Quit smoking and quit hanging around people who haven’t.
The true age of your heart – the biological age, not the birth date age – means a lot when it comes to living a vibrant, energetic youthful life for as long as you can. Last week I wrote about blood pressure as a biomarker of age. The week before, I wrote about resting heart rate. Both of these markers are related to the strength, health and resilience of your heart.
What ages the heart? I bet you guess.
Obesity – especially extra padding around the middle.
A heart-unhealthy diet (junk, fried anything, meat and more meat).
High blood pressure.
Low “good” cholesterol.
The World Health Federation estimates that at least 80 percent of premature deaths (the ultimate ager, right?) from heart disease and stroke could be avoided if the main risk factors – smoking,, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity – were controlled. Yes, 80 percent. And, of course, that same trifecta of badness is implicated in many other diseases of “aging” and chronic conditions that make life far less pleasant than it could or should be.
Suppose your parents had/ have heart problems or heart disease. Does that doom you to a rapidly aging heart, a heart that is biologically older than your chronological age? No. There is strong and compelling evidence that people with a family history of heart problems can still have a lower “heart age” if they practice a healthy lifestyle.
This is good news for me. My father had (and died from) coronary artery disease. He never had a heart attack. And he didn’t die young. (He was in his 80s – unlike his father who died of a heart attack at 50.) But the last few years of his life were not good. He was weak, increasingly debilitated and then bedridden. His lifespan exceeded his healthspan. That’s not what I want for my future.
So I am doing everything I can to keep my heart (and the rest of me) youthful. And, really, this is not “work.” It is committing to – and deeply, deeply enjoying – an active, healthy lifestyle.
Want to take a test to see how old your heart is? Sure you do. Here it is.
When I took the test, I was informed that most women my age have hearts that are 6 years older than their chronological age. My heart? It was 17 years younger.
Filed under Posts | Comments (4)
Have a plan. Have a Plan B. Flexibility and resilience are hallmarks of a youthful life.
We’re talking BIOMARKERS again this week (and for the next few weeks). Biomarkers are, you might remember from last week’s post, statistical snapshots – based on solid research – that can help us determine how old our bodies are. Which is, birthdays not withstanding, how old we really are.
Last week I wrote about resting heart rate. This week’s biomarker is blood pressure.
First, a little primer: Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries. Blood pressure measurements are given in two numbers. The first number (systolic blood pressure) is the pressure caused by your heart pushing out blood. The second number (diastolic blood pressure) is the pressure when your heart fills with blood. The safest range, often called “normal” blood pressure, is a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic blood pressure of less than 80. This is stated as 120/80. Elevated blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack and stroke and, if left untreated, can reduce life expectancy by 10 years or more.
An increase in blood pressure has always been taken as an inevitable consequence of aging. But what it is, is a consequence of a progressive lack of elasticity of the arteries along with a weakening of the heart muscle. So are those changes the natural, inevitable consequences of the passage of time?
Some artery “hardening,” and thus some elevation in blood pressure (the systolic number), may come with age as well as some (perhaps small) lack of efficiency in the heart muscle. But it is not so much the passage of time as the accumulated effects of unhealthy living that lead to high blood pressure. And, of course, it’s the usual suspects, the poor habits that have become increasingly ingrained in western culture. You know what they are, folks: smoking, consuming high (bad) fat food, eating foods high in sodium, weighing more than is healthy and not exercising.
Normal, or not-scarily-low blood pressure (achieved without medication) is a sign of a strong, efficient heart and healthy, elastic arteries. Normal or lower blood pressure, then, is a biomarker for youth. Maintaining a consistent “normal” reading for systolic pressure as the years go by is a biomarker of youth. So aim for under 120/80. Forever.
There is, however, a measurement problem. We all get our blood pressure checked when we go to the doctor’s office. It doesn’t matter why we’re there, that’s the first thing that’s done. But that reading may be falsely high. We’re generally not thrilled to be at the doctor’s office. We’re worried or concerned, which means we’re stressed. And we probably cooled our heels in the waiting room for a while. Also a stressor. And we’re wondering just how much the insurance will pay.
Here’s what I do to try to get a good reading: I ask the nurse to give me a moment before wrapping the cuff around my arm. I sit up straight with my feet firmly planted on the floor and take several big, deep breaths. I relax my shoulders, place the palms of my hands on my thighs and close my eyes. Just for maybe 15 seconds. I’ve tested this more than a few times, first getting the immediate measurement, then mindfully relaxing. It’s pretty astonishing. Try it.
