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The Keys To Staying Young, According To Science

By Melissa Pandika | February 14, 2017

We all recall learning about the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Léon’s failed search for the mythical Fountain of Youth. (At least he got a trip to Florida.) Today, scientists have since taken up a similar quest to slow the process of aging. The fast-evolving fields of aging and longevity research have yielded exciting findings in recent years, suggesting some practical steps to dial back the clock to look and feel younger, longer. Here are some of the major developments. 

Exercise fights aging

While we hate to sound like a broken record, experts confirm that exercising is one of the best ways to slow aging. Besides the well-known benefits of preventing diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases, recent research suggests that exercise can make you look and feel younger — and yes, even live longer. Here’s how:

Keeps skin looking fresh: As we age, the inner dermis layers of our skin have less collagen and elastin, and that makes our skin look more wrinkled. In a 2014 study at McMaster University in Canada, researchers sampled skin from sedentary people older than 65 before and after a three-month endurance training program. The second samples looked strikingly similar to 20- to 40-year-old skin. It’s unclear how exercise smooths out skin, but molecules known as myokines, produced by working muscles, might play a role.

Boosts energy levels: Exercising doesn’t just tire you out — it helps you sleep better. A 2011 Mental Health and Physical Activity study of 2,600 men and women found that those who worked out for at least 150 minutes a week improved their sleep quality by 65 percent, making them feel more energetic and alert during the day. Compared with non-exercisers, the regular exercisers fell asleep faster and were more likely to enter deep, restorative REM sleep. While it might not directly lengthen your life, better sleep can help you feel more energetic.

Slows your body’s “odometer”: As we get older we can actually see the effects in our cells. In each cell, DNA is packaged into 23 sets of chromosomes, and telomeres are protective “caps” at the ends of these. Our telomeres shorten as we get older, so they can be used to measure cellular aging and predict lifespan. Research suggests that exercise might actually slow telomere shortening.  

For instance, a study of 6,500 men and women found that active people were less likely to have short telomeres. The more types of activity they did, the better their telomeres looked — those who did all four types of activity were 59 percent less likely to have short telomeres than sedentary participants. (The four activities were moderate exercise like walking; vigorous exercise like running; weight training; or walking or biking to work or school.) The researchers saw the strongest effects in those ages 40 to 65.

Keeps your brain sharp: Exercise doesn’t just work out your muscles, it works out your brain, too. Research suggests that even among older adults, brisk walking and other moderate physical activity promotes the health of brain regions important in memory, and improve performance on memory tasks — areas that tend to slow down as we age.

But while it’s never too late to start, “at a certain point, you’re going to have to play catch-up,” says Nancy Dennis, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. “Continuous good health across the lifespan will be more beneficial than to stop eating the candy and cheeseburgers at age 75 and start walking.”

Eating less might be better

Studies have shown that cutting 20 to 40 percent of calories can make many living things — from yeast and fruit flies to mice and dogs — live longer. People live much longer than fruit flies, so researchers look at other factors. Cutting calories by about 12 percent for two years improved aging-related risk factors — lowered blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, boosted HDL (good cholesterol), improved insulin resistance, and reduced levels of C-reactive protein (involved in inflammation) — by nearly 50 percent .

It’s not exactly clear how calorie restriction works. Some researchers have proposed that fasting blocks the activity of a protein called mTOR, which may prevent tissue breakdown and slow the progression of these age-related diseases.

Fasting might also increase levels of NAD, a molecule involved in pathways that defend cells against stress. David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, has shown that NAD extends lifespan and improves endurance, activity and energy in mice. To activate cellular defense pathways and boost NAD levels, Sinclair suggests fasting — eating two meals per day, for instance — as well as sprinting and other types of high-intensity physical activity.  

But postmenopausal women should be careful. A very low-calorie diet can compromise bone formation and bone health, increasing osteoporosis risk. A 2011 study found that, compared with women who ate 80 or 100 percent of the recommended minimum daily requirement of calories, women who ate 55 percent had significantly lower bone mass density in the femur and spine, linked to a higher risk of osteoporosis. As always, check with your doctor before you make any major changes to your diet or exercise plan.

A pill for youth?

While scientists are investigating how lifestyle affects the biological pathways in aging, others are developing drugs that act on those same pathways to develop drugs and supplements. Most are still being studies in animals and are not close to market-ready, but there are interesting things on the horizon.

  • Rapamycin (currently used to prevent organ transplant rejection) acts on the mTOR pathway and has been shown to extend lifespan in mice. Some researchers are testing rapamycin as a long-term treatment, while others are developing similar drugs (rapamycin analogs), which may have fewer side effects.
  • Senolytics are drugs that target senescent cells (cells that no longer divide). The problem is, “they don’t die. They become troublemakers,” says George Taffett, a professor of geriatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “They start recruiting cells around them to also become troublemakers” by releasing proteins that trigger inflammation, linked to aging, as well as cancer, atherosclerosis, and other age-related diseases. Taffet predicts that we’ll start seeing senolytics in the next decade or so. It’s a hot field; one company, Unity Biotechnology, raised $110 million in 2016.
  • Studies suggest that common, affordable drugs like ibuprofen and metformin (used to treat type 2 diabetes) might also help us live longer.,, “Drugs that slow aging may ultimately be the best bet,” writes Brian Kennedy, a professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. But “they will have to go through a full clinical development route.” Existing drugs could be approved faster.
  • A handful of companies have begun selling anti-aging supplements. “I don’t think all the data is in, but it’s interesting,” Kennedy says. He points to Elysium Health’s Basis as one of the more promising ones. It contains a precursor of NAD, an enzyme involved in antioxidant pathways. A competitor, Prohealth, also markets a similar supplement, NAD+Ignite.
  • Meal plans and supplements that mimic the effects of fasting are on the market These “fasting mimicking diets” by companies like L-Nutra and Prolon are designed to regulate pathways related to aging. (Kennedy serves on L-Nutra’s board.)

As always, before making any lifestyle changes, or taking supplements, remember to consult your doctor first.

With more research the Fountain of Youth that eluded Ponce de Léon might become a reality one day. In the meantime there are a few things we all can do — eat well, exercise, be good to your heart, and try to stay healthy and injury free. And remember to keep up with friends, volunteer, and make time for what you love, because being happy and fulfilled has the hidden benefit of helping people live longer too. 

 

Editor: Deepi Brar

Melissa Pandika is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.

 

Selected references

  • Gretchen Reynolds. "Younger Skin Through Exercise." The New York Times. April 16, 2014. [Link
  • P. Loprinzi and B. Cardinal. Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep, NHANES 2005–2006. [Link]
  • Loprinzi PD1, Loenneke JP, and Blackburn EH. Movement-Based Behaviors and Leukocyte Telomere Length among US Adults. Med Sci Sports Exercise. November 2015. [Link]
  • Trepanowski JF, Bloomer RJ. The impact of religious fasting on human health. Nutrition Journal. September 2010. [Link]
  • Laplante M, Sabatini DM. mTOR signaling in growth control and disease. Cell. 2012. [Link]
  • Harrison DE, Strong R, Sharp ZD, et al. Rapamycin fed late in life extends lifespan in genetically heterogeneous mice. Nature. 2009. [Link]
  • “Adding Ages: The Fight to Cheat Death is Hotting Up.” The Economist. 13 August 2016. [Link]

Melissa Pandika