What is aging?
Unless you’ve got a case of the Benjamin Buttons, you’re going to grow older. Try as people might, there’s yet to be anyone who has figured a way around this one.
But what exactly is aging? I’m sure most of us look to our year of birth as the marker to keep track of how old we are. Yet you’d be wrong to do so. Just because you were born 50 years ago does not mean you actually feel 50 years of age.
That’s because in actual fact the aging process moves at different speeds for different people, and if you’re one of the lucky ones to be aging slower, or one of the unlucky ones to be aging faster, your biological age may differ a great deal from what it says on your birth certificate.
The Duke University Center for Aging and Human Development recently undertook a study to take a deeper look into this notion. With a subject group of 38-year-olds, cognitive function, blood pressure, as well as key markers of the kidney, liver, lung and immune system were analysed to determine actual biological ages.
The results of the study showed that the group had biological ages ranging from 28 to 61 – or to put it another way, some of these 38-year-old subjects’ bodies functioned as well as people in their twenties, while others essentially had the body of a 60-year-old.
Let’s now take a look at what aging is. Just bear in mind that the age references used in the article are rough markers, because again to stress that aging can be very different from individual to individual.
Two of the most obvious signs of aging
Let’s start with a couple of the common visual indicators of age, the first being our skin. Those wrinkles usually start appearing in our thirties as the speed and effectiveness with which bodies are able to replenish and repair cells wanes, resulting in the skin losing its elasticity. What’s more, we also start to produce less natural skin oil, which can lead to a more dry and weathered looking appearance.
It is also around this time that we are likely to spot our first grey hairs. Most of us can expect to lose around half of our natural colour by age 50, while 74% of people aged between 45 and 65 will have at least some greys on their head. Why is this? Well, the main cause is that our pigment-producing melanocytes become damaged and start dying off. A healthy melanocyte stem cell reservoir – found in each of our follicles – has the task of replenishing the pigment in each strand of hair, and when this reservoir effectively dries up, pigment production stops and the hair turns grey.
An aging skeleton
Many of the more uncomfortable changes that occur as we age happen inside our bodies, affecting everything from our mobility and strength to our eyesight, hearing and even mood. Our skeletal structure is a big one here. Throughout the early stages of our lives we are continually forming new bone, which results in our bones becoming larger, stronger and more dense as we get older. This is the case up until around the age of 30, when we reach what is called peak bone mass.
But from our early thirties onwards, the party is effectively over. Bone resorption – the process by which bone is broken down and the minerals are released into the blood via bone fluid – begins to slowly exceed new bone formation, which is essentially the opposite effect of bone formation. Over the next decades, our bones start to become weaker and more brittle.
For many, this breakdown of the bone structure can lead to osteoporosis, where in the United States it affects around 55% of the 50+ age group, and is responsible for more than 1.5 million fractures each year.
And it’s not just our bones that have to contend with the wear and tear of getting older. Our skeletal muscles also deteriorate over time, causing our bodies to appear less lean – the “middle aged spread” as it is otherwise known. These changes are usually most noticeable in people in their forties and fifties, but the changes can start much earlier. To put it in the bigger picture, our total muscle mass will decrease by nearly 50% between the ages of 20 and 90.
Hormonal changes as we age
Aside from the physical changes that occur as we get older, there are also a series of chemical changes taking place throughout the body, which have an impact on many facets of our lives. Perhaps the most wide-reaching of these is the change that takes place in our hormone levels, or more specifically for us men, our testosterone levels.
These levels are, rather unsurprisingly, at their highest during adolescence and early adulthood, with the average testosterone level of an 18-year-old clocking in at around 800 ng/dL (nanograms per decilitre). This is usually the norm for about the next ten years or so – or say up until the age of 30. At this point, levels begin to decrease by 1% to 3% each year.
It is thought that there is an anthropological reason for this: our cavemen ancestors needed testosterone to give them the strength to fight for land and food, to attract a mate, and to protect any resultant offspring. As they grew older they didn’t need the reproductive effect of testosterone because the next generation was ready to take over the mantle and their role in the tribe was now to impart wisdom and guide the young blood.
And while there are some advantages to certain hormone levels not remaining as they were in our teens, the reality is that hormone depletion and imbalance in the modern age has mainly negative effects. We are living much longer lives, and as those levels keep dropping into our forties and fifties and beyond, an array of ailments can be seen, from impotence and weight gain through to depression and fatigue.
How aging affects the brain
Chemical changes taking place inside the brain as we age are also not too much fun. As vital hormone levels deplete and our cells gradually die off never to be replaced, brain function is worse for the wear. While the onset of this deterioration of the brain can start much earlier in some people than others, recent research by the American Academy of Neurology has shown that it tends to be at its fastest within the last few years of our lives.
Our brains actually gradually shrink throughout the aging process, causing our nerve tracts to narrow and shrivel. This results in our cerebrospinal fluid cavities becoming larger. To put this in both blunt and simple terms, we essentially develop gaping holes throughout our brains. Because of this, our every action begins to slow. We are slower to react, to move, and even to talk. To top it all off, our cognitive and memory functions will also begin to fail us.
As depressing as this all sounds (and sorry about that), in many cases it is actually the brain that holds out the longest throughout the wear and tear of the aging process. Although short-term memory may start to be affected as early as our sixties, our full verbal abilities – specifically how quickly we can recall words when talking – often lasts well into our seventies. Our intellectual performance – essentially how well our brains process information – manages to go one further, and is usually maintained into our eighties (assuming there are no neurological disorders present such as Alzheimer’s – now also referred to as “type 3 diabetes”).
Can we halt the aging process?
It has to be said that the short answer to this question is no. However, almost all experts agree that there are absolutely things you can do to slow aging down, which in some cases can have a significant impact on your biological age.
The first place to start is by kicking out bad habits such as smoking and excess drinking, which not only age the skin but also cause long-term damage to our insides.
Next up, get your diet in check. The single most important thing you can do is to reverse insulin resistance. Kick out processed foods, sugars, and grains, while bringing in plenty of vegetables, natural oils, omega-3 fats and lean meats – all of which have been shown to reduce cell damage and keep us looking and feeling younger for longer.
And don’t forget physical fitness. No healthy lifestyle is complete without a helping of exercise, and it too aids in the slowing down of aging – particularly when it comes to muscle and bone loss. According to studies carried out by the National Osteoporosis Foundation on men and women between 40 and 70 years of age who worked out regularly, bone density in the legs, back, and hips was shown to increase.
Finally, get tested: As most of you know, one of my main missions is to help you reverse insulin resistance, which is the top cause of cardiometabolic disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease, and more. There are many tests involved in an annual screening, but my two favorites are body fat percentage (men should be 10-20% and women should be 18-28%), and a HbA1c (normal is less than 5.5, prediabetes is 5.7 or more, diabetes is 6.4 or more). By ensuring you are in the healthy range or close to normal with these two, you can prevent and reverse the many chronic conditions that age us.
Just remember that it is your job to keep your body healthy. Whatever your age, there is no excuse for getting sick due to poor lifestyle choices. Unfortunately, the trend is still going in the wrong direction, and I am seeing younger and younger people coming into my office with serious health issues that are a direct result of their unhealthy lifestyles. While medicines can keep us alive a lot longer, longevity doesn’t amount to much if the quality of our lives is affected by poor health.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.