is an increased release of human growth hormone - which helps skin elasticity, but also has a wealth of other health-improving effects.
9 Eat more plants
"From a nutrition perspective we know that a predominantly plant-based diet high in antioxidant-rich foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts is associated with increased longevity," says Anne-Marie O'Shea of Future Fit Training. Keep them colourful, cruciferous, or dark and leafy, especially in salads - iceberg and gem lettuce aren't as nutritionally dense as kale or spinach.
10 Sit on the floor...
… and then get up again, without using your hands or knees. In a study of more than 2,000 ageing people, those best able to manage it had a lower incidence of all-cause mortality than less physically capable volunteers. "Enhancing your movement efficiency will increase your longevity and help to prepare your body for unfamiliar movements, from salsa dancing to playing catch with your grandkids," says Tee von Zitzewitz, a bootcamp instructor. "Improved flexibility will help to prepare your body for training and prevent injury. Do static stretching whenever you can, including when watching TV - and dynamic stretching before a workout to prepare your muscles for action.'
11 Walk more
Any amount of exercise comes with physical benefits, but walking in particular has benefits as you age - it's low-impact, easy to introduce… and if you do it in green spaces such as parks or fields, may also help stress levels and improved cognition.
12 Lose some timber
Yes, you knew this was coming. "Obesity is linked to increasing levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, contributing to cancer, heart disease, and DNA damage," says Lindsay. "As well as exercise, nutrition is vital to reducing body fat. Being in a caloric deficit will help you lose fat, but the simplest step you can take to improve your diet is improving the quality of food you eat by cutting down on processed foods and focusing on whole foods - vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts and fruit."
13 Rethink your tea intake
It doesn't always have to be English Breakfast. "Green tea is high in antioxidants, which may protect us from free radical damage," says Dewayne Charles, a personal trainer. "There's some evidence that it can help to quell inflammation, as well as fighting wrinkles by increasing cell turnover." Switch at least one cup a day.
14 … And don't worry too much
Some studies seem to show that stress can shorten telomeres, but even if the telomere theory of ageing turns out to be wrong there are other reasons to avoid it - chronic stress leaves you in fight-or-flight mode all the time, leaving your immune system weak and elevating your risk of heart attack and depression. Evidence suggests that meditation or mindfulness can help - download the Calm or Headspace apps - but so can "tactical" breathing, taught to US Marines. When things are overwhelming, breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, and out for four - you'll engage your parasympathetic nervous system and (hopefully) keep calm.
But don't try this unsupervised...
15 Eating (much) less
Looking to break the 120-year barrier? This option is a bit more… controversial. Based on research done on fruit flies, mice, and monkeys, there's some evidence that extreme calorie restriction can extend life up to a theoretical 160 years or so - but since current self-experimenters are existing on a daily diet of less than 1,800 calories - 700 calories below the current recommendations for an adult man - you have to consider what kind of life it is. More promising is intermittent fasting, which seems to mimic some of the same effects while only ruining manageable chunks of your life.
Firstly - and perhaps most obviously - it's impossible for an online age-checker to tell much about you from a dozen questions about your waist size and red-wine intake.
What these tests do is measure your susceptibility to a range of risk factors commonly linked to age-related diseases - diabetes if you're overweight, say, or osteoporosis if you're physically inactive.
Being clocked at 60 when you're actually 42 on one of these calculators simply means you have at least one risk factor that is higher than the number set as "normal" - and if you take half a dozen of them, you're likely to be given a wide range of possible ages, as different models use different risk factors and different rules.
The more complex tests offered by gyms include metrics like grip strength, blood pressure or V02 max, but they're essentially measuring the same thing - risk of age-related disease, not your body's biological age. It's an appealing way to do things, because it's possible to make rapid improvements - drop a couple of percentage points off your body fat, and you'll register as a decade younger - but in terms of the overall message, say researchers, it muddies the waters.
