The Holy Grail of Health and Longevity
Life expectancy in developed countries has increased steadily over the past 150 years almost wholly through improvements in medicine and science.(1) Because people are living longer lives, the health consequences of aging are becoming more prevalent. In fact, when we hear the term “aging”, our minds often turn to the negative side-effects that come with advancing years. These may include things like reduced mobility, loss of hearing or sight, poor cognitive capacity and memory, chronic diseases, and a complete inability to navigate new technology.
While you may have to lean on your 12-year-old neighbor to help you with the technology issues, I’d like to offer some insights on how we can prevent the negative health consequences that come with advancing years. Unlike the legend of the Holy Grail, these “life hacks” are backed by science and require a lifestyle commitment rather than a single, miraculous sip.
Aging is a complex process. Physiologically, aging is an accumulation of damage and mutations at the cellular level which drastically decrease the function of our tissues and organs. Even though we have built-in processes to mitigate these damages, a lifetime of insults can leave them worn out or dysfunctional.(2) One of the most obvious manifestations of these dysfunctions is in loss of skeletal muscle, which typically takes a gradual decline after the age of 45.(3) This loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with normal aging is referred to clinically as “sarcopenia”, which is seen in almost all aged adults. Consequently, we see a marked increase in the risk of disability and loss of functional capacity in the elderly because we know that physical strength, stamina, and balance all depend on skeletal muscle.(4) Without the ability to move effectively, not only are your “Fox Trot” and “Charleston” dance moves going to suffer, but most of the organ systems in your body will as well, which has a major impact on lifespan and longevity.(5)
With that gloomy forecast in mind, allow me to paint the silver lining. Fortunately, we have strategies to slow and stop the effects of aging, including sarcopenia, which include protein intake, fasting, and exercise. So, let’s take a brief look at each of these.
Protein intake and Healthy Aging
As we age, our ability to break down and use protein diminishes.(6) This means that even healthy seniors need more protein than when they were younger to help preserve muscle mass. The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day in young healthy adults. For a 150-pound woman, that translates into eating 55 grams of protein a day; for a 180-pound man, it calls for eating 65 grams. It is recommended that healthy older adults consume 1 to 1.2 g/kg/day — a 25 to 50% increase over the RDA. This would translate to 69 to 81 grams for a 150-pound woman, and 81 to 98 grams for a 180-pound man.(7) (See this article for an excellent description of how much protein to consume)
Studies have shown that maintaining a high protein diet is essential to minimizing loss of muscle mass.(8) That being said, we know that not all protein is created equal. Animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning they provide our bodies with all of the essential amino acids. That’s not to say you should completely avoid plant-based protein but be aware that you will need to be careful and choose your proteins wisely. Whey protein, which comes from milk (animal based), has been shown to be very efficient for maintaining muscle mass.6 Achieving this kind of protein intake can be a daunting task, but a high-quality meal replacement or protein shake can make it much easier to meet your needs.
Fasting and the Aging Process
Restricting the times you eat is a great way to control insulin resistance which can reduce your risk of chronic diseases and other ailments that become more common in later years.(9) Fasting is also a potent stimulator of autophagy, our body’s built-in processes to clean up damaged cells and cell fragments, which typically loses function as we age.(10),(11) Additionally, fasting helps reduce systemic inflammation.(12) Research suggests that one key to successful aging and longevity is to decrease chronic inflammation without compromising an acute response when exposed to pathogens.(13)
Exercise for Healthy Aging
It seems the older we get, the more sedentary we become. However, living an active lifestyle is one of the best ways to preserve muscle mass, reduce inflammation, and repel the effects of aging.(14) Regardless of your age, make time regularly to challenge and build your muscles. (See Dr. Bikman’s article on the unknown benefits exercise here)
With advances in modern medicine, we have extended the human lifespan, but this added longevity loses its luster if those added years are mostly spent in times of disease and dysfunction. Our goal in gracefully aging should not only be to improve our lifespan, but to improve our “healthspan”, or the percentage of our lives spent enjoying good health.
In our society, it is easy to achieve an overconsumption of calories with an underconsumption of quality nutrients – especially protein. Make a conscious effort to get adequate protein in your diet. Constantly being fed is not good for you. Make a conscious effort to restrict how often you feed yourself. The benefits of consistent exercise cannot be overstated. Make a conscious effort to exercise regularly. Remember that aging is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency is key to the axiom, “Slow and steady wins the race”.
- Partridge L. The new biology of ageing. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2010;365(1537):147-154.
- Rubinsztein DC, Marino G, Kroemer G. Autophagy and aging. Cell. 2011;146(5):682-695.
- Janssen I, Heymsfield SB, Wang Z, Ross R. Skeletal muscle mass and distribution in 468 men and women aged 18-88 yr. (vol 89, pg 81, 2000). J Appl Physiol. 2014;116(10):1342-1342.
- Roubenoff R. Origins and clinical relevance of sarcopenia. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology-Revue Canadienne De Physiologie Appliquee. 2001;26(1):78-89.
- Janssen I, Heymsfield SB, Ross R. Low relative skeletal muscle mass (sarcopenia) in older persons is associated with functional impairment and physical disability. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2002;50(5):889-896.
- Magne H, Savary-Auzeloux I, Migne C, et al. Contrarily to whey and high protein diets, dietary free leucine supplementation cannot reverse the lack of recovery of muscle mass after prolonged immobilization during ageing. J Physiol-London. 2012;590(8):2035-2049.
- Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013;14(8):542-559.
- Magne H, Savary-Auzeloux I, Remond D, Dardevet D. Nutritional strategies to counteract muscle atrophy caused by disuse and to improve recovery. Nutr Res Rev. 2013;26(2):149-165.
- Horne BD, Muhlestein JB, May HT, et al. Relation of routine, periodic fasting to risk of diabetes mellitus, and coronary artery disease in patients undergoing coronary angiography. Am J Cardiol. 2012;109(11):1558-1562.
- Bagherniya M, Butler AE, Barreto GE, Sahebkar A. The effect of fasting or calorie restriction on autophagy induction: A review of the literature. Ageing Research Reviews. 2018;47:183-197.
- Jamshed H, Beyl RA, Della Manna DL, Yang ES, Ravussin E, Peterson CM. Early Time-Restricted Feeding Improves 24-Hour Glucose Levels and Affects Markers of the Circadian Clock, Aging, and Autophagy in Humans. Nutrients. 2019;11(6).
- Johnson JB, Summer W, Cutler RG, et al. Alternate day calorie restriction improves clinical findings and reduces markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in overweight adults with moderate asthma. Free Radic Biol Med. 2007;42(5):665-674.
- Franceschi C. Inflammaging as a major characteristic of old people: can it be prevented or cured? Nutr Rev. 2007;65(12 Pt 2):S173-176.
- Sallam N, Laher I. Exercise Modulates Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Aging and Cardiovascular Diseases. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:7239639.