Elaine Hooker was a trailblazer. As a newspaper reporter and editor in the 1960s, she excelled in a challenging field dominated by men. What’s more, she shouldered the added pressure of caring for four children at a time when there was little institutional or cultural support for working women.
“There was no tolerance for staying home with sick kids,” recalls Hooker, now 70. “I didn’t even dare keep photos of my children on my desk for fear I’d be considered not as serious as the guys.”
Still, even as Hooker was going through one of the most stressful times of her life, she took good care of herself. Exercise and meditation were part of her routine. And she is now enjoying a healthy and active retirement.
More of us would do well to follow Hooker’s example, looking beyond momentary circumstances and time pressures to see the bigger picture — namely, how the daily habits we form now can dictate our health for a lifetime.
When functional-medicine gynecologist Sara Gottfried, MD, met Hooker a few years ago for a checkup, Gottfried witnessed Hooker’s hardiness at a cellular level.
Gottfried checked Hooker’s telomeres — the protective tips on the chromosomes that keep them from fraying and sticking to each other. Functional physicians often examine the length of telomeres to assess how well a patient is aging.
“She had the telomeres of a woman 20 years younger,” Gottfried says. “Despite a very stressful life, she had practices in place that are associated with a better health span.”
We’d all like to have a “health span” that equals our life span. And the new science of epigenetics confirms that we have a significant say in how long we stay in fighting shape.
Epigenetics shows that lifestyle choices (like nutrition, activity, and how we manage stress) can trump our genetic heritage by controlling which of our genes actually turn on.
There are also new tools that can track tiny alterations in cellular function — such as the test Gottfried used to check Hooker’s telomeres — to help doctors evaluate how well our bodies are withstanding the test of time.
“These biomarker tools help us better understand and optimize the health of the cells throughout our body,” says Jeffrey Bland, PhD, FACN, CNS, cofounder of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
These tools are also definitively showing what we’ve suspected all along: that the choices we make on a daily basis He— about our food, exercise, sleep, and stress — all make a huge difference in how well we age at a biochemical, structural, and neurological level.
Read on to discover the factors that are affecting your rate of aging now and how some simple adjustments can help set the stage for a healthier, more vital, more vibrant future.
1. Control Inflammation
We tend to think of inflammation as the angry red swelling around a splinter or mosquito bite. Indeed, that acute inflammatory response is a critical part of the body’s healing process — a good thing. “If we didn’t have an inflammatory response, we could die from a minor injury such as a paper cut,” says Robert Rountree, MD, a functional-medicine practitioner at Boulder Wellcare in Colorado and the chief medical officer of Thorne Research.
Chronic inflammation, which can be caused by “injuries” to the body like poor nutrition and excessive stress, is something else entirely: It’s a slow-boil systematic disturbance that affects many parts of the body and injures cells. Over time, it can play a huge role in major afflictions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, cancer, and more.
Here’s how it works: Inflammation creates atoms called free radicals. These carry at least one unpaired electron that damages cells in its reckless pursuit of another electron with which to pair. Free radicals traumatize tissues throughout the body and can even harm DNA, leaving cells to malfunction or die.
We might feel the effects of systemwide inflammation when it causes ongoing pain in a knee, for instance, but are less likely to notice when that same inflammatory process wreaks silent havoc in other areas, such as the brain. We may detect some fogginess and forgetfulness, but we don’t connect it to inflammation.
“We don’t have pain receptors in the brain and we certainly can’t tell that it’s turning red like that area around the mosquito bite, but it’s the same exact process,” says neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of Brain Maker. “We measure inflammatory markers in the brains of individuals with things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of brain-related disorders, and we can see that these are the same markers of inflammation that are elevated in your arthritic knee.”
What You Can Do Now
Embrace an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, and be proactive about addressing inflammatory health conditions.
Your doctor can assess your inflammation level with a blood test for high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), a substance the body produces when inflammation is present.
A high reading could indicate that your lifestyle is contributing to bodywide inflammation, or that a more localized problem — such as gum disease or leaky gut — is triggering an inflammatory cascade.