You can’t use blood pressure as a biomarker if the number you’re getting is physician-assisted high blood pressure.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Act young. But not in a creepy way.
Then you’re lying about your age!
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in just about every interview I’ve given and, of course, in my book, Counterclockwise: Your birth date is not your age. Or, rather, your birth date is merely your chronological age, which, after 40, is an increasingly useless, misleading and more often than not downright erroneous number. Your true age, the age that will affect your health, energy, vitality, longevity – you name it — is your biological age, the age of your body.
It’s easy to identify (and identify with) chronological age. We celebrate chronological age every year with parties and presents and candles on a cake. Not to mention “you’re over the hill” birthday cards that are supposed to be funny. And aren’t. We group ourselves (or are summarily grouped according to) our chronological age. But is chronological age a useful, truthful way of looking at how old we are?
No, according to those who study the aging process. What we want is to determine our biological age. And then, my dear counterclockwise readers, we want to turn back that biological clock.
For this and the next several posts I’m going to explore and explain BIOMARKERS, the quantifiable sign posts of biological age, statistical snapshots based on solid research that can help us figure out how old we are inside. Common biomarkers include resting heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol level, lean-to-fat ratio, aerobic capacity, strength, flexibility. You get the idea.
Here’s the logic of biomarkers: If population studies show that a particular biomarker tends to go up (say, cholesterol) or down (say, muscle strength) with chronological age, then determining your own biomarker and stacking it up against this research will give us a sense of our true age. So a by-birth-certificate 50 year old with biomarkers consistent with a by-birth-certificate 40 year old is, biologically speaking, closer to being 40 than 50.
Let’s start with one of the easiest biomarkers to determine: resting heart rate. The lower it is (within reason), the fitter you are. (Some medications lower the heart rate. This doesn’t count.) The fitter you are, the younger you are biologically. A slow resting heart rate is usually due to the heart getting bigger and stronger with exercise, and thus more efficient at pumping blood around the body. The more blood pumped with each beat, the fewer beats per minute.
What’s your resting heart rate and what does that number mean? Simple.
Take your pulse first thing in the morning, while lying in bed. I am a fan of the under-the-jaw pulse. I can never seem to find and hold onto my wrist pulse. But whatever works for you is fine. Count the beat for 30 seconds (then double it). It’s a good idea to do this several mornings and take an average. Here is a chart that matches that number with various fitness levels at different chronological ages.. Now you are one step down the path of determining your bio age.
Next week: Blood pressure as a biomarker.
Set your phone or computer to beep at you every hour, reminding you to GET UP AND MOVE for 5 minutes.
If you read last week’s post on the habits of the healthiest and longest lived cultures on earth – and of course you did! – you may have said to yourself: Sure, those folks who live in isolated villages in the Andes can live healthy lives. They are far from interstates and internet, from mochaccinos and McDonalds, from the toxins and temptations of modern life. Hurray for them. But, really, what can I learn from them? That’s not my life. That’s not me.
Me either. So now I’m going to tell you about extraordinarily health and long lived people who live in the belly of the beast, aka 21st century America. And not just America: California. And not just California: Southern California. That’s right, land of smog and clog, land of freeways and fast food. Yet, the healthiest and longest lived people in all of North American live here.
These folks have a 60% lower (men) and 76% lover (women) death rate from all cancers than the rest of us. Their lung cancer rate is 21% lower, colorectal cancer 62% lower, and breast cancer 85% lower.
Coronary heart disease is 66% lower for men, and 98% lower for women. They suffer far less from type 2 diabetes. They have lower blood pressure, lower body weight, and better lean-to-fat ratios. They report enviable levels of happiness and satisfaction. Oh, and they live longer than the rest of us — 6.2 years (men) and 4.4 years (women).
Who are they?
They are the extensively studied Seventh day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, and there’s a glimpse of the lifestyle that keeps them weller than well:
They avoid alcohol, tobacco and “mind altering substances.” (I’m afraid that means caffeine, but I choose not to think too deeply about this.)
They eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet rich in legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
They work to create, nourish and maintain strong relationships.
They are involved in their communities.
They believe that good health is “a gift from a loving God who wants us to live life in its abundance.” (Personally, I could get behind a God like that.)
They believe that “to not take care of our bodies, which is a part of the stewardship of the earth, is an affront to our God.
I’m not proselytizing here. But, come on, these folks are kind of awesome, aren’t they? Here they are, crafting vital, ultra-healthy, meaningful lives right under our noses, living smack-dab in the same age-accelerating, disease-promoting culture we live in.
