While the Fountain of Youth has yet to be found, it is known that the human body holds clues to a person’s longevity.
Components at the cellular level play roles, including telomeres, methylation, and mitochondria. Telomeres are repeating sequences found at the ends of chromosomes, which protect them from deterioration. Without telomeres, DNA would be susceptible to extensive damage, says Adam Killpartrick, DC, CNS.
“Think of telomeres as the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that prevent them from fraying,” says James Antos, DC, DABCO. “Picture DNA as two long strings wrapped around each other, and at the end of each strand are telomeres.”
Each person is born with a certain length of telomere. “Each time a cell replicates and makes a copy of itself, telomeres get shorter,” Killpartrick says. “Ultimately, they will stop replicating, leaving the DNA susceptible to damage and causing reduced functionality and aging of cells. Stress, smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise speed up the aging process because they can also shorten telomeres.”
People start to get serious illnesses and die when telomeres are shortened to a certain length. “It is believed that the longer your telomeres are, the better you’re able to resist disease and the longer you’ll live,” Antos says. “In fact, measuring the length of telomeres may be a way to predict how long someone will live.”
One possible way to preserve and rebuild telomere length is with a Chinese herb called astragalus. “The problem with this is, if you purchase it, you have no way of knowing if you are really getting it and at the right potency,” Antos says. “There are a lot of sharks in the water when it comes to selling this product.”
Another key cellular component in the aging process is methylation. Methylation is the addition or removal of a methyl group to a chemical compound. “Methylation is important for a host of biochemical reactions in the body,” Killpartrick says. It is important for enzyme function, immune function, hormone function, and detoxification.
Methylation occurs in the region of genes that regulate their expression, turning them on or off. This regulation plays a key role in the aging process. Over time, this regulation becomes less efficient, resulting in aging symptoms. As with telomeres, stress, smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise can expedite this process.
Joseph S. Bird, Jr., MD, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, adds that the healthy function of methylation is believed to limit the presence of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, infertility, cancer, autism, and migraine headaches.
Killpartrick notes that mitochondria are the powerhouses of a cell and produce the majority of cellular energy. “In the process of producing energy, they also produce highly reactive free radicals that can damage DNA, cells, and tissues,” he says.
“Although mitochondria have natural processes to help prevent free radicals from causing damage, as people age these processes become less efficient and damage starts to occur.” And this leads to even further decreased efficiency.
“If someone has good metabolism, youthfulness, and high energy, it’s a good sign that their mitochondria are performing well,” Antos says.
Diet, exercise, and hormones
Diet and exercise are strongly indicated as the best strategies for aging adults to manage their health. The benefits extend down to the cellular level. “Many nutrients required for crucial functions of telomeres, methylation, and mitochondria come from our diet,” Killpartrick says.
Nutrients available in supplemental form can support cellular processes. For instance, the enzyme responsible for the functionality of telomeres is supported by Astragaloside IV, curcumin, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Methylation is supported by the biologically active form of folic acid, L-methylfolate (5-MTHF), SAMe, and dimethylglycine. Mitochondrial health is supported by D-ribose, CoQ10, acetyl-L-carnitine, malic acid, and alpha lipoic acid (ALA).
“A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides a plethora of antioxidants and other protective compounds that help promote healthy telomeres, methylation, and mitochondrial function,” Killpartrick says. These nutrients act as precursors for enzymes, quench free radicals, and help donate methyl groups to ensure proper cellular function. Conversely, not only does an unhealthy diet (i.e., one high in saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables) not provide these necessary nutrients, it can actually increase stress on cellular pathways and increase damage, promoting premature aging.”
Bird points out that exercise promotes healthy cellular function. The type of exercise matters as well. A recent study by Mayo Clinic researchers published in Cell Metabolism found that high intensity interval training (HIIT) had the greatest impact on mitochondrial function.1
This function was increased by nearly 70 percent over a 12-week program.
According to the study, only HIIT and combined training improved aerobic capacity and skeletal muscle mitochondrial respiration. “HIIT reversed many age-related differences in the proteome, particularly of mitochondrial proteins in concert with increased mitochondrial protein synthesis,” the authors wrote.
HIIT involves alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods. “This type of variation intensity stimulates the body’s physiology differently than if you simply pedal on a stationary bike for 30 minutes,” Killpartrick explains. “The body always aims to be efficient and will quickly adapt to repetitive, monotonous exercises. And when the body is efficient, it doesn’t burn as much fat, stimulate as much hormone production, or stimulate mitochondria.”
Scott J. Heun, DC, CCSP, says exercise has a profound impact on healthy living. In the aging population, the key elements to health involve function and balance. One of the leading causes of death in people over age 70 are complications associated with falls. Therefore, regaining and then maintaining core strength and balance are essential elements in health recovery.
“Many clinical studies support high intensity, short duration exercise for improving the strength and mass of muscle and bone,” Heun says. “On a cellular level, optimum structural loading stimulates a growth-and-repair response that fortifies bone over time. High intensity isometric loading is the safest way to create loading, and in turn, this loading also induces myofibril proliferation. The greater the stimulus, the greater the growth-and-repair response.”
The best foods to eat
So, what are the best foods to eat for healthy aging? “Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and other phytochemicals that help reduce free radical damage and improve mitochondrial function, along with a host of other benefits,” Killpartrick says. Foods high in antioxidant proper- ties include blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, spinach, kale, and Brussels sprouts.
Foods high in anti-inflammatory properties, which are also ideal, include green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collards; certain nuts such as almonds; fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids; as well as fruits such as blueberries. “It’s important to eat these foods, because chronic inflammation is implicated in every major degenerative disease,” Killpartrick says.