“You want to get that hs-CRP lower,” says Bland, “because it’s a marker for biological aging and it’s increasing your risk for a variety of chronic illnesses.” One key area of focus is the intestinal tract, he says, because over 50 percent of the immune system is clustered around our intestines: “An unfriendly intestinal tract activates the immune system and that produces hs-CRP in your liver.”
2. Balance Your Microbiome
“Genes play an absolutely pivotal role in human health,” states Perlmutter. “But 99 percent of the genes and 99 percent of the DNA in our body are not ours.”
The majority of genes in the body belong to the microbiota in our guts — and they have a big influence on how we age, he explains.
“In terms of healthy aging, the bacterial DNA carries the biggest sword,” Perlmutter says, noting that, in his view, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other aging-related diseases are influenced to some degree by negative changes to the bacterial population in our guts. (For more on the gut-brain connection, see “Healthy Gut, Healthy Brain“.)
Indeed, one of the most revolutionary areas of health research — carried on notably by the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project — has to do with our microbiome, that -collection of tiny organisms living in and on our body that are our essential partners in good health.
According to the Human Microbiome Project, these microbes “produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders, and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes.”
Growing numbers of studies have linked changes in the composition of our microbiomes to various diseases. Perlmutter points to a 2015 study in the Journal of Neuroinflammation showing that chronic inflammation of the gut causes a decrease in the formation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a process that normally continues throughout adulthood and is linked to cognition and mood.
Among other roles, our friendly gut bacteria maintain the lining of the gut — only a single cell thick — and keep dangerous compounds from circulating throughout the body. Factors like poor diet, stress, toxins, and infections can damage the gut lining. And when the intestinal wall is breached, inflammatory compounds seep into the rest of the body, promoting a variety of premature-aging and chronic-disease factors. (For more on leaky-gut syndrome, check out “How to Heal a Leaky Gut“.)
What You Can Do Now
Be on the lookout for the symptoms of microbiome imbalance and leaky gut, including diarrhea, constipation, intestinal pain and bloating, chronic joint pain, psoriasis, and headaches.
When gut distress is suspected, many progressive physicians recommend their patients try an elimination diet. (For more on elimination diets, see “The Institute for Functional Medicine’s Elimination Diet Comprehensive Guide and Food Plan“.) Getting rid of allergenic foods is often enough to quell the disturbance and restore balance in the gut.
When it’s not, practitioners can order a stool analysis to help clarify what else might be disrupting intestinal bacteria, like yeast overgrowth, parasites, or viruses.
To support the microbiome over time, Perlmutter recommends a diet rich in probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut, all of which are full of microbial life.
In addition, he recommends consuming plenty of prebiotic foods that contain the fibers our microbes love to eat. These include onions, jicama, raw dandelion greens, bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes.
3. Embrace Activity
“None of the interventions that we talk about in the anti-aging field work unless you exercise,” says Rountree. He is especially impressed by the impact of exercise on our cells’ mitochondria, those powerhouses that generate the cells’ energy and are involved in other vital functions.
We inherit all our mitochondria and can’t make new ones from scratch, but those that we possess can split and make copies of themselves. This intracellular revitalization is called mitochondrial biogenesis, and recent research indicates that one way to stimulate it is through vigorous exercise. (For more on mitochondria, see “The Care and Feeding of Your Mitochondria“.)
Exercise also helps mitigate the aging effects of stress. “If we don’t have activity as a regular part of life, those stress hormones can’t get properly metabolized and they build up,” says Bland. “When you get regular exercise, your hormones improve, your energy improves, and your cell viability improves.”
On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle can promote the production of inflammatory cytokines, which accelerate aging and endanger bone health. “There are bone cells that break down bone,” says Rick Mayfield, DC, a faculty staff doctor at the Institute for Functional Medicine, and these get activated when the body experiences systemwide inflammation.
But note: While regular exercise is essential, exercising too often or aggressively without adequate recovery can actually cause you to age faster.
