How much influence does our lifestyle have on our longevity?
We know what the ageing process looks like on the outside, but what about on the inside? Although it’s hard to pin down how ageing occurs, focusing on longevity as a holistic and all-inclusive process can prevent further damage and maintain health on all levels.
‘How we age externally is a manifestation of our internal processes,’ says exercise physiologist and nutritionist Paul Taylor.
‘Having said this, it’s clear there is no single process of ageing, rather it is the cumulative effect of multiple processes occurring at the same time.’
‘What we do know is that lifestyle is not a passive variable. We can dramatically increase our longevity by making changes to our lifestyle,’ he continues.
Let’s get physical
When it comes to increasing longevity, physical activity is king. ‘Exercise is key to reducing your biological age,’ says Taylor. According to the Cancer Council, physical inactivity is responsible for 14 percent of colon cancers and 11 percent of post-menopausal breast cancers – two types of cancer largely associated with ageing.
The positive effects of exercise have been helping our genes to evolve, right from the get-go. ‘The importance of exercise is obvious when you consider that our current human genome has evolved over 40,000 years in an environment of high physical activity – it requires and expects us to be physically active in order for both the body and brain to function normally,’ he explains.
The difference between our physical activity today and during our cave dwelling years is, according to Taylor, at the core of this brain-body divide. ‘Think of the difference in terms of exercise and food intake between us and the caveman – our brains and bodies literally haven’t caught up,’ he says.
Taylor says ideally we need to include at least five 30-minute sessions of cardiovascular exercise per week. The National Heart Foundation agrees, recommending 30 minutes of physical activity per day, whereas other government bodies suggest that two to three sessions of medium exercise per week is equally beneficial.
‘Being physically fit is one of the most effective ways to reduce chronic inflammation and reduce our speed of ageing,’ says Taylor. ‘Recent research has confirmed what many experts have believed for years – that intense interval exercise (anaerobic in nature) is more beneficial to the body than long-duration, lower-intensity aerobic exercise. Having said that, you must build up to this intensity level if you’re not accustomed to strenuous exercise, since a heart attack will undo all your good work!’
According to Taylor, it’s a rife misconception that the brain and body work independently from one another. ‘Mind and body are not separate entities,’ he says.
‘Cardiovascular exercise has massive benefits for our mood and has been shown to improve cognitive functioning. These benefits appear to be more significant as we age,’ he continues. ‘Levels of neurotransmitters (communication hormones) decrease as we get older. Low levels of two of these (noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine and serotonin) are strongly linked with depression, which may explain why rates of depression increase with age,’ he explains. Exercise boosts these neurotransmitters and has been shown to help with depression and also aid in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
This brain-body partnership is not a new discovery. Originating in India, the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine seeks to nurture the brain-body connection through concentrating on three pillars of human health: the imperishable self (spirit), the mind and the body. The word ‘Ayurveda’ is a combination of the word ‘ayus’ meaning ‘longevity’ and ‘veda’ meaning ‘related to knowledge’ or ‘science’. Since the spirit is everlasting, the health of the body and the mind are seen as essential elements for living as long as possible.
According to specialist pathologist Dr Ian Katz, studies have shown that Vitamin D deficiency can result in reduced cognitive function, weakened immune system, premature muscle frailty, brittle and misshapen bones, and telomere shortening — a critical factor in the ageing process.
Vitamin D3 supplements are increasingly being seen as a vital ingredient for maintaining health, increasing longevity and helping with prevention of prostate and breast cancer. These supplements are commonly taken in drop form, with approximately 400 units a day as the standard dose.
The human ecosystem
Everything in our body occurs on a cellular level. The body is made up of an ecosystem of trillions of cells that interact with each other, causing us to function in certain ways. One school of thought is that the life and death cycles of these cells essentially determine both how long we live, and how well we live.
Taylor says that cells have a fixed life and are programmed to die at a certain point. ‘Cell-cycle control is the whole process of cell division and cell death, and telomeres play a key role in this,’ he says.
‘Think of telomeres as the glue on the end of your shoelaces; with each act of cell division, the telomeres become a little shorter. When they become too short, chromosomes get damaged (the shoe lace starts to unravel) and this results in DNA damage, which ultimately results in ageing,’ he says.
