15 Things You Didn’t Know Could Literally Slow Down Aging

The fountain of youth just isn't a myth: You can actually delay the aging process with these lifestyle choices.

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Age is just a number

You may not be able to turn back time, but you can alter the effects of time on your body. It really is possible to slow down aging—both physical and mental. Research has shown that people the same chronological age may have a different “biological age.” In one Duke University study, nearly 1,000 participants of the same age were examined for cognitive abilities, cardiovascular health, and other markers of fitness at three different ages: 26, 32, and 38. The researchers plotted the slope of each individual’s biomarkers and discovered that they didn’t all decline at the same rate. Some, in fact, had no slope at all, meaning they weren’t aging! At 38 years old, these volunteers had biological ages that ranged anywhere from younger than 30 to nearly 60 years old.

What this means for you is that factors other than genetics can influence the rate you’ll age, the study authors said on Duke’s website. Many of these are within your control, so read on to find out how to slow down aging. Also, check out the secrets for aging well.

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The best way to slow down aging is to stay in great shape. One recent study showed that older people who exercised regularly throughout their lives had the muscle mass, cholesterol levels, and even immune system function of much younger people. Not surprisingly, exercise leads to healthy weight loss—and encourages fat loss (as opposed to muscle); this also helps control blood sugar to prevent diabetes. “Aerobic exercise—any physical activity that raises your breathing and heartbeat—improves heart health,” says Benjamin Epstein, MD, a Family Medicine specialist with Piedmont Physicians. “Balance and strength training exercises maintain bone strength, decrease arthritis pain, and decrease the risk of falling.” Exercise has mental benefits as well. “Physical activity can decrease depression and anxiety, and can help cognitive function to keep one’s mind sharp,” Dr. Epstein says. Staying strong, steady on your feet, and limber can also help preserve your ability to live independently longer, he says. Aim for a goal of 30 minutes of aerobic activity five days a week, with 10 minutes of strength and balance training two days a week, he says. Also, be aware of the biggest factor that causes your body to deteriorate as you age.

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Whole foods

Experts agree the best diet for preventing age-related damage and disease starts with whole, natural foods. “A healthy diet includes fewer processed foods without added sugars, fats, and salt,” Dr. Epstein says. Avoiding unhealthy sugar and fats can help prevent inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease. Among the anti-aging foods experts recommend eating every day—here’s a list—he recommends “whole grains, such as whole wheat and brown rice; lean meats and fish, poultry, and eggs; beans, peas, and legumes; and five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.” Studies reveal that eating whole foods boosts your body’s supply of nutrients that keep cells healthy, reduce inflammation, and reduce the risk of major chronic diseases associated with age.

Other research has found that proper nutrients also help keep the brain functioning better longer. “Like so many aspects of our body, what we eat also affects the mind,” says Jyotir Jani, MD, primary care physician with Piedmont Healthcare. “Eating food that is natural, home-cooked with love, and limiting red meat help keep the brain sharper.”

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Eating more plants

“Following a plant-based diet—or one that emphasizes foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—can support healthy aging by providing important nutrients to brain and body health,” says Abby Sauer, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian with Abbott. “However, plant-based doesn’t have to mean plant-exclusive. Other foods like eggs, low or reduced-fat dairy, and seafood can also contribute important nutrients.” The Mediterranean diet, which includes some animal products, is a great example of a plant-based diet, she says. “Research suggests it may lead to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and a lower risk of heart disease and other health conditions.” Interested in a more plant-rich diet? Here’s a beginner’s guide to eating more plant-based foods.

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Getting enough protein

But eating mostly plants shouldn’t mean missing out on protein—studies show protein is especially important in maintaining muscle mass as we age. “People over the age of 40 may lose up to 8 percent of their muscle mass per decade, and the rate of decline may double after the age of 70,” Sauer says. “Yet a recently published study from researchers at Abbott and The Ohio State University found that more than one in three American over 50 aren’t getting the recommended amount of protein.” She recommends adults snack on protein sources like nuts, Greek yogurt, or string cheese. Also: “Add protein-toppers to meals, such as hummus to a turkey sandwich, diced chicken to pasta, or beans to salad, and aim to eat 25 to 30 grams of protein at every meal,” she says. If you’re looking for more sources of protein, try these, which are highlighted as the best by Canada’s Food Guide.