What You Can Do Now
Rountree says the best exercise for mitochondrial biogenesis is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), in which you push really hard for a short while, recover, then push hard again. (For details on HIIT workouts, see “HIIT It“.)
Still, any exercise you do -regularly, whether that’s yoga, strength training, or cycling, will help you metabolize stress -hormones, maintain better energy, and offset chronic inflammation.
4. Care for Your Hormones
As we age, our hormones shift. For men, testosterone tends to drop 1 to 2 percent every year after age 30, though research shows this can be related to lifestyle factors (typically weight gain) rather than aging alone.
Women, meanwhile, see decreases in estrogen and fluctuations in thyroid hormones during and after menopause. They may be 10 times as likely as men to have thyroid problems, with a resulting impact on their energy, mood, and weight. And everyone’s cortisol patterns tend to shift over time, which can be linked to disrupted sleep, shorter telomeres, and accelerated aging.
Keeping stress in check supports the health of the adrenal glands, and vice versa. “Imbalance in your adrenal function can accelerate aging,” says Gottfried, “so it’s important to keep cortisol in the optimal range.”
Gottfried uses a blood test to evaluate all of her patients’ cortisol, estrogen, and thyroid levels, and then works with her patients on lifestyle and treatment plans to get their levels within an optimal range.
What You Can Do Now
Adjust your eating, exercise, stress management, and sleep cycles in ways that help optimize your hormone levels. And if you suspect your hormones might be out of whack, ask your doctor for a hormone panel. Just keep in mind that most imbalances are best addressed by lifestyle adjustments.
For example, while overconsuming carbs spikes insulin, avoiding them altogether can increase cortisol production, Gottfried notes. She recommends focusing on protein, fat, and nonstarchy vegetables for breakfast and lunch, and enjoying some quality carbohydrates at dinner. “Cycling” carbohydrates this way helps rein in cortisol at night, when it’s most likely to disrupt sleep.
And don’t underestimate the role stress might be playing in your hormonal fluctuations. “High perceived stress -— that overwhelmed feeling that you’re a victim and it’s all just happening to you — can be disastrous for your hormonal balance,” she explains. “Things like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and exercise can really help us adjust our mindset.”
Sleep helps, too, but many people find it more elusive as they age because of disrupted cortisol patterns. Gottfried recommends moderating circadian rhythms by dimming lights in the evening and timing carbohydrate consumption.
5. Stay Connected
Some of the best predictors of a good health span may not sound especially scientific. They involve words like “community” and “passion,” says Nortin Hadler, MD, professor of microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But they have a real and measurable effect on how long and how well you live.
Hadler has spent years as a medical iconoclast, arguing that while certain drugs and procedures may be indispensable for treating diseases, community and social engagement are equally crucial for maintaining overall good health. And there’s plenty of science to back him up.
In 2014, University of Chicago researchers reported that feelings of loneliness represent a major health risk for older adults and can increase their risk of premature death by 14 percent. They also referenced a 2010 meta-analysis that found that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity does. But you don’t have to be old to have your health negatively affected by a lack of social support and connection.
Numerous studies have shown that feeling a strong sense of social and emotional connection helps reduce the biochemical markers of stress, lowers inflammation, improves immunity, supports healthy hormonal balance, and can even affect gene expression.
In his best-selling book The Blue Zones, National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner named having a strong sense of community as one of the top factors dictating not just one’s chances of living to 100, but of living to 100 as a reasonably healthy and happy person.
And in the big picture, that’s really what aging well is all about: enjoying a high-vitality, rewarding life both now and later. Starting wherever you are, right here, today.
What You Can Do Now
Make some space for real, live human interaction and significant relationships. Start by looking at your calendar. Do you have plans for social activities that feel rich, rewarding, and fun? Are you visiting with friends and family, volunteering on projects, participating in group activities, going on dates?
All of these things make a big difference in how connected you feel, and that feeling of connection keeps you vital at all levels. “You want to be engaged, you want to feel valued, you want to have a community,” says Hadler. “If you don’t, it will take years off your life.”