If you dismissed the health and longevity lessons of the Abkhasians, Vilcabambans, Hunzas and Okinawans I wrote about last week because their cultures and geographies were so very different from our own, you can’t do the same for these southern Californians…can you now?Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Flossing as an anti-ager? Yep. Periodontal disease has direct links to systemic inflammation and cardiovascular risks.
Healthspan – our years of healthy living – is what it’s all about. Many people focus on lifespan, the total number of years we live. But if that total includes 20 (or 10 even 2) frail, debilitated, medicated years at the end of life, who would opt for a longer lifespan if it didn’t also include a simultaneously longer healthspan? Not me. Not you.
The truth is, we’ve managed to significantly increase our lifespan (through drugs, surgeries and heroic end-of-life extensions with various interventions) – without increasing healthspan. So we’re are living longer, but with extra years of unhealthy, unenjoyable years tacked on at the end. Our old age is most often old, enfeebled age.
Does it have to be this way? No. Resounding no.
Suppose we take a lesson from those cultures on our planet that combine long lifespans with equally long healthspans. Who are the healthiest, longest lived people on earth live? And what do they do that we don’t? Listen up.
In 2000, the World Health Organization reported that Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world—the longest, healthiest lives. Life expectancy is up to 10 years longer there with sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease and fifth the rate of the big cancers like colon and breast. Diabetes is rare. Three other communities – the Abkhasians (Russia), the Vilcabambans (Ecuador), the Hunzas (Pakistan) – rank right up there too. In these so-called Blue Zones, a significant number of people live to be over 100, have 20/20 vision, perfect hearing, desirable cholesterol levels, clear arteries, strong teeth, strong bones and good memories. This means – and please hear this – it is biologically possible to age this way. This people have shown that the human body – your human body, my human body – can maintain biological youth while advancing chronologically.
These four cultures from four very different parts of the world, with different histories, different beliefs and philosophies, different climates and geography, have striking similarities that those who have studied them extensively (from cultural anthropologists to cardiologists, dieticians to dentists) believe are the “secrets” to their impressive life/healthspans. Here they are:
*The older people are fully integrated into the working life of their communities
*They live with a sense of purpose
*They maintain close relationships across generations
*Physical activity is a natural part of everyday life
*Their diet includes no refined or processed (or “fast”) foods
*Their diet is primarily plant-based (they eat meat less than 1x per week)
*They eat big breakfasts
*They seem to laugh a lot
It is interesting – and vital – to note that, in these communities, “aging” is not demonized. It is not a bad thing to be (chronologically) old. But neither are older people revered. They are merely (merely!) an ongoing, vital part of the life of their communities.
The “secrets” to these counterclockwise lifestyles are clear-cut and simple – and, I am sure you’ve noted, involve no expensive magic elixirs or celebrity-endorsed treatments. No one is taking hormones. No one is hanging out in CrossFit gyms. Makes ‘ya think, huh? What I’m thinking is: These are my personal marching orders. Join me?Filed under Posts | Comment (1)
Keep chemicals off your skin! Read, really read, those ingredient labels for body products.
She sits comfortably, smartly dressed, her legs crossed, her hands gesturing as she speaks. Her voice, the New York accent still evident, is clear and powerful. A lamp illuminates her thick, lustrous, shoulder-length white hair. She is talking, without notes, to a gathering of perhaps 80 people.
“I’m in the midst of figuring out a new career,” she says. “It is possible now for me to dream bigger dreams.” Her current dream, she tells the audience, is creating an alliance of nonprofits that are working on food, water and environmental issues – a kind of super PAC that can exert power and influence in Washington. She talks about the monopoly of food production in the U.S., shaking her head, citing statistics, her voice rising. She talks about food safety, about the diseases that come from being a nation of overfed and undernourished people.
She mentions, in passing, that she was in Cuba last month, and that she’ll be flying to San Francisco later this week for “breakfasts, lunches and dinners” with movers and shakers who can help her build this alliance. “Taking on these challenges is so important,” she says. “You have to wake up to the opportunity of each new day.” She looks out over the crowd, gives them a hard stare. “I mean you must use each day, really use it. I do. We all have to.”
The white-haired woman on a mission is Deborah Szekely, the founder of Rancho LaPuerta, the oldest destination health and wellness resort in North America. She gives these unscripted hour-long talks once a week at the ranch.
