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Dr Linia Patel asks, is it possible to eat your way to a longer life?

Growing up ain’t easy. Whether you’re a bright eyed, bushy tailed grad starting out in your first job, or you’re doing the career-and-children juggling act, or even if you’re beginning to prepare for retirement, all stages of life have their curve balls and surprises. However, one thing is for certain: you will age. It is inevitable. The million-dollar question is how do you age gracefully? Can you eat your way to a longer life? What other lifestyle secrets help you to keep up the awesome even as you age?

Different definitions of ageing1,2

There are several different ways to look at ageing. The obvious way is to consider your chronological age, which is determined by your birthday. However, no one wants to live for a long time but not enjoy their life. Another way to look at ageing is to look at health span. Your biological age determines your health span.

Many people know someone in their nineties who still dances, cooks, drives, reads books and thoroughly enjoys being alive. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, this isn’t the norm but an anomaly.

Your biological age can accelerate or reverse at any point in time based on the inputs of your biology – and how you live. The good news is that the science shows you can transform your health span and how you age in the future. Although starting early is ideal, it is never too late to reap the benefits.

Factors that affect ageing3,4,5,6,7

Researchers from Harvard looked at factors that might increase the chances of a longer life. Using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up study, five low-risk lifestyle factors were identified: balanced diet, regular exercise (at least 30 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous activity), healthy weight (defined by a body mass index of 18.5-24.9), no smoking and a moderate alcohol intake (up to one drink daily for women and up to two daily for men). Compared with those who did not incorporate any of those lifestyle factors, those with all five factors lived up to 14 years longer.

In a follow-up study, the researchers investigated the same factors, which contribute to not only a longer life but a healthier and happier life. They found that women at age 50 who practised four or five of the healthy habits listed above lived about 34 more years free of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, compared with 24 more disease-free years in women who practised none of these healthy habits.

Other studies show that other lifestyle pillars matter too. Worrying, for example, does give you wrinkles and there is research to prove it! The reason for this is that when you are stressed, your body has a fight or flight reaction that releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The body is very good at handling short-term acute stresses; however, the problem with our go-go-go 21st century lives is that our bodies are pumping out stress hormones almost constantly and this is not good news. A recent study looking into the impact of work-related stress and telomere length found that individuals who reported the most job stress had the shortest telomeres. Shortening of telomeres = accelerated biological age.

Similarly, research demonstrated a connection between sleep and risk of death. Analysis of data from three studies found that sleeping five or fewer hours per night may increase mortality risk by as much as 15%.

Not only can regular exercise help you to tone muscles, build healthier bones and boost your mood but it has been also shown to enhance longevity. A recent study showed that those who did some type of exercise on a regular basis had longer telomeres than the people who didn’t exercise at all (on average, 75% longer than their sedentary counterparts). The correlation between telomere length and exercise activity seemed to be strongest among those in middle age, also suggesting it’s never too late to start a fitness programme!

Can your diet keep you forever young?8,9,10

There are places in the world where people have already cracked the code without knowing it, resulting in unusual longevity. These areas where people live the longest and healthiest are called Blue Zones. Most Blue Zone people have a health span equal to their lifespan. Many arrive at 100 years old still active, healthy and with a sense of purpose.

The longevity zones include Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. When researchers look at common denominators in these zones, a couple of patterns emerge.

The first theme is that these zones all follow an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern. The basis of many age-related diseases like arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, depression, cancer and Alzheimer’s is inflammation. Generally, an anti-inflammatory diet is an eating pattern that is based on whole foods, lots of colourful vegetables and fruit, and a balance of protein, wholegrain carbs and healthy fats at each meal. It is also a diet that contains low amounts of ultra-processed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates, trans fats, processed meals and excess alcohol. The Mediterranean diet is considered anti-inflammatory. Research indicates that it is not only what the zones eat that is important but how much they eat. People in the Blue Zones eat until they are 80% full.

