How You Can Age Better Than Your Parents Did
Can you age better than your parents did? The science of epigenetics says you can. First you need to get your mind set right. Then you have to do some things differently. Here are a few suggestions.
MY BREATH was rhythmic like a metronome, and it led me in the fixed monotony that was my afternoon chore. Lift the rock, turn, 20 steps, toss it in a pile, turn, 20 steps, squat down, grab another rock, stand up, turn, 20 steps…
I was in a trance working on my Aunt’s property. Let’s call her “Marie”.
Like all good trances, breaking it was an unwelcome disruption. After a few moments I realized the incessant ringing was the telephone. Reluctantly, I dropped the rock and jogged the 50 yards to the house.
Marie was on the phone. She called me from her cardiologist’s office. I braced myself for some bad news. Why else would she call, rather than wait till she was home to tell me about the check-up.
“The doctor told me I had to loose weight and exercise”, she told me.
I quickly got annoyed.
“For the last 30 years I’ve been telling you that, and you call me from the doctor’s office as if this is some news flash”, I stammered to myself.
To her I simply said,
“Drive home safely.”
I returned to the rock pile, and now rather then following my breath, I followed a well-worn train of thought. I recognized how my aunt was pretty much aging like most people do — weaker, stiffer, less mobile, less vitality, bent over — and I wondered why.
Over the last 15 years she’s been on an accelerated path; I’ve watched carefully as her physical and energetic capabilities have rapidly declined. Her spine is bent, head forward. Two artificial knees makes her walk resemble a shuffle. Her midsection is broad. She has difficulty standing up from her sofa chair.
When this started happening, I increased my litany of admonitions:
“Squat, don’t bend down leg-locked to pick that up.”
“First thing in the morning, before you get pulled into the day’s activities, can’t you go for a walk?”
“You need to stretch, to do some mobility exercises.”
“Less carbs from grains, more veggies, more water.”
Yes, for a while I was quite the nag. And then one day, I (mostly) stopped. I looked around and realized that it’s the rare bird that will do something to slow down, or reverse the ravages of aging.
Sadly, Marie isn’t one of them.
Sure, she’d buy any vitamin with a sizzling claim (but not take them consistently), see any doctor (but not follow the unwanted advice), guzzle magical potions (again, inconsistently)… but, alas, applying herself to a schedule of exercise and a sane diet wasn’t going to happen.
A few hours after the phone call, Marie’s pretty silver grey Subaru slowly rumbled up the long lane way leading to the concrete porch where I perched, watching.
I greeted her with a hug and hauled all the grocery bags to the house.
The day came and went. Then the next. I watched to see if the doctor’s words would instigate some change. Nothing different happened. As expected.
What Is Aging?
There are several competing theories about exactly how we age, but everyone who studies such things pretty much agrees on how it manifests in the body and mind.
Here’s an incomplete list (source):
- Cell senescence (or the aging of cells)
- Diminished telomerase activity (telomerase is an enzyme involved in DNA replication)
- Protein degradation
- Advanced glycation end-products (AGEs)
- Excess sugar in the blood
- Progressive systemic inflammation
- Accumulated toxic build-up in organ tissue
- Reduced circulation
- Reduced cellular energy production and impeded energy flows in the body
- Changes in hormone levels and hormone balance
- Excessive body weight
There’s nothing on that list that happens quickly; rather, these things accumulate slowly over time.
It’s like what happens to what was once that shiny new car. A little rust ignored eventually disintegrates the sheet metal. The fluids and their filters get dirty and clogged up, leading to parts wearing out prematurely.
Nearly every day we see very old cars on the road. Most are barely hanging on. But once in awhile you spot one that looks and performance just like it did when it was young.
The difference between them isn’t how they were made, but how they were maintained.
In the case of biological organisms — us — aging is accumulated debris that compromises cellular functions.
Living cells must clean out the debris. In a process called autophagy, lysosomes digest and recycle cellular debris. But the lysosomes aren’t Herculean – they are overwhelmed over time by excess “debris”, such as minerals, pathogens, dead tissue, parasites, heavy metals, etc. The manifestations of this are weakened and bent bodies, and dull minds.
If we could not replace our cars — if you only got just one — when they began to rust or certain parts began to wear out, we’d surely do whatever is necessary for those cars to keep working well. But for some reason when it comes to our bodies and minds, we just shrug and say,
“Hey this is what happens with age.”
We do nothing to help our overwhelmed lysosomes.
The Physical Effects of Aging
I used to tease that dementia was God’s way of letting us cope with a deteriorating body. The inference is that it would be extraordinarily depressive to be as sharp as you were in your prime, but imprisoned in a dysfunctional body.
