If you are like most people, many of the decisions you make as you age are based on your ideas about how to live longer and healthier.
Whether it’s finally starting to apply sunscreen to help prevent skin cancer in the long run (and, why not, keep the wrinkles away in the short run), modifying your exercise routine, or eating as many so-called “superfoods” as possible, you are constantly doing what you can to keep illness away as the years go by.
That impulse we all have is completely logical, of course. Illness is not fun. And age-related illnesses aren’t just colds and coughs. As you age, you have a greater risk of developing chronic diseases.
Chronic diseases are those that significantly affect your physical and mental health long-term. And age-related chronic diseases, as defined by the Journal of Aging Science, include extremely serious and debilitating conditions, such as osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
In fact, leading aging science researcher Aubrey de Grey published a ground-breaking paper in 2007, in which he revealed that aging-related diseases kill about 100,000 people every day, worldwide. That equals about 2/3rds of all deaths on a global scale. In industrialized nations, he writes, that figure increases to 90% of the population.
In other words, people are living longer, but they aren’t very good at living a healthy life for all those extra years.
What Influences How We Age?
While you wait for science and technology to help find ways to really fight aging itself (on a cellular level), is there anything you can do to fight unhealthy aging right now?
While there has historically been a lot of focus on the influence of our genes on aging, this article demonstrates that by the end of the 20th century, researchers started to realize that lifestyle has a much greater influence on how fast and severely you age than was originally thought.
In other words, the genes you are born with are probably not going to define your health as the decades go by. Instead, it’s more likely that the choices you make about how you live will have a much greater influence on how you age.
Some of the most important of these choices include:
- Whether you smoke (or not)
- Whether you use recreational drugs (or not)
- How much and how often you exercise
- The quantity of alcohol you drink
- Your stress levels
- What you eat
In this article, we are going to focus on this last element, because eating food is essential to life, it’s something you have to do every single day, and, as it turns out, it has one of the biggest impacts on your health as you age.
Well, the molecules in the food you eat have important functions in all of your tissues and cells. (It’s because of these vital functions that you have a physiological need to eat in the first place!) And some of these functions influence normal and abnormal cellular aging processes.
In this article, we are going to talk about the top 4 most important interactions between molecules in the food you eat and the processes involved in aging.
4 Ways Your Diet Influences How Your Body Ages
1. Antioxidants Protect Your DNA
In another article, we talked about the difference between the DNA mutations you are born with and those that are caused by the environment and lifestyle choices — the so-called “acquired mutations” — that promote aging. Many of these age-promoting DNA mutations occur due to damage caused by molecules called “free radicals”.
The term “free radical” actually gives you a good idea of what these molecules are and what they do. Try thinking about a “radical” ideas. What are they like? They are ideas that aim to cause dramatic change, to affect the fundamental nature of something in the world — whether it be politics, religion, regulations, or laws. The same goes for free radicals. They cause dramatic change on a cellular level.
The problem is your body doesn’t deal with these radical changes very well. Free radicals fundamentally alter the structure of your DNA, via a process called oxidative stress. Cells that are exposed to many years of oxidative stress experience significant cell damage, some of which is irreversible. This damage, and the loss of cellular function it causes, leads to the age-related diseases mentioned above.
Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals. They are the guys that keep free radicals in check so that they don’t mess with your DNA.
There are certain foods, or better yet, food groups, that contain tons of antioxidants – particularly plant foods. While many people tout certain foods to be “superfoods” because of their superior antioxidant concentration, those food lists can often be reductive.
In reality, all fresh fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and the best way to help fight oxidative stress is to eat a rainbow of brightly-colored fruits and vegetables every day. Each different color of fruit and vegetable is a sign of different types of antioxidants that support the health of different organs and body parts. So, mixing and matching them gives you the best bang for your buck.
2. Phytonutrients Regulate Cell Replication and Cancer Development
Telomerase is an enzyme that is important in cell replication. Cells cannot replicate infinitely without consequence – if they could, we wouldn’t age like we do now.
Each cell experiences cellular aging and enters a state known as “senescence” after about 50-70 cell divisions (which takes between few days to about a year after it’s born, depending on the type of cell). This happens because, during every replication, your telomeres, the protective caps on the end of your DNA, are shortened slightly. Eventually, these protective caps become so short that the whole DNA-message can’t be transferred safely to the next cell. Poor information transfer in cells could be really problematic. But, in general, your cells die before they pass on poor information.
