For the majority of people “ageing” is associated with a natural biological process. However, leading scientists in the longevity field argue that ageing is not “natural” and should be treated along with other chronic illnesses associated with older age, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and atherosclerosis.
So, what is ageing exactly? Ageing is a process of accumulation of cellular damage over time, leading to impaired function of tissues and organs and, eventually, causing death.
There are a number of cellular processes contributing to ageing, a characteristic that they have in common is “inflammageing”. It is a combination of “inflammation” and “ageing” and it describes exactly that: a low-grade chronic inflammation that settles in as we age, causing cellular dysfunction and destruction. Addressing chronic inflammation is the key for extending our health span as well as lifespan.
Let’s take a look at the key cellular mechanisms of ageing.
1. Extra-cellular protein cross-links
As we age, our cells create too many connections between proteins outside of their surface, causing tissues to become more rigid, lose elasticity causing wrinkles and arteriosclerosis. These cross-links are called Advanced Glycation End products or aptly named “AGE” products which increase oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
2. Mitochondrial damage
Mitochondria is a cellular organelle responsible for energy production. Mitochondria are prone to excess damage from free radicals and oxidative stress and they aren’t very efficient in repairing this damage.
3. Cellular senescence
Senescent or “zombie” cells are those cells that have lost their function but haven’t died through a pre-programmed cell death. With age we accumulate more senescent cells in our tissues. They produce pro-inflammatory cytokines causing distress to healthy neighbour cells and eventually leading to tissue destruction.
4. Cellular breakdown
As we age, the mechanism for recycling cellular parts and extra-cellular debris starts running inefficiently. As misfolded proteins and other cellular debris accumulate, they contribute to inflammaging.
5. DNA damage and stem cell depletion are other biological mechanisms of ageing.
Luckily, it is not all doom and gloom and there are many steps we could take to slow down the ageing process down.
I. Avoiding AGE products
These products are formed when sugar reacts with proteins, lipids or nucleic acids. Think of sugar binding to collagen in the skin, making it less elastic and creating wrinkles. The similar damage is happening internally in other tissues, promoting oxidative stress and inflammation.
Dietary sources of AGE products are mainly found in animal proteins cooked at high and dry heat, i.e. grilling, frying, roasting.
II. Identifying any hidden sources of inflammation
Obesity, smoking, imbalanced gut microbiota, chronic infections, heavy metal and mould toxicity are all pro-inflammatory and, therefore, contributing to ageing process and risk of chronic diseases. Identifying and eliminating your sources of additional inflammation is crucial.
Addressing chronic inflammation is the key for extending our health span as well as lifespan
III. Calorie restriction
It is a well-known fact that restricting calories by 30% extends lifespans in animals, such as mice and monkeys. Calorie restriction is aimed at decreasing reactive oxygen species formation in mitochondria and as the result improving their function.
However, eating 1/3 less calories for all your life is quite a daunting idea! Luckily, there are other ways of calorie restriction which don’t involve staying hungry every day. Fast Mimicking Diet developed by Dr. Valter Longo is a plant-based five-day fasting programme researched for its anti-ageing properties.
It is aimed at:
- Activation of autophagy (“self-eating”) and repair of cellular components.
- Removal of dysfunctional cells and regeneration through activated stem cells.
- Reduction of visceral fat.
Alternative ways of calorie restrictions include Intermittent Fasting protocols, such as alternate day fasting, 5:2 diet and time restricted eating. Intermittent Fasting is certainly not suitable to everyone. It is contra-indicated to pregnant women, people with low body mass, elderly, people with any serious illnesses.
IV. Cold and heat therapy
Cold therapy was found to be beneficial for creating more mitochondria. Heat therapy, on the other hand, is great for improving the efficiency of your mitochondria.
As mitochondrial health is crucial for healthy ageing, try to find what works for you and fits into your daily routine, for example:
- Finishing your morning shower with 30 seconds of cold shower
- Plunging into an ice-cold bath or sea for 1-3 minutes
- Weekly cryotherapy sessions
- Regular trips to sauna
V. Get moving
The benefits of regular exercise for longevity are numerous: from release of endorphins and anti-inflammatory effect to increased hippocampal volume (part of the brain related to learning and memory, which tends to shrink with age).
The combination of cardio and strength exercise routine is recommended:
- 150 min aerobic activity weekly
- Two strength-based workouts per week
VI. De-stressing techniques
Chronic stress damages cells and causes ageing through upregulating of pro-inflammatory genes leading to major inflammation at the cellular level. De-stressing techniques, such as breathing practice, meditation, Tai Chi and Qigong were found to downregulate expression of genes controlling inflammation.
VII. Should we be focusing on specific anti-ageing nutrients?
Multiple natural agents are being researched for their anti-ageing properties, including:
Quercetin and fisetin – both are senolytics, or natural agents capable of eliminating senescent cells. Quercetin is found in red onions, apples, plums, raspberries, citrus fruits. Fisetin is found in strawberries and apples.
Resveratrol – a plant-based polyphenol found in pistachios, grapes, red wine, blueberries, dark chocolate and known to activate a longevity gene SIRT1. Family of SIRT genes are involved in cellular and DNA repair. Beyond scientific interest into their anti- ageing properties, these flavonoids possess other health-promoting characteristics too. Taking them as supplements is relatively safe, however, it’s worth remembering that in clinical trials, the dosages of these agents were hundreds of times more than those found in nature.
While ageing is still an inevitable process (until the next scientific breakthrough), there are many steps we all could take to improve the quality and length of our health.
(Remember to always consult your GP or Dietician before beginning any fasting or new health programme or taking supplements.)