People have a wide variety of wish lists for improving their health, but we all share one goal: Everyone wants to age well.
Of course, aging is somewhat unfair, because a few lucky people will breeze easily through eight or nine decades without even trying — due to their good genes — while the rest of us have to put in some effort just to get that far.
But not necessarily a lot of effort. Aging well — or, at least, aging better — doesn't have to be that hard. After talking to many aging experts and looking at the latest findings on aging from around the world, it's clear that people can improve the way they will age.
To start with, you need to know what makes you age, and that means you have to pay attention to what happens inside your cells, where aging begins. Scientists are finding that most of the cellular processes that cause the body to gradually decline with age are affected by diet, lifestyle, exercise, stress and other outside influences.
For example, the food you eat influences the production of harmful free radicals during metabolism. These are unstable, unpaired electrons that cause tremendous damage as they flail around inside your cells. Although research on this subject is far from complete, damage from free radicals (called oxidative stress) is widely considered one of many factors that cause cells to age and malfunction in various ways.
Scientists have also discovered the role of telomeres in aging. These are caps on the ends of strands of DNA that protect a cell's genetic material when it divides. But they get a little shorter with each division, and once they get too short, a cell can no longer function normally. Older people have shorter telomeres, but so do people with high stress and poor sleep habits.
So, your lifestyle can affect the microscopic processes going on in your cells day in and day out. But scientists are also finding that even small amounts of healthful behavior can retard these processes so that you age more slowly.
To eat more healthfully, for example, "one bite is better than none," explained Bahram Arjmandi, chair of the department of nutrition, food and exercise sciences at Florida State University, who has extensively studied the anti-aging properties of numerous foods. His research has documented notable benefits from daily consumption of apples (cholesterol), prunes (bone density) and watermelon (blood pressure).
But you have to keep it up. It's a little like keeping your house clean: Better to pick up a little bit each day than to let it go for weeks and have to tackle a huge mess all at once.
So the message from science is that you don't have to go all out with a major new fitness regime or diet to make a difference in how long you'll live or how healthy you'll be.
Knowing that even a little effort can have a big impact, here are six simple things you can do to improve your odds of healthy aging:
Bake, don't broil
Foods cooked with high heat develop toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, that accelerate aging. AGEs generate huge numbers of free radicals that build up in your blood and tissue, activating the immune system and causing chronic inflammation. And they contribute to hardening of the arteries, stiff joints, wrinkles and more, according to Helen Vlassara, director of the Diabetes and Aging Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Vlassara has studied AGEs for more than 30 years and published numerous peer-reviewed studies linking them to chronic health conditions and symptoms of aging.
AGEs are found in high quantities in processed foods such as American cheese, fast food and dark colas, in part because they are manufactured using high heat. Try substituting alternatives such as low-fat cheese, dried fruit, fruit juice and air-popped popcorn. Also, cook your food at lower temperatures: A fried egg has 10 times the AGEs of a scrambled egg, for example, and a steak has 10 times more AGEs than beef stew.
Skip a meal
Scientists have long been seduced by studies that have shown a rodent's life can be dramatically extended by cutting its food consumption by about 30 percent. Major studies on monkeys have not shown an increase in longevity by severely cutting calories, but other research, such as a study published in the Journal Nature in August, has demonstrated that adopting a low-calorie diet does improve the health of aging primates.
Of course, living this way is not fun. But what if many of the same benefits can be achieved by simply limiting food intake intermittently — for several hours a day, perhaps, or for a couple of days in a row? Experts on aging have found that short periods with little or no food appear to initiate protective mechanisms inside cells that "have the potential to reduce the risk for age-related diseases," said Mark Mattson, senior investigator for the National Institute on Aging and an expert on fasting. Mattson's review of intermittent fasting in the journal Cell Metabolism this month details various positive effects on brain health, for example.
Scientists have not come up with a single fasting protocol that would work for everyone; studies have used a variety of methods, such as limiting intake to 600 calories a day, two days a week. But other studies, including one published in Cell Metabolism in May, suggest that skipping the occasional meal or restricting the hours for eating may do your cells a lot of good. Check with a doctor, though, before you give this a try.
It doesn't take a lot of exercise to dramatically improve the way you age. Even moderate exercise helps neutralize free radicals, boost your immune system and even grow new brain cells. A study last month in the online journal PLoS Medicine looked at data on 650,000 adults (including some who were obese) and found that walking just 15 minutes a day was associated with living two years longer. Looking at normal-weight individuals only, the data showed that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week was associated with an increase in life span of more than seven years.
"When people talk about physical activity, they always think about jogging or, you know, doing intense physical activity," said Luigi Ferrucci, scientific director of the National Institute on Aging. "But you don't gain by jogging as much as you gain by going from being a couch potato to just walking 10 minutes per day. That is a huge difference."
While scientists still don't understand what happens in our bodies when we sleep, studies are piling up that show how harmful it is not to get enough sleep. "People who are sleeping less than six hours a night are at risk for more cardiovascular events, more likely to develop diabetes, more likely to die sooner," explained Aric Prather, a research psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco.
But the picture is very different for people who get seven hours of sleep or more: They have better immune systems, less stress and lower body weight, among other benefits. For example, a study of twins published in May in the journal Sleep found that a twin who slept less than seven hours a night was more likely to have a higher BMI than his or her sibling who slept more, as a result of both environment and genetically inherited factors. Prather said sleep studies have consistently shown that for most people, getting seven to eight hours will make a big difference to your health.
Stress ages you, and shorter telomeres is only one reason why. Scientists have found that how people deal with their stress is key. People who handle stress well do more of the things that non-stressed people do: eat well, sleep enough and, especially, exercise. And these people tend to have longer telomeres than stressed people who do not, explained Aiofe O'Donovan, a research psychologist at UCSF.
Of course, stress can make you feel less motivated to do health-promoting things, so you can try techniques to divert yourself from feeling stressed, such as practicing mindfulness meditation, which has been linked to greater activity of the enzyme that controls and protects telomere length.
An MRI-based study from 2010 showed that after an eight-week meditation program, the density of gray matter had increased in regions of the brain that control, among other things, emotion regulation and perspective. Growth of new tissue and connections in the brain make that area more powerful and more efficient. It's akin to building up a muscle, only in this case it's a muscle for stress control. Neuropsychologists say that even while sitting at your desk you can push back against stress by regularly taking a few long, deep, slow breaths and by picturing yourself out in nature, paying close attention to how it would smell and feel.
Have a hobby
What could collecting or crafting have to do with aging? A lot, it turns out. Researchers have studied the link between better health and a person's participation in an outside interest or activity. A study in Japan of almost 2,000 people ages 65 to 84 found that, compared with people who did not have hobbies, those who participated in a hobby had a significantly lower mortality and a lower likelihood of becoming bedridden during the period studied.
And a small 2010 study from Serbia found that having a hobby was linked to a lower risk of hypertension in female emergency room doctors, perhaps because it helped release tension and therefore helped prevent harmful behaviors such as smoking and drinking. Other studies have linked hobbies to keeping your brain active and providing a social connection with others, which tends to make you happier — another factor linked to greater health and longevity.
Pressler is the author of the recently released book "Cheat the Clock," from which this is adapted.