Antioxidants are believed to protect your telomeres by helping to stop free radicals from damaging cells (a process called oxidative stress). However, studies have shown that supplements are not able to mimic all the health benefits of eating the whole foods.

Could limiting your calories lengthen your life?10,11

Obesity is linked to several chronic conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. It has also been shown to shorten your lifespan. In one study, obesity was reported to shorten lifespan by 7.1 years in women and 5.8 years in men after the age of 40.

Animal research has shown that restricting caloric intake over a lifetime, such as with intermittent fasting, increases lifespan. During fasts, cells remove or repair damaged molecules and the body responds by better regulating its blood sugar, its level of inflammation and the amount of damage it gets from free radicals (natural substances of metabolism). These effects may then prevent the development of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and cancer. While some human studies have reported improvements in insulin sensitivity, lower blood pressure, decreased LDL cholesterol and inflammation, there is still a need for good-quality human studies that look at the effects of fasting on ageing in more detail. If you want to dabble with fasting, remember it’s not a fad. It’s a lifestyle that must be done in the right context to reap the intended benefits.

 10 foods that support healthy ageing3,8,9,12,13

  1. Green tea contains a powerful antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that fights DNA damage from UV rays and is also thought to be super in supporting the body to detoxify more effectively.
  2. Extra virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal, which has anti-inflammatory properties like ibuprofen without all its side-effects.
  3. Dark chocolate contains flavanols that act as antioxidants in the body. Research suggests that flavanols slow down damage caused by free radicals and have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which may improve skin health and helps you age better.
  4. Oily fish such as salmon is high in omega-3s, protein, selenium and an antioxidant called astaxanthin, which are all associated with maintaining strong muscles, healthy bones and help to prevent visible signs of ageing by reducing inflammation in the body.
  5. Flaxseeds are one of the best multi-tasking nutrients around. They are high in fibre and contain types of antioxidants known as lignins, which help to fight free radicals in the body. They are also high in an omega-3 known as alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which supports a healthy skin membrane. Grind them up to get maximum benefits.
  6. Pomegranates have a substance called urolithin A. New research suggests that it boosts the mitochondria – our cells’ ‘power stations’ – which tend to run down with age, causing muscle weakening and frailty.
  7. Herbs and spices all have some degree of antioxidant power, protecting us against oxidative stress, a phenomenon that increases with age.
  8. Nuts and seeds are nutrient-packed powerhouses. They give you protein, healthy fats and antioxidants in a convenient form, which are all vital nutrients for healthy ageing.
  9. Watercress is a nutrient-dense, hydrating leafy green that is a great source of beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C and two powerful antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin. All these nutrients work together to lap up free radicals that can cause damage as we age.
  10. Collagen breakdown is a chronic part of our ageing process – as our cells age, their ability to produce collagen diminished. Thanks to collagen breakdown, we can lose up to 50% of our bone strength during the ageing process. Consuming collagen may have some anti-ageing benefits like strengthening bones, muscles and joints and perhaps supporting healthy skin.

Key areas of health to pay attention to as clients age1

Globally, there is under investment in healthy ageing. For example, European countries invest on average 2.6% of their health budget on prevention. While the path to healthy ageing begins at adulthood, there is much more that can be done for individuals in later years. Working in the wellness industry, fit pros should also be aware of the changes that physiologically happen with ageing so that you can adapt the movement prescription and be supportive in an impactful way. These are five key areas of health to pay attention to as your clients age:

