Cellular Aging: Your DNA Is Not Your Destiny
Cellular aging starts at creation! “From the moment that we are two cells in the womb,” I wrote in Younger in 8 Weeks, “we are aging.” We begin our lives aging. The aging process encompasses the moment we’re conceived and follows us through till the end of our lives. The catalyst for this change lies deep within our DNA. As we grow old, our cells continue to divide as they did in the very beginning, refreshing themselves until they can no longer do so. The impact of cellular aging determines our biological age, which can be different from our chronological age.
The concept of aging and the choices you make about it is sort of like viewing the glass half full or half empty; starting at creation, we are aging, but we also begin living. Aging may be just another part of being human, but that doesn’t mean you’re at time’s mercy. Your DNA can’t be changed, but the way you age can. You’re ultimately in control of how you age – you are empowered in your health at any age. Read on to learn how your DNA influences your fate, and how you can fight back against it.
Aging is as Individual as a Fingerprint
The way we age is as individual as our fingerprint. Our genetic material determines our cellular aging, and much of what we know about the subject has come from the National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). The BLSA started monitoring the way people age in 1958 and have studied more than 3,100 people since then. What they’ve found is that the rate and progression of cellular aging varies drastically from person to person. That’s why it’s so important to understand your body and your health now to develop a baseline and plan.
Cellular aging not only affects our appearance, the wrinkles in our skin, and the graying of our hair, but it impacts our organs and tissues as well. Blood vessels in the heart can accumulate fatty deposits and lose elasticity, resulting in atherosclerosis. The lenses of the eyes can stiffen, making focus more difficult, and the number of nerve cells in our bodies can decrease, impairing depth perception.
Your Biological Age
All of these cellular effects of aging comprise your biological age. This is a measure of how well your body and brain are holding up in relation to your chronological age. Have you ever met a 60-year-old person who regularly competes in triathlons? More power to them! That’s a person whose biological age is much younger than their chronological age. Their contemporaries may be falling into a decline of poor health and frailty, but the way their body has aged allows them to remain active and engaged. This is what we live to refer to as active aging – engaging in your health at any time rather than letting it pass you by.
While your biological age is certainly somewhat dependent on your genetic material, the BLSA has found that as little as 30 percent of aging is genetically determined. This means the majority, 70 percent, of how our bodies and minds age is related to our lifestyle choices. We may not have complete control, but we have enough power over how we age to make a significant impact.
You’re Ultimately In Control Of How You Age
This impact is made by controlling the size of our telomeres. Telomeres are the bundles of DNA that cap the ends of our chromosomes, and some scientists believe these could be the keys to the aging process. Telomeres make it possible for our cells to divide and protect our genetic material from damage. Each time a cell divides, which is usually between 50 and 70 times total, its telomeres shorten. When telomeres become too short, the cells lose their ability to divide and either become inactive or die. Shorter telomeres, according to genetic research, have been linked to seriously detrimental age-related conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia and many forms of cancer.
The shortening of telomeres is a natural consequence of the aging process, but you’re not helpless. Although you can’t change your DNA, research suggests that you can change the length of your telomeres. In a study published in The Lancet Oncology, two groups of men in the early stages of prostate cancer were studied. One group was instructed to follow a plant-based diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They engaged in 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, kept stress at bay with meditation, yoga or deep breathing and participated in weekly group therapy. The other group changed nothing, continuing in their less-than-healthy ways.
At the end of the study, the first group, those who stuck with the positive lifestyle changes, showed an increase of 10 percent in telomere length after five years. The more closely members of this group followed their healthy lifestyle guidelines, the more their telomeres grew. They showed an overall improved biological age relative to their chronological age. In the other group, participants’ telomeres shortened by three percent. Their biological age was not improving. They put themselves at risk for the negative effects of shorter telomeres.
By choosing a healthier lifestyle, you can improve the health of your cells and reduce your biological age – the one that really matters. Increasing your odds of staving off cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia, cancer and other signs of aging is possible through active aging. Support your telomeres (and cellular health) with exercise, a healthy diet and stress reduction.
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