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Aging Gracefully: The Science Behind It

Though aging is something we all have to deal with, do we ever consider how well we will age? Certain signs, like wrinkles in our skin or graying hair, undoubtedly indicate our advancing years. Even though these signs are visible to the naked eye, they do not pose a threat to our health. But when our joints become stiff, or our muscles lose their range of motion, it could be a sign of age-related illnesses and frailty. So, let's discuss how to achieve aging gracefully.

Key takeaways:

While many of us want to age gracefully, what does that really mean? Does "graceful" refer to a young appearance or to a more profound sense of health and wellbeing? Aging gracefully often means that someone would like to age "well" and live a long, healthy life without diseases.

How do our bodies age, and is there anything we can do to slow down the process and enjoy a healthy life? Let's look at the science underlying aging and lifestyle decisions that could delay aging and improve our health.

The science of aging

While living a longer life is certainly desirable, most of us would rather enjoy our remaining years in better health. Our bodies are groups of cells that replicate themselves to survive. Our cells' DNA contains instructions on how they should operate. On the other hand, damage to our DNA can transmit instructions to our cells that result in illness.

When our bodies are younger, damaged DNA in our cells typically gets repaired pretty quickly. But this process slows down with age. The most frequent causes of DNA damage include the following:

  • Environmental factors. Pollution or chemical exposure can damage and produce errors in DNA function, known as genomic instability. Parkinson's Disease is a recent example of the adverse health effects that can result from exposure to cleaning solvents. Studies show a link between using these solvents and increased Parkinson's disease cases.
  • Cellular senescence. Even though cells replicate to survive, they undergo a process of cellular senescence, where the dividing slows down and the cell eventually "retires." The more the cell divides, the greater the risk of increased damage.
  • Shortening telomeres. The slowing down of cell replication occurs due to the shortening of telomeres, which are present at the end of each DNA strand. These telomeres act as protective caps, similar to the plastic nib at the end of a shoelace. However, the telomeres get shorter with each cell division, possibly leading to improper cell division and errors responsible for various age-related illnesses or cancer.
  • Chronic inflammation. Constant cell inflammation can also damage DNA, increasing the vulnerability to chronic diseases, viruses, and autoimmune disorders. Chronic inflammation will adversely affect our body and can result from environmental exposure, stress, or lifestyle choices such as a poor diet, smoking, and a lack of exercise.
  • Genetics. Studies have shown there are genes associated with specific disease processes and others related to longevity. For example, having the APOE4 gene increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, another gene variant, APOE3, is associated with longevity and does not affect cognitive function.

But does having a particular gene present a guarantee that we will eventually develop a chronic condition or live a longer life? Could lifestyle choices and habits influence genetics? Let's take a look at the strategies to maintain health and age gracefully.

Strategies to maintain health and age gracefully

No matter your age, it is never too late to change lifestyle habits that support an increase in your health span as you age gracefully. Here are some ways to make choices to begin new, healthier habits.

Nutrition

The choices we make regarding our nutrition and dietary intake can either optimize our health or cause physical and mental decline. Some people choose to follow the Mediterranean Diet, which some studies have shown to be effective in preventing heart disease. In addition, here are some more effective nutrition tips that could contribute to aging gracefully:

  • Limit the consumption of processed foods since the additives used to preserve or flavor them can be harmful. For example, many processed foods contain high sodium levels, which can lead to heart and kidney function difficulties, cardiac disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
  • Increase the amount and variety of fruits, especially those with antioxidant properties, such as blueberries, strawberries, and avocados.
  • Increase the amounts of vegetables, especially leafy greens and legumes. Raw broccoli contains a powerful antioxidant called quercetin, which protects the cells from damage and reduces inflammation.
  • Limit the amount of red meat due to its inflammatory properties and increase the amount of fish and chicken.
  • Enjoy foods with essential fatty acids in nuts, seeds, and avocados to support brain health.

Exercise

It is advisable to exercise for thirty minutes each day in order to stay healthy. Walking is effective, but even people with mobility challenges may choose to do chair exercises, yoga, or some stretching that can increase your heart rate and work your muscles.

According to studies, walking 8,000 steps or more a day can enhance health and lower the risk of dying from any cause. You can track and increase your activity by setting challenges for yourself with a basic pedometer or smartwatch. To stay accountable and build social ties, work out with a friend or partner!

Mental health

Caring for your mental health is equally important as caring for your physical health. Maintaining social connections is a way to support self-care and combat loneliness and depression. A study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed that people who are socially isolated and lonely have a greater risk of developing cardiac and lung disease, depression, and cognitive decline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, maintaining social connections prevents loneliness and reduces the risk of depression. Consider joining a group that aligns with your passions, such as an exercise, craft, faith-based, or interest group, to expand your social circle.

Also, a qualified mental health therapist can help you work through any issues concerning your mental health. Ask your healthcare provider for direction and a referral.

Stress

We all experience stress in our daily lives, whether it be positive stress from childbirth or negative stress from losing our jobs. The adrenal gland releases the hormone cortisol in response to stress, which helps to maintain homeostasis in our bodies.

Since cortisol levels rise with age, chronic stress may push cortisol levels too high, which could be harmful rather than beneficial. Increased stress levels are associated with the risk of cardiac disease and cognitive decline.

This is why managing or responding to stress is essential to overall good health. Self-care practices that can help you center yourself and calm your soul include yoga, mindfulness, journaling, meditation, prayer, and affirmations. These practices can also help you reduce stress. Pick up a craft like woodworking or sewing, or pick up an instrument. Think about getting assistance from a licensed therapist to learn stress management techniques.

Sleep

It is a common misconception that as we get older, we do not require as much sleep. People over 60 need to sleep for 7 to 9 hours every night. Enough REM and deep sleep is essential to improve cognitive function and lower the risk of dementia.

A few tips to help you get a good night's sleep are to keep your bedroom quiet and dark, avoid using screens right before bed, and limit or stay away from alcohol and caffeine, which can throw off your sleep cycles.

Harmful habits

Due to higher toxin levels, unhealthy habits like tobacco and alcohol can damage DNA and lead to replication dysfunction. A study published in a 2021 issue of Frontiers of Psychiatry shows that the actual smoke from marijuana/cannabis is the component that may be harmful to DNA. It’s the compounds common to both cannabis and tobacco smoke that increase the risk of DNA damage.

However, you can seek help to overcome your addictions. Consider asking your healthcare provider to help you locate a licensed addiction therapist.

Healthcare monitoring

Usually, when we are feeling under the weather, we make an appointment with our doctor. To promote continued wellness, it is crucial to have routine examinations, though. Blood work and health screenings are part of these routine visits that track your general health. Identifying and addressing health issues in their early stages, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, can be crucial for wellness.

While growing older is unavoidable, we can still choose to age gracefully. Whether you are thirty-seven or seventy-seven, it is never too late to begin making lifestyle changes that will enhance your well-being and lower your chance of developing age-related diseases. By creating healthier routines, you increase the odds of aging gracefully and enjoying improved health and well-being.



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