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Being outdoors

Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” helps keep your bones strong, and it may also help protect against age-related conditions like heart disease and cancer. According to one study in over 2,000 women, those with higher vitamin D levels also had longer telomeres, the caps on the ends of DNA cells that determine a cell’s lifespan. Another study found that older adults with low vitamin D levels had a harder time with everyday tasks like walking up stairs, dressing, and even cutting their toenails. “Getting 15 to 30 minutes of sun exposure a day should be adequate for vitamin D production,” says Dr. Jani. “Of course, that is not through sunbathing but by being outside with normal clothing.” You can also get vitamin D in foods, such as fatty fish like salmon, egg yolks, and fortified foods including cereals. Read up on the new health benefits of vitamin D.

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Protecting your skin from the sun

Getting vitamin D outside is a double-edged sword because the sun can cause skin damage, wrinkles, and increase the risk for skin cancer—all of which promotes internal and external aging. And while everyone knows a sunburn is harmful, people tend to be surprised to find that, according to Health Canada, “there is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan.” You can guard against premature skin aging by covering up with clothing, wearing a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen, and seeking shade. But before coating yourself with sunscreen, you should know these three shocking stats about sun protection.

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Avoiding toxins

Although research in this area is still in its infancy, it suggests that the environmental toxins we’re exposed to may age us faster. Researchers call these toxins “gerontogens.” Some examples of gerontogens are arsenic in groundwater and benzene from car exhaust and industrial emissions. Other research suggests BPA, a chemical found in some plastics, may accelerate the aging process, so if you want to slow down aging,  it may be wise to stick to using BPA-free plastic. Cigarette smoke is clearly a gerontogen given all the research demonstrating how it can age the face and body. “Smoking cessation is the single most important action that an individual can take regardless of age,” Dr. Jani says. “Smoking literally causes internal damage to your genetic code, as well as blood vessels and multiple organ systems.” If you need help stopping, check out these five proven ways to quit.

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Senior woman drinking water in the kitchen.

Staying hydrated

As you get older, your kidneys will work less efficiently, you may not be as sensitive to thirst signals, and you may take medications that lower your body’s fluids—altogether, this helps explain why the elderly are more prone to dehydration. In a vicious cycle, dehydration derails the normal function of vital systems in your body and even cause dementia-like confusion. Because of these risks, “it’s especially important to stay hydrated as we age,” Sauer says. “Water is critical as it makes up about 60 percent of adults’ body weight, and our bodies need water for important functions such as regulating body temperature, maintaining healthy skin and joints, digesting food, and removing waste.” Slow down aging by keeping these systems working better longer—drink even if you aren’t thirsty, and consume foods with high water content, such as fruits, vegetables, and soups, she says. Need another reason to drink more water? Here’s exactly what happens to your body when you get a full eight glasses of water.

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Maintaining your teeth

It’s starting to look like there’s a connection between a healthy mouth and healthy aging: Research has shown poor dental health is linked to age-related problems such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes, possibly because bacteria from oral infections may get into the blood and increase inflammation in other parts of the body. In addition, recent studies indicate that gum disease may be linked to a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Although these connections are still under study, it’s worth keeping your chompers healthy and possibly preventing these age-related diseases with good dental habits—on that note, are you making these brushing mistakes?

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Bowl of Greek yogurt
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Keeping your gut healthy

Recent research has found the collection of “good” bacteria in your intestines, called the gut microbiome, may have implications for how your body ages; they may even protect you from some age-related diseases such as dementia. In one recent study, the presence of certain gut bacteria actually slowed the rate of aging in worms, which may lead to anti-aging bacterial treatments for humans in the future. “About 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut, so maintaining gut health as you age is important to your overall health,” Sauer says. “Among other things, your gut provides protection from infections, regulates metabolism, supports your immune system, and promotes a healthy gastrointestinal function.” To encourage healthy gut flora as you age, Sauer recommends choosing prebiotic and probiotic foods such as fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi (and here are more foods high in natural probiotics). Exercise, fiber, and fluids can also help keep things moving through your digestive tract.