What happens if they don’t die, though?
If you have ever seen the silly 90s film Multiplicity, it isn’t hard to picture what happens if your cells don’t die when they get old.
Michael Keaton’s character in the film finds a way to clone himself. The first clone is actually quite close to how he sees himself. As each copy starts making clones of itself, however, the copies of the copies get glitchier and glitchier.
And this is exactly what happens when your cells’ telomeres don’t shorten, and the cells don’t die! They become glitchier and glitchier, eventually turning into cancer cells.
Why don’t telomeres shorten in cancer cells and stop them from dividing anymore? Well, cancer cells have the unique ability to over-activate an enzyme called “telomerase”, which rebuilds the ends of the telomeres every time the cell divides. With this enzyme in over-drive, they are totally free to replicate into malignant, malfunctioning cells, without any shortening of their telomeres.
Is there anything you can do to make sure telomerase turns off and stays off when your cells get older so you are less likely to get cancer?
Yes! Researchers have found that there are certain phytonutrients that can turn off telomerase in old or unhealthy cells.
Genistein, for example, is a phytonutrient found in soybeans that has been found to have these properties.
Quercetin is another powerful phytonutrient that may help turn off telomerase in cancerous cells. Luckily, quercetin is found in plenty of plant foods, like green tea, buckwheat tea, apples, and berries, and herbs and spices like ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and American elder.
3. Plant Proteins and Fasting Restrict Methionine Intake
Even in ancient medicinal practices, people associated dietary control or restriction with health and longevity. Back in the 5th to 4th century BC, Plato, one of the most prominent Greek thinkers, promoted the concept of moderation of diet as a cornerstone of health.
Modern science, thousands of years later, has actually demonstrated this to be true. In fact, research results associate dietary restriction with longevity, not only in humans but in all living organisms. “Ideal” diets are still a mystery, but there is plenty of evidence to show that unrestricted diets promote fat accumulation, and, thus, obesity. Obesity is associated with many of the age-related diseases mentioned earlier, including diabetes and heart disease.
In addition to the health effects of obesity, researchers are investigating what other components of an unrestricted diet might impact cellular aging on a molecular level, as well. And they have hit on one likely suspect.
Several studies have shown that the amino acid methionine may play a key role in driving unhealthy aging. While the theory has yet to be tested in humans, methionine restriction has been proven to extend the lifespan of many model organisms, including fruit flies and rats.
How could we restrict aging-accelerating methionine in our diets? The two best methods we know of know are to:
- Eat lots of plant foods. This helps to reduce methionine intake because plant foods typically have less of the amino acid methionine than animal foods.
- Try intermittent fasting. By reducing your calorie intake, intermittent fasting naturally restricts the number of amino acids and, therefore, methionine you consume.
4. Pesticides Cause Cell Inflammation
Conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables are full of pesticides.
Farmers use pesticides for a reason – they help increase crop yield, fruit and vegetable appearance, and reduce any damage that can cause food to rot.
However, we now know that consuming foods with pesticides can cause significant cell inflammation and oxidative damage over time. Inflammation, along with oxidative stress, is one of the main causes of cellular aging.
Certain pesticides are also known to be carcinogenic, meaning that they can increase the risk of the appearance and growth of cancer cells. Researchers are not in agreement on whether pesticides cause damage on a DNA level or not. It is clear, however, that certain types of pesticides do cause cell damage.
To be safe, the best thing you can do is to choose organic produce over conventionally-grown options. Some foods have higher pesticide concentrations than others. Check out the “clean 15” and “dirty dozen” lists for foods to prioritize when shopping for organic produce.
Take Home Message
Informed nutritionists and doctors often make many of the same recommendations: eat mainly a plant-based diet; eat organic produce, when possible; cut out as many sweet, high-fat and processed foods as you can; and don’t overeat.
Throughout your life, you will see the benefits of following through with these recommendations. This is true, even if they seem like big changes. In addition to helping fight aging, these same recommendations can help people who want to help lose weight and prevent chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease: exactly what we are looking for when we’re on the hunt for diets that help us live longer and healthier as we age.