Successful Aging – DNA and Lifestlye

We all want the same thing out of longevity — to live a long, healthy, happy life. But when it comes to doing studies on successful aging, it gets harder to define. Sure, researchers can give surveys to people and try to assess their overall health — but how do we really know if something is improving longevity in terms of both life span and health span? Some researchers approach the concept of successful aging as “remaining free of disease and disability” while other approach it from a cellular level. Read on for some research examples of these different approaches to successful aging.

The Disease/Disability Definition: Cystatin C and Aging Success

This 6-year study looked at cystatin C as a predictor of successful aging. What the heck is cystatin C? Good question. I had to look it up. Cystatin C is a molecule produced by cells in the body. It is filtered out of the body by the kidneys and reabsorbed. Basically, when the kidneys are working well, levels of cystatin C remain normal. Cystatin C is therefore thought to be a good measure of kidney function and (according to the study) may predict successful aging.

The study defined successful aging as remaining free of cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic obstructed pulmonary disease (COPD) while being physically and mentally functional. 2,140 people, with an average age of 74 and free of any of the conditions just mentioned were enrolled in the study. Their cystatin C levels were taken at the beginning of the study. Overall, 873 people developed at least one of the conditions listed above (138 cognitive disability, 238 physical disability, 34 COPD and 317 cardiovascular disease). The result? People with a higher level of cystatin C (even within normal levels) were more likely to develop one of the “unsuccessful aging” conditions.

The Genetic Definition: Telomere Length and Physical Activity

Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres are a series of repeating DNA information that act as a buffer because the very extreme ends of chromosomes cannot be copied. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. Eventually, when they are too short, the cell can no longer copy itself correctly. Telomere length plays an important part in aging. In this study, researchers made the following observation: We know that being physically inactive increases the risk for age-related diseases and we know that telomere length plays an important part in aging; therefore we should see differences in telomere length based on physical activity level. To find out, researchers had to enroll sets of identical twins (because identical twins have the same DNA and can be compared easily). They enrolled 2,401 twins and gave them a survey on physical activity, smoking and other risk factors. They also took samples of leukocyte (white blood cells) and looked at the telomere length. Physical activity was linked to longer telomere lengths in the study. In fact, the most active subjects’ telomeres were 200 nucleotides longer (nucleotides are the stuff DNA is made of). What does it mean? Lifestyle can change our very DNA and accelerate aging.

Successful Aging and You

For most of us, defining successful aging as being free of disease and disability is probably good enough, through I particularly find it striking how lifestyle gets into your very DNA. What to do? Use this research to motivate yourself to focus on the three pillars of wellness:

  • Eat well
  • Move more
  • Be calm

By improving nutrition, increasing exercise and reducing stress you can slow down your body’s rate of aging and help prevent diseases and disabilities.