While a lot of us put our bad habits and metabolism down to genes, a stream of research known as Epigenetics argues that our genes are capable of being affected by environmental and lifestyle factors, helping scientists to determine the link between our genetic makeup and our lifestyle, and how this affects the ageing process.
The Cancer Council Australia notes that more than 13,000 cancer deaths each year are due to smoking, too much sun exposure, poor diet, alcohol, inadequate exercise or being overweight. As a result, an astounding one in three cancer cases
For a ‘cancer smart’ lifestyle, the Cancer Council recommends eating five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day, three to four servings of lean red meat per week (avoiding processed meats), reduced-fat foods and cooking methods, low-salt products and at least one to two alcohol-free days each week. In addition, 30 to 60 minutes of medium to vigorous exercise each day is recommended.
In his studies into the relationship between nerve cells and memory, American neuroscientist Dr Eric Kandel found that genes thought to be the controllers of behaviour were, to a degree, also being controlled. ‘We were able to see genes are also the servants of the environment. They could be altered by experience,’ he says in an interview with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives in the US. Taylor agrees, noting that exercise has shown to have a very positive effect on how these genes express themselves in the body.
How to increase longevity
First cab off the rank for preventing further damage and living longer is to quit smoking. The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing says tobacco smoking is the single largest preventable cause of premature death and disease in Australia — in other words, the single most common and unnecessary threat to longevity.
We also need to limit our exposure to other toxins, which are absorbed in significant amounts from our modern environment. Limiting exposure to pollution, pesticides and chemicals will also prevent damage internally. Other factors to be avoided are radiation from prolonged time in the sun and recreational drugs, which have an extremely adverse effect on our cellular function and brain activity.
What is a free radical?
Free radicals are unstable atoms, molecules or ions with unpaired electrons. Free radicals are formed as a by-product of biological processes. More dangerous free radicals are produced by cigarette smoke, UV radiation, air pollution, dietary carcinogens, nitrates in cured meats and stress.
While some free radicals are essential to many biological processes, many damage the body by stealing electrons in order to return to a stable state. Free radical damage can cause cancer, contribute to degenerative diseases and accelerate ageing.
Stress is the body’s method of physically preparing for the energy required to fight off the source of stress, or run from it – also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This response has historically helped us to survive in the wild and improve our performance under pressure but, in our modern urban environment, it now manifests itself in ways that become detrimental to our health and longevity.
Lifeline Australia says uncharacteristic mood swings, bad sleeping patterns, compulsive behaviours, loss of appetite, eating more frequently or more unhealthily and dependence on alcohol or drugs are prevalent lifestyle-related effects of chronic stress. These result in negative physical effects such as panic, anxiety, increased blood pressure, headaches, exhaustion and depression.
According to the Australian Cancer Council, poor nutrition and lack of physical activity increase the risk of type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, arthritis and falls — accounting for nearly 20 percent of all disease and injury in Australia today. Fortunately, diet and exercise are highly manageable lifestyle choices that can dramatically reduce this number.
‘Transfats are damaging. They harden the cell membrane, which shuts down communication between cells,’ explains Taylor. ‘This is why foods such as processed carbs, saturated fats and foods with high glucose levels should be avoided.’
Nutrients and Omega 3 fats help the body and brain function, as well as aid in resolving inflammation – a key cause of the ageing process. ‘The average Australian has far too much Omega 6, which comes from vegetable oil and kicks off inflammation,’ says Taylor.
‘The best way to reduce inflammation, and therefore slow the ageing process, is to reduce your Omega 6 intake, up your Omega 3 intake, increase your exercise and reduce your exposure to toxins. This is the magic combo,’ he says.
While there are many different schools of thought about the ageing process and how to stilt it, it’s agreed the key to longevity lies somewhere in the relationship between our genetic makeup and lifestyle choices. Scientific research into the inner and outer causes of ageing not only tells us we can’t blame Mother Nature for the way we age but it also tells us we can actually do something about it. In the end, we can either sit on the cards we’ve been dealt or play the hand we have. The choice is ours.