She mentions her age – although most of those gathered for this talk already know. Then she delivers a mini-lecture on cellular turn-over in the body, how quickly red blood cells and heart cells and stomach lining cells, skin cells, liver cells, all your cells turn-over. “We are in a constant state of renewal,” she says. Then she smiles broadly.
“Sitting here, there is nothing about me that is more than 30 years old.”
That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Calcium (dietary and/ or supplement) PLUS weight-bearing exercise = strong bones.
Back in November, just before I left home for my shift at The Dining Room, an amazing restaurant-style facility that feeds 300+ homeless and hungry people every day, I posted a little essay on the health benefits of volunteering. The findings I wrote about – lower blood pressure, less depression, less incidence of heart disease – came from a round-up of recent research.
Now, as I rush to post this before I once again leave for my shift (which, I never get tired of saying, is the best, happiest, most soul-satisfying four hours I spend every week) I have more good news. It’s not exactly about health and the act of volunteering. It’s about the health and people who experience “high levels of well-being” (happiness) because they have found a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life. That category certainly includes those who volunteer, but you might get paid to do meaningful work. Or you might have reached satori.
Here’s the scoop from a recent UCLA study: Being happy affects your genes. Yes, definable, testable genetic effects. This is big.
Now it gets interesting. Researchers found that different types of happiness have surprising different effects on the human genome.
People who have high levels of what is called eudaimonic well-being — the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose— showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. You may remember from a past post how chronic, systemic inflammation is implicated in a host of so-called diseases of aging.
People who have relatively high levels of what’s called hedonic well-being (as in hedonist) – the kind of happiness that comes from self-gratification – show just the opposite. Their genes had adverse profiles involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody expression.
Researchers found that the meaningful lifers and the hedonists seemed (and said they were) equally happy. But the body, the wise, wise body, was able to distinguish between how they got so happy. That’s me talking. Here’s what the researchers said: “Their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive.”
I am beyond flabbergasted by this finding. It makes me very happy. But not as happy as I’m going to be when I get to the Dining Room, put on an apron and start serving.Filed under Posts | Comments (5)
Don’t drink soda. Ever. Even (especially) diet soda.
Or does it?
Maybe not. Or at least not in this definitive, over-simplified way. The story about aging and cognitive decline is not, I am delighted to tell you, a sad and simple saga of dotage and decrepitude. It is more nuanced, more interesting – and so much more positive – than we previously believed.
Let’s be clear: What we think we know about aging and memory comes from performance tests conducted in research labs. (Everything else – like your 90-year-old great aunt Bessie’s ability to remember the Latin names for 300 species of plants – is “anecdotal.”) But lately some researchers have been pondering the implications of testing older people’s memories in a culture suffused with the belief that old people have poor memories. They have hypothesized that tests that explicitly feature memory may actually serve to invoke performance deficits in older people.
To explore that idea, a group of researchers compared memory performance in younger and older people under two experimental conditions. In one, the instructions stressed the fact that memory was the focus of the study. The experimenter repeatedly stated that participants were to “remember” as many statements from a list as they could and that “memory” was the key. In the second, instructions were identical except that the experimenter emphasized learning instead of memory. Participants were instructed to “learn” as many statements as they could.
Now GET THIS: Age differences in memory were found when the instructions emphasized memory, but no age differences were observed in the experimental situation that instead emphasized learning.
In a related study, researchers had one group of older people read an article about how older people’s memories were worse than originally thought, and another group read an article about how memory actually improves with age. Then the two groups took identical memory tests. Can you guess which group performed significantly better?
Even more interesting to me is the work of Dr. Linda Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and one of the heaviest of the heavy hitters in the field of aging. She and her colleagues have been studying why and how people remember, and her findings challenge much of this older = foggier refrain. Dr. Carstensen believes that the emotional content of messages and images greatly affect memory. She also believes that we remember what we are motivated to remember, and that motivations change with age and across stages of life.
“The human brain does not operate like a computer”, she writes. “It does not process all information evenly…. We see (and I would add, we remember) what matters to us.”
And what matters to us at 50 may not be what mattered to us at 20. At least let’s hope not.
Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Don’t drink soda. Ever. Even (especially) diet soda.
It’s 8 days into the new year, which means 8 days past that magic day you were going to start changing your life. You know…those New Year’s Resolutions to move more and eat mindfully and sleep deeply, to nourish curiosity and embrace optimism? To go counterclockwise?
What happened? Are you stalled? Maybe you have yet to come up with the big “why” — the reason to change, the deep, compelling reason that will keep you motivated. Maybe this will help. It’s a post I wrote a few months back that I thought deserved re-posting.
The Why has to be big enough.