“The bottom line is that a diet high in vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein with limited fruits is the best way to go,” he continues. “Limiting refined sugar, hydrogenated fat, and processed foods is essential. Sugars elevate blood sugar levels, disrupt hormones—specifically insulin—and stress major organs such as the liver, heart, and brain. Hydrogenated fats compete with omega-3 fats for space in the cell membrane, and can cause cell death.” What’s more, processed foods generally lack nutritive value and can irritate the gut lining. They tend to alter the balance of sugar and hormone levels, causing obesity and hypertension, which negatively affect the aging process.
While Antos recommends eating fruit, he says moderation is warranted as fruits are high in fructose. Other good choices include green vegetables; grains such as quinoa, oats, barley, and spelt; rice; beans; and nuts like walnuts and almonds. Drinking lots of water is also key. “In general, Americans do not drink enough water,” he says. Adults should drink 50 to 100 ounces per day, depending on their size.
Antos also suggests consuming dairy with caution—although yogurt is OK. Consume most calories earlier in the day, and after 3 or 4 p.m. it’s best to eat lighter. “Eating a late meal or munching at night wreaks havoc on the digestive system,” he says. “Your digestive system needs time to relax. Also, you may not feel hungry when you wake up and skip breakfast.”
Bird says a healthy diet includes a balance of organic whole foods in a combination of protein, fats, and complex carbohydrates that prevent unnecessary glucose spikes that induce a hyperinsulinemic environment. There is increasing scientific evidence that exposure to inorganic compounds (e.g., pesticides) has a severe impact on health. “The general public has picked up on this concept and made food retailers conform to organic food options. The importance of mixing whole food combinations to control glucose spikes in the bloodstream and prevent chronic elevations in insulin is best understood through the medical conditions of hyperinsulinemia and metabolic syndrome,”
Bird says. And elevated insulin levels create a cascade of metabolic changes that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, heart disease, and cancer.
The importance of exercise
Cellular processes require energy that comes from mitochondria.
When you exercise, you condition your mitochondria to produce more energy with less stress, and produce fewer damage-causing free radicals, which slows down the aging process. As mitochondria function more efficiently, telomere functions and methylation also occur more efficiently. “All three functions are tied together; improving the function of one will affect the other two positively and promote healthy aging,” Killpartrick says.
While exercise is good and associated with health benefits and slowed aging, aerobic exercises (activities that increase heart rate) are the best for improving mitochondrial function. “The key is to do a variety of exercise types to help the body stay balanced in all four categories: strength, balance, flexibility, and aerobic fitness.
“Improved fitness in any of these categories helps improve mental and physical wellbeing and reduces premature aging,” Killpartrick says. He also recommends suspension training, such as TRX, noting that those units can be used for HIIT workouts. The TRX device is a Y-shaped canvas strap anchored to a wall or over a closed door. It uses the user’s own weight to work targeted muscle groups and also helps with range of motion, making it easy to work into rehabilitation routines. “This works isolated muscles and rehabilitates and strengthens the spine and extremities,” Killpartrick says. “When combined with spinal adjustments, the postural improvements have consistently been impressive.”
The aforementioned Mayo Clinic study also looked at strength training and combination strength training and cycling without HIIT. “These forms of exercise had limited to no impact on mitochondria function,”
Bird says. “Given these findings, HIIT offers the most efficient results for the time committed.”
With regard to cardiovascular health, Heun says many studies have demonstrated that high intensity, short duration training is superior to low-level forms of exercise. A shorter form of training also has the added benefit of preserving joints when contrasted with longer duration forms of exercise such as jogging, rowing, and cycling.
Don’t sit too much
Another thing to keep in mind when looking to age healthfully is to be active and burn calories.
“Americans sit too much,” Antos says, and Killpartrick concurs. “Reduce prolonged periods of sitting, even if you get enough exercise,” he says.
Prolonged sitting can pose significant musculoskeletal issues, and is also associated with a variety of degenerative diseases such diabetes, heart disease, and stroke as well as premature aging. “Get up and walk around every hour or so to promote healthy circulation and vascular health.”
An additional recommendation from Killpartrick is to increase time spent outdoors. “Aside from the positive mental health benefits, sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, which reduces inflammation and improves mitochondrial function along with reducing excess stress on all other organ systems in the body,” he says. According to a CDC report, 8 percent of Americans have low vitamin D levels.2
Hormone levels are vital
It’s important to work toward supporting healthy production of key hormones that are essential during the aging process. Bird believes that proper hormone support to youthful levels in the reproductive, thyroid, and growth hormone systems augments and accentuates the effects of good diet and exercise on telomeric length as well as methylation and mitochondrial function. “If you leave one of these areas unsupported, the impact on the healthy aging process will suffer,” he says.
Antos is convinced that if men and women age 40 and older could keep their hormone levels balanced and not depleted, their health would be better. For men, this includes testosterone and to some degree estrogen, and for women this includes progestogen, estrogen, and to some extent testosterone. “I recommend getting hormone levels tested and consulting with a professional if you need supplementation,” he says.
“If you keep them balanced, you’ll be healthier and also look and feel better.”
Similarly, Bird views healthy aging as a combination of a healthy diet, effective exercise, and proper hormonal support. “Just like a three- legged stool, you will lose stability and affect the healthy aging process if one leg is missing,” he says.
1 Robinson MM, Dasari S, Konopka AR, et al. Enhanced protein translation underlies improved metabolic and physical adaptations to different exercise training modes in young and old humans. Cell Metab. 2017;25(3):581-592.
2 “CDC’s Second Nutrition Report: A comprehensive biochemical assessment of the nutrition status of the U.S. population.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. cdc.gov/ nutritionreport/pdf/4page_%202nd%20nutri- tion%20report_508_032912.pdf. Published March 2012. Accessed September 2017.