Have you ever heard the phrase “Age is just a number”? I have patients who are young at 80 years of age, and patients who are old at 59 years of age. What’s the difference? BIOLOGICAL age.
Diet, lifestyle, inflammation, disease and many other factors combine to influence someone’s biological age. Many of these factors actually influence the way our genes are expressed – the field of epigenetics studies this phenomenon.
There is a large group of researchers studying ways to measure biological age. One way is to study DNA methylation. Aging produces predictable changes in DNA structure. Measuring these changes can give ideas about an individual’s risk of developing age-related diseases like heart attacks, dementia.
Researchers at UCLA have found that there are a number of diet and lifestyle factors that influence biological age. A lot of it makes intuitive sense. Things like abdominal obesity, smoking, high rates of inflammation (measured by blood levels of C-Reactive Protein or CRP), high blood pressure, diabetes and prediabetes are associated with accelerated aging and a higher biological age than chronological age. High triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol, part of the metabolic syndrome (along with abdominal obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol) also are associated with more rapid aging.
Conversely, there are a number of factors that slow down biological aging. Exercise and eating fresh fruits and vegetables are protective. Fatty fish and light to moderate (NOT excessive) alcohol intake also seem to slow the aging process. Interestingly, higher levels of education and higher income also are associated with lower biological aging. I’m not sure why this is so, but it may be that more well-educated and well-off people choose healthier diets and lifestyle habits than those who are poorer and less educated.
So what conclusions can we draw from this research?
- Exercise regularly! Choose something you enjoy and JUST DO IT!
- Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables!
- Maintain (or get to) a healthy weight. Your waist circumference should be less than 35 inches for women, and less than 40 inches for men. If you are very tall or very short, your waist should be less than half your height.
- Stop smoking! See your doctor, there are treatments that will significantly increase your chances of success.
- Choose fatty fish or take a fish oil supplement to increase your EPA and DHA intake.
If you have children, it is important to set up good habits now. Some interesting research has shown that in many respects health is more related to a person’s socioeconomic status and lifestyle in childhood than to what they achieve in adulthood. Setting a strong foundation of good lifestyle and diet habits now will help them be healthier their whole lives!
I think we all want to be the 85 year old with the health of an active 60 year old! I know I do 🙂 Epigenetic research is helping us understand how what we do today influences our biological age and how long we are able to maintain our good health.
QUESTION: Have you heard of epigenetics? Did you know your lifestyle choices influence your genes?