That’s what a very talented trainer (and a sweetheart of a guy), Sione Fa, recently told a group of people struggling with motivation to get and stay healthy. I was in the audience, an I’ve-heard-it-all veteran of “get off your butt” speeches. I’ve listened to dozens of talks from folks in the fitness biz, from headliners and gurus, from multi-degreed professionals in the health and wellness fields, from over-amped scammers. I’ve been lectured to, preached at, goaded, pushed, harangued – and cheered on. I’ve been educated, and I’ve occasionally even been inspired. But that single sentence stood out for me. That single sentence really hit home. There is a BIG truth in it for those of us not merely committed to our own health but also to turning back our biological clocks.
A counterclockwise lifestyle is a significant commitment. It’s about incorporating physical activity into your life, about making healthy choices with food. It’s about supplements and cleanses, about staying current with the science of anti-aging and guarding yourself against the hucksters. It’s about mindful living, about learned optimism, about figuring out the balance between work and play, about seeking out and nurturing relationships that enrich, about keeping your hands off the Cap’n Crunch.
So why do it? There are the little venal whys, as in: I want to look good. I want to attract the admiring gaze of others. I want everyone at my high school reunion to be in awe. (Not that I think this way, of course.) Then there are the bigger whys: I want to feel good. I want to have energy and vitality. Right, right. But why?
The Why has to be big enough.
It has to be big enough, important enough, meaningful enough to motivate you when it’s raining and you’re cranky and you hate everyone at work and your agent nixed another book proposal and your husband hasn’t even noticed that you lost 10 pounds and your daughter just slammed the door in your face. Not that any of this has ever happened to me. The why has to sustain you through the tough times and for the long haul.
So here’s my Why, courtesy of one of the most inspiring talks I have been privileged to hear, which came in the form of 20 minutes of off-the-cuff remarks by Deborah Szekely, the then-90-year-old (now 92-year-old) co-founder of Rancho LaPuerta, a decades-ahead-of-its-time wellness retreat. She talked about life lived in thirds, with the 60-90 year old span potentially being the best. By that time in one’s life, she said, you’ve learned some things about the world, about human nature, about yourself. You’ve seen things. You’ve tried things. You’ve acquired skills and maybe, maybe some measure of wisdom. What if you also had health, high-level wellness, vitality, curiosity and on-fire creativity? In other words, what if you had been living a counterclockwise life and now had the youthful energy and optimism to use the knowledge and wisdom you acquired over the years in new, exciting and important ways. In meaningful ways.
Can you think of a better reason to live counterclockwise? A bigger Why?Filed under Posts | Comments (2)
Yes, go exercise. But just as important: Integrate movement into your regular daily life.
I want to be younger – not older — this time next year. Don’t you? Of course you do. We can’t do anything about chronological time – it keeps on ticking – but as readers of this blog (and my book) know, we can do something, often a BIG something, about biological time. We can adopt habits and ways of being that help turn back our biological clocks and make us younger from the inside out.
The start of a new year can be an auspicious time to start new plans and projects. How about starting your own up-close-and-personal anti-aging project? In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I offer the following ten anti-aging action items. Research on New Year’s resolutions shows that 1) making one big, amorphous resolution – “Get healthier in the new year” – absolutely doesn’t work and 2) taking on too many resolutionary tasks at once usually backfires. So…start by choosing ONE from the list below. Choose another next month, and so on.
I’d love to hear what you choose and how it’s going. In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, healthy, vibrant new year.
1. Eat breakfast. (No, not pain au chocolat et cappuccino.)
2. Take vitamin D. (You need it, really you do.)
3. Moisturize daily. (All that oil you worked so hard to get rid of as a teen? Get it back.)
4. Get up and move for 3-5 minutes every hour. (The only thing sitting is good for is middle-aged spread.)
5. Hang out with upbeat, active people. (There really is such a thing as “environmental aging”: You become as old as those around you.)
6. Sleep more.
7. Try one new-to-you movement activity. (Some hints: Barre workouts, boxing, fencing, tabata, zumba, crossfit.)
8. Re-invigorate your curiosity. (Pose one question for yourself every week — something you’ve wondered about, something someone mentioned in passing — and dig into it.)
9. Hunch your shoulders. Now let them fall. Rotate them up and back, pressing your shoulders down and your shoulder blades together. (Stay that way. Forever.)
10. Close your eyes. Visualize your older self, your vibrant, vital, meaningfully engaged older self. (Hold on to that image. Forever.)Filed under Posts | Comments (2)