"To make real progress in this area of research, we need to distinguish between the ageing process and the common types of disease that emerge with age," explains Prof Jamie Timmons, who studied ageing as part of his work at King's College London's Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics. "We all demonstrate different types of age-correlated disease patterns - some get osteoporosis, some dementia, some cancer or vascular disease and others diabetes. None of these is 'ageing' - they are diseases that emerge, depending on our genetics and environment, with the passing of time.
"For example, you can have Type II diabetes when you hit 30, but it's reversible - does that mean that you are biologically older and then you've made yourself young? That would mean biological age is a fantasy term. If 'biological ageing' is a real and fundamental thing, then it should be distinguished from 'disease'."
The obvious next question, then: is it? If we're all genetically handed a biological clock that's seriously out of whack with our chronological ages, it could have implications ranging from how we prepare for our dotage to what we should pay for our insurance premiums. But the answer is less clear than you might think.
"A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology compared 11 different measures used to quantify biological ageing," notes Anne-Marie O'Shea, head of the School of Nutrition at Future Fit Training. "They found low 'agreement' between the different measures, which means that depending on which test you take you may come up with a very different age."
Are some tests more reliable than others? Again, it depends on who you ask. The most in-vogue method of quantifying ageing - the one that gets all the book deals and TV appearances - is to track the state of our telomeres. These are the protective ends of chromosomes - think the plastic bits on the end of your shoelaces - and one widely-cited theory holds that, since they grow shorter every time a cell divides, they're a key indicator of overall age. But it's far from accepted science.
"Telomeres measure the age of a single cell, while we're composed of billions of cells of different ages," says Prof Gordon Lauc, a researcher from the University of Zagreb. "You can find old and young cells in anyone. Telomeres are a safety switch that prevent cells from living forever - so they're catchy, but there's no practical use for measuring them."
Prof Lauc is the co-owner of GlycanAge, a company that suggests an alternative measure of ageing: analysing immunoglobulin glycans, one of the most omnipresent antibodies in our blood.
"We don't really know why we age, but there are two key hypotheses," he explains. "The first is that it's a programmed mechanism to eliminate old individuals and save resources: otherwise you're eating food and not making babies. The second is that as we get older, we meet more and more antigens - viruses, bacteria, food - which have a pro-inflammatory effect. Either way, the consensus is that ageing is linked with inflammation, which is linked to immunoglobulin."
Prof Lauc - who checks in with a not-too-enviable 'GlycanAge' of 72, almost 30 years above his actual age ("Though I've been able to lower it by losing body fat") - argues that glycan analysis and tracking changes in DNA methylation patterns, which are thought to act as a sort of second code on top of DNA, are likely to become the gold standard for biological age assessment in future.
But not everyone agrees.
"Immunoglobulin glycosylation is a classic example of a factor that correlates with age-related disease, which leads some people to conclude that it must measure 'biological ageing' - but that's a circular argument," says Prof Timmons.
"And DNA methylation doesn't seem to 'tick' like a clock should - in studies, most of the difference between test subjects occurs in their early years. Neither measure seems to reveal anything fundamental about the biology of ageing in terms of the pathways that link to ageing, even if they turn out to be valid measures of your overall health status with time."
Confused? It's a confusing area - but there's hope. Even if nobody can agree on the best markers of biological ageing - or even its root causes - there's plenty of consensus that you can protect yourself from its worst ravages… at least up to a point.
"In my opinion, biological ageing is about 50pc genetically determined, and 50pc influenced by environmental factors," says Prof Lauc.
"If I have a higher 'GlycanAge', it suggests a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease - which means I should live more healthily."
Advocates of the telomere and DNA models largely agree with this - and so does Prof Timmons, if cautiously.
"I think there is no evidence yet that we can alter our 'biological age clock' through lifestyle, but it does seem that longevity up to an average age of 80 years is highly modifiable," he says.
"We can treat the symptoms correlated with age through things like strength training and avoiding obvious toxins, such as smoking.
"Other than that, I'd say do things today that might be sensible if they also enhance your quality of life now."
Which isn't actually bad advice in general. After all, none of us really know what's around the corner.
Health & Living