What is aging and how can we slow it down?

The slow march of time is something that none of us can avoid, but the good news is we can take action to slow aging down.

Aging – it happens to us all but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Since mankind first understood the passage of time, it has been finding new ways to slow down aging. The good news is that, although we’re all on a journey which has the same destination, there are things we can do to slow things down. It all starts with understanding the concept of aging.

What is aging?

The key to understanding the aging process is to look at what’s happening within our cells, the building blocks of our body. They divide to produce new cells for the growth and repair of body tissues. Unfortunately, cellular division is not unlimited. Most cells can only divide an average of 50 to 70 times after which they enter a phase known as ‘senescence’ in which they can no longer divide. At this point, they will either die off or stay in the body as malfunctioning cells.

Within each cell’s nucleus you’ll find chromosomes which contain all the genetic information that control division. These are protected by caps of telomeres which prevent the chromosomes from fraying. Every time the cell divides, telomeres get a little shorter and are less able to protect our chromosomes. Eventually, once a cell’s telomeres have dwindled away, cell division stops.

On a larger level, this means cells are no longer dividing and are no longer keeping us young. In other words, when cells age, so do we. Those shortening telomeres are like our internal biological clock, constantly ticking down.

How can we slow down aging?

One of the secrets to slowing down the aging process, therefore, is to keep our telomeres longer and there are things we can do to help. Thanks to a pilot study from the University of California, San Francisco, we now know that certain lifestyle changes can produce longer telomeres. It found that people who maintained a vegetarian diet, exercised regularly and regularly met up with a social support group were more likely to have longer telomeres. It proves that there are changes we can make to our lifestyles that may slow down the rate at which telomeres shorten and so decelerate the aging process.

Likewise, there are many things we can do in our lives which will accelerate it. A poor diet and sedentary lifestyle can all increase oxidative stress which can cause damage to cells and accelerate the rate at which they divide.

The aging affects of stress

High stress levels can exacerbate this process. One study found that those individuals with high levels of perceived stress were more likely to have shorter telomeres. Stress prompts our bodies to enter a fight or flight mode. As such, if you’re constantly in a state of stress, your body is constantly operating in a situation designed to counter danger. When this happens, the body releases cortisol which raises our heart rate and blood pressure enabling us to respond better to threats – in other words, to either fight or run for the hills.

Although we may live in the 21st century, our bodies are still, in evolutionary terms, in the stone age and are tuned to react to the possibility of a sabre-tooth tiger coming around the corner.

The bad news, from a longevity point of view, is that our modern lifestyles are tailor made to stress us out. We work hard and counter constant anxieties about work, life and our finances. Even the things we do to relax, such as looking at our phones or browsing the internet, can still increase stress.

It all leads to increased release of cortisol, which can increase oxidative stress and prompt your body to store energy as fat, which in turn leads to obesity. Furthermore, it also counteracts a telomere-lengthening enzyme known as telomerase.

All of which has the cumulative effect of accelerating the onset of aging. When countering aging, therefore, one of the most important things we can do is to reduce stress levels. Whether through guided meditation or simply taking time to look after our mental health, the fight against stress is inextricably linked to the fight against aging.

Anti-aging supplements

There are a growing number of supplements that promise to slow the onset of aging by supplementing the body with certain nutrients or enzymes it needs to maintain operations. Many, such as NAD+, decline as we age. Others, such as resveratrol, serve as anti-oxidants which can slow down oxidative stress and should reduce the rate at which cells are damaged. The ethos behind these supplements is that, by replenishing the body with these nutrients, it might be possible to slow the aging process. There is some evidence for some of these claims although it is inconclusive. 

The fight against aging, then, is one we’re all doomed to lose some day, but we can have some control over when that day comes and the quality of life we have in the meantime.

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