  1. Muscles and bone. As you age, your body becomes resistant to growth signals, resulting in muscle loss. This is a process known as sarcopenia and, on average, after the age of 50, adults lose 3% of their muscle strength every year. Muscle is metabolically more active than fast mass, which means that at rest the body burns fewer calories. Muscle is also vital for functional capacity. Bones become more brittle and fragile with age. Hormone changes and losses of collagen also lead to joint changes in older people. Pain, stiffness and inflammation are common complaints.
  2. Digestive system. As part of the natural ageing process, the muscles that help move food through the digestive tract lose strength. This has a knock-on effect on how quickly food eaten moves through the intestine and can ultimately lead to constipation, which is quite common among older adults. With age, there is also a gradual decline in taste and smell. Coupled with decayed teeth or ill-fitting dentures and a lack of saliva, it can become challenging to get the right nutrients in if simply chewing becomes hard work.
  3. Heart health. Ageing can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels. As you get older, your heart can’t beat as fast during physical activity or times of stress as it did when it was younger. The older you get, the higher your chances of heart disease are as well.
  4. Cognitive health. It is common to become forgetful with age. In fact, science suggests that many thinking abilities appear to peak around age 30 and subtly decline with age. Abnormal ageing can also include the motor system, resulting in excessive tripping, falls or tremors. Symptoms vary from person to person and what is normal for one person may not be normal for another. The challenge is to know if someone is experiencing a normal expected decline for them or not.
  5. The normal ageing process can bring changes that impact on eyesight; however, the chances of developing eye conditions and diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) increase with age.

How about checking out our online education with Dr Linia Patel on Longevity through Nutrition

  1. Gilbert S. 2000. Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA) Sinauer Associates.
  2. Shammas M. 2011. Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer and aging. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011 Jan; 14(1): 28–34
  3. Nettleton J. 2008. Dietary patterns, good groups and telomere length in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). American Society for Clinical Nutrition
  4. Kim E Et al. 2020. Sense of purpose in life and five health behaviours in older adults. Preventative Medicine.106172.
  5. Guimond A et al. 2022. Sense of purpose in life and inflammation in healthy older adults: A longitudinal study. Psychoneuroendochronology. 1, 141:105
  6. Ahola K et al. 2012. Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study. PLoS ONE 7(7)
  7. Vina J. 2016. Exercise: the lifelong supplement for healthy ageing and slowing down the onset of frailty. J Physiology. Apr 15:594
  8. Pes et al 2022. Diet and longevity in the blue Zones. A set and forget issue. Maturitas. 164:31-37
  9. Sadowska- Bartosz. 2014. Effect of Antioxidant Supplementation on Aging and Longevity. BioMed Research International. Volume 2014.
  10. Bjorn T et al. 2020. Obesity and ageing. Two sides of the same coin. Obesity Reviews. 21(4): e 12991
  11. Ravussin E et al. 2015. A 2-Year Randomized Controlled Trial of Human Caloric Restriction: Feasibility and Effects on Predictors of Health Span and Longevity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 70(9):1097-104
  12. Sohn, I. et al. 2023. Associations of green tea, coffee, and soft drink consumption with longitudinal changes in leukocyte telomere length. Scientific Reports. 10;13(1):492pproaches. Aging Research Reviews
  13. Richards J. 2008. Higher serum vitamin D concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 8685):1420 Vol 67.101268.

About the Author

Dr Linia Patel

Dietitian and sports nutritionist

As a self-confessed “total foodie”, being an award-winning dietitian and sports nutritionist comes naturally to our resident dietitian and long-time Fitpro magazine contributor, Dr Linia Patel. She likes to take a block of science and slice it up into easy-to-digest and practical advice. With a PhD in Public Health and over 100 published articles on diet and health, she is a British Dietetic Association Spokesperson and is regularly seen appearing on national TV and being quoted in the press. She’s the science expert for Tess Daly’s best-selling book 4 Steps to a Happier & Healthier You, is a qualified fitness instructor and has worked extensively in high performance sport. She is particularly passionate about women’s health, helping women to be the best version of themselves.

Key expertise:

  • Translating science into easy-to-digest, practical advice
  • Dietitian and sports nutritionist
  • Media spokesperson
  • Women’s health (athletes, non-athletes and everything in between)
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