Sadly, that mismatch happens frequently.
It’s happening with Marie.
She’s still as sharp as a tack, so she is keenly aware of her body’s “cellular senescence”. And the thing that most saddens me about it is, she could be experiencing a very different body right now if she’d just did some things to maintain it.
When I was young, Marie taught me the “Serenity Prayer“. It goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Marie must have thought that she could not experience aging any differently than she is, that she had to “accept the things” she “cannot change”. And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy — one truly amazing to me — Marie is aging almost exactly like her mother did.
I guess she would say,
“Can’t mess with genetics… I must “accept the things I cannot change”.
But, au contraire, in this case, you can. You can age better than your parents did.
The science of epigenetics is clear on this point. “Epi” means “over, outside of, around” genetics. From Wikipedia:
“… epigenetics also describes the study of stable, long-term alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell that are not necessarily heritable.”
What that means is genetics loads the gun, behavior pulls the trigger. And what that means is, yes, genetics matters, but what may matter more in many instances is your behavior.
Dr. Joseph Mercola wrote this in the summary of an article about epigenetics, :
Contrary to the Newtonian belief in your body as a biological machine, epigenetic science reveals that you are an extension of your environment, which includes everything from your thoughts and belief systems, to toxic exposures and exposure to sunlight, exercise, and, of course, everything you choose to put onto and into your body. Epigenetics shatters the idea that you are a victim of your genes, and shows that you have tremendous power to shape and direct your physical health.
See what’s happening here?
How we age has a lot to do with our mindset. Think about how your mind is set relative to how you’re aging.
Do you tell yourself that there’s nothing you can do about it?
Check in with that mindset as you read the following list. How open are you to trying something new that might have profound effects on your quality of life as you get older?
Here are six simple and fast tests for you to do see how well you’re aging:
- Look in the mirror and note the length and depth of your wrinkles.
- Still looking at the mirror, check your posture: stretch your hands above your head and bend side to side and backwards and note how far you can bend.
- Don’t leave that mirror yet. How’s your girth? Get a tape measure. Your waist should be no larger than half the length of your height (source). This calculator will help. (You might find this one interesting as well.)
- Pinch some skin from between your thumb and forefinger, let it go and observe the skin’s elasticity. The skin should immediately return to normal.
- Squat. Can you go far enough down so that your buttocks touches your heels/calves?
- Stand up. Sit down on the floor unaided by your arms and stand up, unaided by your arms. Can you do it?
Typically, the older we get, the fewer of these tests have a good outcome. The truth of this is easy to observe – just ask a child (who is not overweight) to try these tests.
Every child I’ve asked to do the stand/sit test can do it. Some need a few test runs, but they all got it within a few minutes. (By the way, I can’t do it yet, but I am practicing.)
Take Action, Then Retest
I chose those specific six tests for two reasons:
- They are each a pretty good indication of aging from a functional/biological perspective; and
- Your performance can improve by applying yourself to the tasks.
Wrinkles and skin elasticity can be improved by diet, hydration and various skin lotions. (Read my three-part battle plan to combat aging skin.)
That burgeoning girth can be whittled away by drinking more water, eating much less sugar and high glycemic carbs, getting hormonally balanced, feeding the right microbiota in your gut, and moving that body every day.
Squatting deeply and being able to accomplish the stand/sit test without the aide of your arms can become your reality by practicing them consistently.
If you wish to age like everyone else, like your parents did, don’t bother. If you’d like to be free in your body like children experiences theirs, do bother.
You start by picking the lowest hanging fruit. You want a quick win that’s not too hard to get.
So, which is it for you – which of the six tests would be the easiest for you to pass?
Write it down. Then write what you’re committed to do each day to “pass” the test. Recruit a buddy that wants the same thing. Hold one another’s feet to the fire.
Once you’ve developed a habitual pattern for that first activity, choose the next-lowest hanging fruit, etc.
Inevitably, time will pass. One day – sooner than we want – we’ll all be another year older chronologically. When that happens, wouldn’t it be great if we WERE NOT another year older biologically?
I hope you’ve learned — and can accept — that:
- There’s nothing you can do about time passing — chronology — but you can improve how you age biologically.
- Genetics loads the gun, but behavior pulls the trigger, so begin forming habits to keep yourself youthful, such as eating healthily, doing mobility and strength exercises (see “Further Reading” below).
- Face your mindset and be conscious of your attitude about aging, and if it’s not helpful, change it.
Get to it!