Are achy joints simply the inevitable consequence of getting older? How about fatigue or poor sleep? Should you just “learn to live” with a chronic condition or is there something you can do to reverse it? You may have been told by your health practitioner that these symptoms are due to the natural aging process, but there isn't quite true. The different between "life span" versus "health span" is the final decade is typically in pain and discomfort in the former, while the latter is health and vitality right up until the end. Which option do you prefer?
The major medical journals tells us that 85% of chronic diseases are due to diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors. Unfortunately, less than half of 1% of the standard medical education is in these areas. So, what is the best anti-aging advice from a nutrition, movement, and lifestyle point of view to turn back the clock and maintain your youthful energy and vigor?
#1 Maintain Your Lean Muscle
Experts recently discovered one of the most important markers for healthy aging to be your amount of lean muscle. That’s right, a recent study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lean muscle mass was inversely correlated with mortality in over 1,000 men with an average age of 82.1 Maintaining muscle seems to be your best bet to tapping into the proverbial “fountain or youth” and aging healthily. The study didn’t find the same correlation in women, however lean muscle has anti-aging benefits for everyone.
#2 Increase Your Protein Intake As You Age
Which food type increases lean muscle mass better than any other? Animal protein. Beef, wild game meats, poultry, fish and seafood – all staples of a Paleo diet – contain the greatest concentrations of essential and branched-chain amino acids, as well as creatine which are critical for building and maintaining lean muscle. I encourage all of my male clients to consume a portion size equal to 1.5x the size and thickness of their palm at every meal, and females to consume 1.0x the size and thickness of their palm.
Ensuring optimal protein intake doesn’t just increase your lean muscle, it also improves other key markers of health: blood pressure, blood sugars, inflammation, and cancer risk. You may be wary of adopting a high protein diet because you’ve heard it may increase your risk of heart disease. The famous OmniHeart study by Harvard University found that high protein diets were far superior at lowering blood pressure than low-protein, high-carb diets.The group consuming a high-protein diet also had the greatest increases in good HDL cholesterol and decreases in pro-inflammatory triglycerides.
#3 Control Your Blood Sugar Levels
So, if lean muscle doesn’t reduce mortality in women, why should they maintain a high protein intake? There are lots of reasons, but number one on the list is cognitive health. The New England Journal of Medicine recently found in patients over the age of 65 that those with high blood sugar levels (as measured by HbA1c, a three-month average) were at seven times greater risk of dementia.2 Even more alarming, not all of these people at high risk were outside the normal range!
A common habit as we age is developing what’s called a “tea and toast” diet, where elderly tend to rely primarily on convenience foods like toast for meals, and drink tea throughout the day which further suppresses appetite. This type of high carb diet wreaks havoc on your brain cells (neurons) and leads to cognitive decline and dementias.
To help combat this, adopting a lower carb diet puts the emphasis back on lean meats, healthy fats, and abundant vegetables – all staples of a Paleo diet – that help restore optimal blood sugars and support a healthy brain. Unfortunately, habits are tough to break and many people get stuck in the traditional American breakfast of toast, cereals, and orange juice, or have been deterred by health professionals to eat brain-boosting eggs in the morning for fear of raising cholesterol levels. Did you know that LOW cholesterol levels are associated with dementia? Don’t be afraid of the egg… or the yolk!
#4 Keep Moving!
As we age, we become more susceptible to infections, falls and traumatic injuries, nutrient deficiencies, diminishing cardiac capacity, and loss of muscle mass that leads to worsening health.
The most common condition in hospital wards across the country in elderly patients over-65 is congestive heart failure (CHF), where the heart is no longer capable of pumping enough blood throughout the body to match the body’s needs. This leads to dangerous reductions in sodium and hemoglobin levels, weakness, fatigue and risk of seizure, coma, and death.
Maintaining an active lifestyle and good cardiovascular health is the best prevention. Be sure to include 20-30 minutes of activity daily, in the form of walking, strength training (e.g. squats, lunges, push-ups, etc.), or stretching.
Strength training is a powerful weapon for keeping your heart strong and healthy. It also helps to increase your concentration of fast-twitch type-IIb muscle fibers. While we mostly think of these fibers as crucial for helping us jump higher, run faster, or lift heavier weights, they are also critical for another important task.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers help you “catch yourself” before falling over. Hip fractures are account for over 250,000 hospital visits amongst the 65-over population.3 By maintaining an active lifestyle – and supporting your muscles with adequate protein intake – you’ll help prevent falls and hip fractures from taking place.
#5 Maintain Positive Mood
Mood and motivation can sometimes wane as people grow older. The research states that high blood sugars and insulin levels, as well as low status of vitamin D and omega-3 are all associated with low mood and depression. The standard American diet (SAD) is high in processed and simple carbs, which can lead to insulin dysfunction, weight gain, inflammation and subsequently low blood levels of vitamin D and essential omega-3 fats.
By getting back to eating "traditional foods" (i.e. what your grandparents could eat), you’ll be providing your body with the building blocks to correct these deficiencies and dysfunction, and maintain your vitality as you grow older.
Exercise is also a powerful weapon for supporting mood. It performs just as well as medications for correcting mild to moderate depression.4 Want to improve your mood, improve blood sugars and reduce risk of diabetes? Again, strength training and cardio – combined with a low-carb diet – are far and away your best bet. Something as simple as walking is a great way to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve health.
#6 Get Your Daily Antioxidant Dose
Coffee is a phenomenal source of polyphenols, plant compounds that act as antioxidants to put out all the little inflammatory fires in the body. Coffee has also been shown to protect against pre-diabetes and diabetes, as well as fight off cognitive decline and lengthen the telomeres of your DNA, which is associated with increased lifespan. A regular cup of morning coffee (remember... no sugar! Full-fat milk or cream is allowed) is great way to not only get your day started, but to
Diet, exercise and lifestyle factors account for 90% of chronic disease, which includes diabetes (type-2), heart disease, cognitive decline and dementia. In short, your lifestyle is the secret to longevity. I see this all the time in my clinical practice; 60+ year olds with high blood pressure and blood sugars, a poor diet and no experience in strength training significantly upgrading their health and bodies in a matter of months. I have numerous 70+ year-old male clients who can perform multiple chin-ups and 70+ year old women who perform full squats and deadlifts with ease. It’s no wonder their blood pressure, lipid panels, blood sugars, and mood all tend to be very good as well!
Your chronological age is just a number. Don’t put limits on your mind and body. Your body and physiology react to the inputs you provide it; remain sedentary and eat the wrong foods and your brain and body will suffer. Eat clean, healthy whole foods and move every day (e.g. strength training, cardio, stretching, hiking, walking, etc.) and you will be amazed at your level of vitality and youthfulness.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS
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