When it comes to aging gracefully and with a sense of wellbeing, the “Blue Zones” are writing the script. In these regions of the world it isn’t unusual to celebrate your 100th birthday while living a productive life. Naturally, they have been thoroughly studied so we know what it takes to join the ranks of the “young old.” The groundwork includes eating a plant-focused diet, adequate exercise, having a sense of purpose and strong social support. Once these components are in place they work together, helping to manage stress.
While the nitty-gritty of remaining spry into our golden years was coming into focus, scientists were deciphering how a healthy lifestyle actually impacts bodily processes, extending longevity. One thing you need to know is that aging is a cellular process. Your cells are constantly dividing and creating new cells. By the time you turn 35, this process begins to slow down, one of the first signs of aging.
Cells Age at Different Rates
Not surprisingly, the speed at which cells age differs among people. Hypothetically, a seventy-year-old “Blue Zoner” might be 50 in cell years. That raises a question: Can we slow down cellular aging? Scientists are exploring one strategy known as telomere maintenance.
Telomeres are the end sections of chromosomes. Because they typically shorten when a cell divides, telomere length can be viewed as a marker of biological age. Normally, the shorter your telomeres, the “older” you are. For instance, a recent study of identical twins found that the twin with shorter telomeres was more likely to die first.
Gene Expression is Complicit
Another thing to understand about aging is that your genes are peripherally involved. Your genes are fixed but external influences like the food you eat and your level of physical activity affect how they express themselves, impacting how quickly you age. DNA methylation, an epigenetic process that regulates gene expression, tends to decline with age. That knowledge gave scientists another tool for identifying the differences between chronological and biological age. They can measure methylation using the “epigenetic clock.”
Healthy Methylation, Healthy Telomeres
A substantial body of research connects proper methylation with staying healthy. Moreover, a recent study published in the journal Aging, links DNA methylation with telomere length. We’ve known for decades that lifestyle modifications and even certain nutrients enhance methylation. Now we’re seeing that similar practices also promote telomere health.
The Anti-Aging Formula: A Healthy Lifestyle
Consider the Mediterranean Diet, which is built around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and olive oil. This dietary approach has been extensively studied and is well-known as a warrior against inflammation and, therefore, aging. When combined with moderate exercise, it’s been shown to support longevity. Now we know that it also helps to regulate methylation and contributes to healthy telomeres.
Regular exercise is another winner in the anti-aging sweepstakes. It has been shown to lower your biological age by as much as 9 years. Stress reduction techniques like yoga and mindfulness meditation also improve gene expression and help to stabilize telomeres.
Over the Hill Before Your Time
There’s another side to this coin. The so-called Standard American Diet, sparse in fruits, vegetables and dietary fiber and heavy in red meat and ultra-processed foods will age you prematurely. Over-imbibing in alcohol or soda undermines both methylation and telomere biology, as does smoking. And being overweight ramps up the mileage on your telomeres, shortening them before their time.
Some Nutrients are More Supportive than Others
Overall a healthy lifestyle is the best strategy for keeping the years at bay. But some nutrients are particularly effective on the anti-aging front. These include antioxidants, a range of B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which have been shown to support gene expression and telomere health.
Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals
Oxidation accelerates aging because it produces free radicals, which gradually overtake your cells damaging DNA, like rust creeping over a car. Certain antioxidants notably the vitamins C, D and E are among the nutrients that have been shown to combat free radicals, supporting methylation and benefitting telomere length. Plant foods are among the best sources of antioxidants.
Folate: The Bedrock of a Longer Health span
Folate, the natural form of vitamin B9, plays key roles in cell maintenance and DNA methylation. Its’ deficiency has been linked with numerous conditions associated with aging, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancer. The best food sources of folate are leafy greens (this includes vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts), legumes (dried beans) and whole grains.
Folate isn’t the only B vitamin linked with methylation and healthy telomeres. Vitamins B2, B6 and B12 play strong supporting roles. The plant foods mentioned above provide most of these nutrients, with the exception of vitamin B12, which is only provided by animal products like meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
A Healthy Gut Helps to Keep You Young and Happier
When it comes to aging, it’s easy to overlook the friendly bacteria residing in your gut, some of which have been specifically linked with healthy methylation. Among their benefits, these critters gobble up fiber and other components of plant foods and in the process produce a range of nutrients including folate and other B vitamins. Dietary fiber intake, specifically from cereals and whole grains, has been shown to support telomere health.
Diet plays a major role in building a robust microbiome. A 2014 study published in the journal Nature reported that the quantity of beneficial bacteria in participants’ guts increased after only one day of a plant-focused diet. Conversely, friendly bacteria abhor junk food, which quickly wipes them out. When you don’t have enough of the “good guys”, your gut becomes “dysbiotic”, a condition that promotes unbalanced methylation.
The takeaway from current research is that successful aging is not just one thing. It’s an entire package involving a commitment to a healthy lifestyle. Over time, this approach improves gene expression in many different pathways, supporting healthy telomeres and slowing down the epigenetic clock.
Buettner, D. et al. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016
Lee, Y. et al. Epigenome-wide association study of leukocyte telomere length. Aging 2019
Pusceddu, I. et al. Prospective study of telomere length and LINE-1 methylation in peripheral blood cells: the role of B vitamins supplementation. European Journal of Nutrition 2016
Beetch, M. et al. Dietary antioxidants remodel DNA methylation patterns in chronic disease. BJP 2019
Vidaček, N. et al. Telomeres, Nutrition and Longevity : Can we Really Navigate Our Aging. The Journals of Gerontology 2017
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.