The search for anti-aging miracles and cures to restore youth encompass all cultures and eras and has resulted in some truly bizarre practices: injecting and implanting the testicles of young animals; soaking in milk, wine, and mineral baths; drinking the blood and urine of young men and women; sleeping with virgins and children; freezing decapitated heads in cryogenics labs; and taking all sorts of pills and potions.
Big Pharma has joined the healthy aging frenzy and actually has a promising candidate: rapamycin, a compound that lengthens the lifespan of animals by about 20 percent. Treated mice are more active and fit, have better cardiovascular and cognitive function, and are less prone to cancer, bone loss, and Alzheimer’s disease. Stem cell and gene therapies are also expanding the frontiers of anti-aging medicine.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that advances in genetics and technology will allow us to transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain” and live indefinitely—and at age 67, he’s hoping it will happen in his lifetime. Ray Kurzweil is a very smart guy and I admire his optimism, but I’m not holding my breath. The human body is incredibly complex, and no single gene or physiological process controls age-related slowdown and ultimate loss of physical and mental function.
The most we can hope for is to extend our “healthspan”—our years of robust health. And based on today’s scientific knowledge, the only way to do this to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
Lifestyle Is the Best Medicine for Healthy Aging
If you want to live long and live well, you have to take an honest look at the things you do, or don’t do, day in and day out and make some changes.
You don’t need me to tell you that a steady diet of sugar, sodas, trans fats, excess alcohol, packaged and processed snacks and desserts, and other junk food has adverse effects on healthspan. Whole, natural foods and a Mediterranean-style diet are one ticket to healthy aging. Foods proven to be particularly beneficial include berries, salmon, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, dark chocolate, lean protein, tea, coffee, nuts and seeds, fermented foods, and modest amounts of alcohol. (Here’s what a day of healthy eating might look like.)
How much you eat may be as important as what you eat. Rapamycin, the promising anti-aging drug, mimics the effects of calorie restriction, which is the best-studied method of extending healthspan. Cutting back on food is a challenge for most of us, which is why I recommend intermittent fasting. In my book The Mini-Fast Diet, I explain the merits and relative ease of simply skipping breakfast (and exercising in the morning) for weight loss and overall health.
You do need to watch your weight. You may have heard about a couple of studies suggesting that overweight and obese people live longer and are less likely to develop dementia. But before you jump on the “healthy fat” bandwagon, remember that these studies fly in the face of solid research linking excess weight to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and other illnesses.
Muscle Matters When It Comes to Healthy Aging
We start losing muscle in our 30s, and if we don’t do something about it, sarcopenia—serious loss of muscle mass and strength—sets in. Sarcopenia involves more than physical weakness. It also exacerbates obesity and insulin resistance, increases risk of fractures, and limits healthspan.
Exercise is your best defense. If you’re in reasonably good shape, a brisk walking program interspersed with short bursts of jogging or other high-intensity exercise is recommended. For those with limited mobility, even brief, light activity can make a difference. But everyone needs to do some strength training. Whether you use the machines at a gym, bands and hand weights at home, or work out with your body weight (push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, etc.), resistance training is imperative for maintaining muscle mass, strength, health, and independence.
Building muscle also requires proper nutritional support. Exercise actually tears down muscle tissue—that’s why you may experience soreness after a workout. This breakdown stimulates repair mechanisms that remodel and rebuild stronger muscles, and the primary nutrient involved in this process is protein.
The Role of Protein in Healthy Aging
Nutritional guidelines call for an average daily protein intake of 46 g for women and 56 g for men. Unfortunately, the body’s ability to absorb dietary protein and build muscle declines with age. Research suggests that to maximize muscle synthesis, older people require higher amounts—75-90 g per day, or a 4-5 ounce serving of chicken, beef, fish, etc., with every meal.
Amino acid and protein supplements/powders can also provide a needed boost. Leucine, a branched-chain essential amino acid, not only stimulates the production of muscle proteins but also helps slow the breakdown of muscle tissue. L-carnitine has been shown to improve strength, mobility, endurance, and cognitive function in older people. Both of these amino acids are being studied as treatments for sarcopenia.
Of the many types of protein available, I believe whey is the best. Rapidly digested and absorbed, milk-derived whey is a complete protein, meaning it provides all the essential amino acids. It is a particularly good source of not only leucine but also cysteine, an amino acid required for the synthesis of the important detoxifying antioxidant glutathione. In addition, whey contains lactoferrin and other compounds that enhance immune function. Plus it’s been shown to be superior to other protein sources for increasing lean muscle mass when combined with resistance exercise.
You Control Your Healthspan
Other lifestyle factors associated with healthspan include sleep and stress management. At Whitaker Wellness, we test patients for sleep apnea—a commonly overlooked problem that can have serious repercussions—and teach them simple deep-relaxation/meditation techniques to relieve stress and alleviate anxiety.
Social relationships are also important. Marriage gives people, especially men, an edge, but extended family and friends also fit the bill. And all the studies of people who live long and happy lives emphasize the value of having meaning and purpose in life, whether it’s a gratifying job, volunteer work, care of loved ones, faith, hobbies, or other interests.
In summary, genetics does not control your destiny. Studies of twins suggest they account for just 20-30 percent of the variations in wellness and healthy aging. The lifestyle program I’ve outlined—which also includes nutritional supplements, which we’ll discuss in next week’s blog—isn’t rocket science, but it does take discipline. Only you can take control of your healthspan.
My Recommendations for Healthy Aging
Starting today, commit to eating better, exercising more, managing your stress, addressing any sleep problems, and making other lifestyle changes that will increase your healthspan. If you need a little help implementing these healthy aging tools, consider coming to see us. To find out if you’re a good candidate for our Back to Health Program, either fill out this form or give us a call at 866-944-8253.
Suggested daily doses of healthy aging, muscle-enhancing supplements are: whey protein 10-25 g, leucine 2 g, and L-carnitine 2-4 g. They may be taken right after a workout or with meals. Here’s to happy—and healthy—aging.