Hi there, how are you feeling? I was so hoping that 2021 would be a fresh start for us all, but here we are (in the UK at least) back in lockdown and facing a rather grim first few months of the year. So I’ve been looking at fresh starts in other ways – not Veganuary, dieting or detoxing, none of which feel very helpful (to me) at the start of a year like this, but by brushing up on the latest research into ageing.
Reading research might sound a bit dry, but when you understand something you start to have more control over it. Feeling empowered about our health, and understanding that we can change the way we age, is what we’re all about here at The Age-Well Project. Once we understand what’s happening at a cellular level then we start to appreciate the relevance of the choices we make around what we eat, how we move, sleep and live.
If you’re new to us (welcome!) – or haven’t read The Age-Well Project or The Age-Well Plan – here’s a quick primer about what’s happening in our bodies as we age. The changes we see on the outside of our bodies (wrinkles, grey hair, saggy bits – all that fun stuff) are replicated inside our bodies, right down to our cells. There’s no one process that’s responsible, it’s a combination of factors, known as the hallmarks of ageing, which result in cumulative damage in our cells. There’s a genetic component here, but these interconnected hallmarks are all impacted by environmental factors and lifestyle.
To keep it really simple, three key points to consider are:
Throughout our lives, DNA continuously replicates and divides to create new cells when our bodies need them. Over time, with many millions of replications, the code becomes damaged, just as if we copied the same book out again and again. Similarly, the repair mechanisms of the epigenome – the instruction manual for our DNA – start to fail. This leads to the epigenome making mistakes, switching the wrong genes on and off. Add to this the shortening of our telomeres – those shoe-lace-like tips on the end of our chromosomes which protect our DNA – and we get a pattern of DNA degradation as we get older.
Every cell in our body is fired by a battery, known as mitochondria, which produces energy: it turns the food we eat into energy for our cells and produces waste known as free radicals. All our bodily processes have the same effect – even breathing produces free radicals! These are unpaired electrons which wreak havoc on our bodies – when we’re younger we’re very good at mopping up these unpaired electrons and giving them new electrons to pair with. As we get older, we’re less efficient at making use of anti-oxidants so oxidative stress builds up in our body. On a car we’d call it rust! The build-up of this ‘rust’ in our cellular batteries makes them less efficient.
Here come the zombies:
As all this DNA damage and oxidation accumulates, some cells give up the ghost and become ‘senescent’: zombie cells that refuse to die and speed the ageing process by pumping out inflammation. This inflammation, as we’ve written about here and here, is one of the key drivers of the ageing process, making us frail as we get older.
The good news is that we can prevent a lot of this: a diet full of anti-oxidant-rich fruit and vegetables helps mop up oxidants. Good stress – from intense exercise ( we all have a different level of intense, as we’ve written about here), intermittent fasting and even cold showers – activates the longevity pathways in our body, the equivalent of sending in the cavalry.
My New Year reading and research has led me to a few new discoveries too. I’m intrigued about human trials currently on-going with a very common polyphenol, fisetin (it gives fruit and veg like strawberries, cucumbers and apples their colour) to find out if it can selectively destroy those zombie cells. The process works in mice, so it makes sense that it could work in humans too. Results of the trials will be available this year. Compounds capable of destroying senescent cells are known as senolytics: finding them is the holy grail in age-related research right now. Only time will tell if all those labs across the world which are frantically testing will make a difference to our lives in the years to come. We’ll keep you posted.
The latest on reducing dementia risk
As you’ll know from our about page, my own age-well project was inspired by my mum’s battle with Alzheimer’s. So I’m always looking out for new research on reducing cognitive decline. There have been some really fascinating breakthroughs recently which I’d love to share with you. Too much for a blog post so I’ve packed it all into a new live webinar:
There’s so much dietary information which can make a real difference, from the link between Alzheimer’s and gut health to the one food all neuroscientists swear by for brain health.
The masterclass is on Tuesday February 2nd at 7pm. It’s completely free and I’ll have a few giveaways and goodies up my sleeve too! Tickets available via Eventbrite here. And if you can’t make that date and time, I PROMISE that I will record it and send out a link. So grab a ticket anyway and you’ll get the link within 24 hours.