Ageing is both a universal and a personal process. The factors that define ageing are biologically inescapable but personal choices over a lifetime will also have a significant impact. Your chronological age does not predetermine your biological age – also referred to as functional age or fitness age.
I am 56 years of age but the bio-tests put me at 30. However I have had too many clients in their twenties who have the functional age you could associate with the elderly. You definitely have a great deal of influence over your ageing process.
The biological ageing process is complex and there are a number of theories although there are some dominants ideas. The main one is that cell replication deteriorates over decades due to incremental miscoding of new cells by your DNA, or more specifically the miscoding of your DNA as it replicates. The principle theory on this is that as you get older the ‘telomeres’ that protect the ends of your chromosomes shorten and this eventually leads to a deterioration in the replication process.
However this does not explain why a 25 year old has the functional bioage of a 70 year old – or vice versa. Neither does it explain why most people will die from chronic disease rather than from just getting old and one day not waking up.
One of the most obvious signs of aging is the loss of elasticity in skin and the reluctant surrender of your face to gravity! Your skin is kept taught by elastin. You are born with pretty much all of the elastin you will have for your lifetime, although you will make some up until about the age of 10. It’s all downhill from there. How much you are born with and make until 10 is genetic. If someone could work out how to get the body to make more they would no doubt be a trillionairre pretty quickly.
Your face sliding off aside, the bulk of your aging process is actually determined by the process of atrophication of muscle and connective tissue. The rest is diet and lifestyle propelling you toward chronic disease. All of this you have complete control over.
Atrophication is actually a survival process and is a response to lack of movement and physical exertion. The human body has evolved in a natural environment of hunting and gathering. Sitting for hours on end with a diet high in sugar and alien, processed fats is completely new, so your body simply does not ‘understand’ it.
In the natural world sitting for extended periods simply equates to ‘no food therefore no reason to move’. No food means the body has reduce it’s energy and calorie demand to survive the perceived drought. It does this by suiciding muscle cells, nerve cells, blood vessels – it throws overboard anything that is not absolutely necessary for survival.
The result is muscle wastage and a reduced metabolism, and as a result of this, loss of function. All of this we see in the elderly. But if you turn the light on you can see clearly that this is nothing to do with chronological age and everything to do with sitting and inactivity.
There are many other failures associated with this process of atrophication. One of the biggies is loss of proprioception. This is your bodies natural awareness of itself – it’s position and place in space. Loss of proprioception means loss of stability, balance and things like knowing where the hell your feet are. This is why the elderly are so prone to falling.
One of the main functions of your brain is controlling movement. Complex, explosive movements stimulate your brain dramatically, keeping it healthy. Movement is known to increase neural density. Sitting lots does the opposite – it makes you dumb. Eventually you reach a point where it is called dementia.
Atrophication happens rapidly simply because it is a survival response. I remember back in the day when I did lots of weight training and I had gone on a 5 week holiday – when I came back I could barely get my weights out of the rack let alone lift them. On average my lifting capacity had dropped 40% in just 5 weeks. Now imagine what happens to someone who has been sitting on their arse for decades!
Now getting back to telomeres. Research done on people who switch from a meat based diet to a plant based diet has demonstrated an increase in the length of telomeres. This in turn means reliable DNA replication. The conclusion here is that eating lots of meat will age you while eating lots of plants will increase your life expectancy.
This is a huge discussion but the essence is this – the human body evolved eating the most abundantly available food – plants. Thus the human body is dependant on it for wellbeing. Plants are medicine for the body and help it repair and heal. Fibre is critical to gut health and immune function – a point I keep banging away at. Given that only one in eleven Australians eats enough fibre it is a message that has a very long way to travel!
I eat some animal protein – fish, chicken, rarely red meat – because it has a place in our diet I believe. But a plant based diet is essential for good health and a long life.
Given that ageing occurs largely on a cellular level it has been discovered that oxidation (and the resultant free radicals) have a huge part to play in the aging process. This is one reason anti oxidants are so heavily promoted. But what causes oxidation? Your body functions in a slightly alkaline state. Foods that impact this because they have an acidifying effect are all meat products and sugar – notably processed and refined carbohydrates. Well that sucks because I have pretty much just described the Western Diet.
To compound this (like you need me too!) the research has also demonstrated that your body needs fasting periods in order to repair and heal. In the natural world over eating was unlikely and rare. Periods of not eating were common. The body used this time for maintenance. Constant eating denies the body the chance to repair itself because it is too busy trying to ingest new nutrients.
So if you add it up the typical meat and sugar diet combined with overeating is what is both aging you and taking you down the path to chronic disease. Combine this with lots of sitting and, well, the picture is not one of health!
The good news is that you have total control over all of this. With good nutrition and not overeating you can nurture your body and enjoy long term good health. Exercise stimulates your body for a healthy brain and good physical function. Both exercise and nutrition are essential for wellbeing and they will enable you to survive and thrive well into a lucid, mobile old age.
For me good health is a good feeling. I enjoy the energy and vitality – and with a six year old who doesn’t have an off switch that is fantastic. I also just really enjoy defying the odds. Ain’t no way I’m going out dribbling into a bib!