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Healthy digestion

Because older people, especially those who are overweight, are prone to acid reflux, you may think of your stomach acid as the enemy. But you need a healthy supply of digestive acids to absorb vital vitamin B12—it helps keep your brain sharp. Atrophic gastritis, which affects 10 to 30 percent of older adults, reduces stomach acid, and therefore absorption of B12. “Deficiency in vitamin B12 can contribute to decreased cognitive function,” Dr. Epstein says. In addition, “acid-reducing medicines, and medicines like Metformin for diabetes, can decrease the absorption of nutrients such as vitamin B12.” To prevent this, supplements and fortified foods may be necessary; you can also get B12 from fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy products. “Again, this shows the importance of a diet high in nutrients without being high in calories, not only as we age, but throughout our lives,” Dr. Epstein says. Not sure if you’re getting enough B12? These signs will tell you.

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Reducing stress

Chronic stress causes a lot of problems, from wrecking your sleep to increasing your risk of heart disease. In a landmark study, stress was shown to shorten telomeres, the DNA protective caps that help keep cells thriving; people with the highest stress levels had shorter telomeres—it was as if these people were a decade older than people in the lowest stress category, say the study authors. But the good news is that you can lengthen your telomeres by reducing your stress: In one study, women who practiced meditation had longer telomeres than those who didn’t. Meditation may help focus the mind, which is also associated with better cognitive functioning. “Increased stress makes us distracted, frustrated, and unable to focus,” Dr. Jani says. “Regular meditation that focuses on breathing or spirituality for 15 minutes per day can have profound effects on improving the concentration ability of the mind.” Here are some mindfulness apps to help you get started.

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It’s called beauty sleep for a reason: When you’re snoozing, your body gets busy repairing cell damage. If you cut your sleep short, you can accelerate the visible and internal signs of aging. As if bags and wrinkles under the eyes weren’t enough evidence of this, studies have confirmed that poor sleep ages skin faster. In addition, poor or inadequate sleep is linked to DNA damage and age-related diseases like heart problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Sleep deprivation can also undermine your brain as you age—and many older adults suffer from insomnia. To get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, create a calming bedtime routine, reduce lighting and screen time before bed, and don’t eat or drink caffeine close to bedtime. Still having trouble catching Zs? Here are eight unexpected reasons why you can’t sleep at night.

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An active brain

Numerous studies indicate that you may be able to lower the risk—or delay the onset—of age-related mental conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s if you have what’s known as “cognitive reserve”—resilient brain networks that keep working even if other parts of the brain suffer damage. You can build up this reserve by staying actively engaged in learning new skills and continuing to socialize throughout your life. “The best ways to keep your brain active and sharp is practicing activity that focuses the mind,” Dr. Jani says. “In addition, constantly learning new things or expanding one’s knowledge in the profession that they may be in also helps tremendously.” For example, research shows learning complex skills like digital photography or quilting enhances memory and cognitive function in older adults. Here are brain health tips to keep you young.

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Having a positive attitude

The old saying is true: You’re only as old as you feel. So, forgetting your age is one way to slow down aging. Research backs up the benefits of staying young at heart: Having a positive attitude about aging, maintaining a purpose, and staying socially engaged may help slow the physical and mental aging process. One study revealed that people with a positive attitude lived 7.5 years longer than pessimists, regardless of health; another found that negative thinking led to steeper physical and cognitive declines. Yet another study showed those that glass-half-full types were less likely to develop dementia, even if they had a high risk for the disease. “Maintaining a positive attitude and remaining connected socially not only helps us prevent depression, but also helps us better cope with health conditions, and even live longer,” Dr. Epstein says. Learn more about the power of positive thinking and how it can transform your life.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest