Many people aim for an ageing grace and beauty into their senior years. We all hope to hold onto the demure appearances of actors, political figures, models and those involved in putting their faces out into the public domain and maintaining that face with all it's flaws but still with a becoming and genteel glow. Being able to walk tall and proud as an ageing person, and carry oneself with that regal air is something many aspire to and hope to be able to maintain well into their ageing years.
For myself I have always maintained that it's not so much about my appearance that matters, but what I will be able to do with myself into my senior years. As an active person I have always been in awe of those who are able to maintain their physical self into the senior years and still find it a source of inspiration when I encounter people in sport, in my work and in my sphere who are active and enjoying physical life beyond the quinquagenarian age bracket.
So what is the key? Not just to looking younger but contributing to that stage of life where we are involved and proactive in our lifestyle, rather than sedentary and affected by disease. Stress and over-eating are cited as main culprits to limiting this cellular division and basic structural regeneration at this fundamental level. We already know what we need to do to avoid stress and there is supporting evidence to support that meditation, relaxation techniques and exercise were all factors that contributed to how we deal with stress and negate it’s effects. In fact, research at the University of Hamburg by Dr Christian Werner cites studies of groups of men who exercised across various stages in life. The research supports the concept that subjects who exercised consistently from a younger age, when reaching age 50, had telomere length only 10 percent shorter than their younger counterparts.
So how do you measure stress? What is the quantifiable way to definitively measure the amount of stress that is in your body? Is it possible? Well it may not be definitive but the best indication we have of a body's 'stress level' comes in the form of telomere length. Telomeres are compound structures that lie at the end of DNA sequence in a chromosome within the body. Kind of like the tail of a worm. They protect the end of the chromosome from deteriotation and from bonding with other chromosomes in the body. On average a cell in the body will replicate itself 50-70 times. With each cellular repetition (or regeneration) the telomeres at the end of the chromosome shorten in length. Thus the strength of the telomere to prevent deterioration becomes less with each repetition. Telomere length can be replenished in the body by an enzyme called telomerase reverse trascriptase. Oxidative stress is known to have a direct effect on telomere length, determining a shortening of the telomere length. Thus the measure of someone's telomeres can indicate how much oxidative stress they have endured and thus how healthy or unhealthy their cellular division and/or regeneration can be.
What is the main issue with shortening telomeres? The most pressing of issues is the formation of foreign or abnormal cells which can lead to cancerous tumours forming in the body. Telomeres are critical for maintaining genomic integrity and protecting the vital DNA knowledge of our cells. If telomeres shorten to a certain point, the DNA sequence recognises that it may be damaging to the cells so the cell stops growing, enters senesence (cellular old age) or begins programmed cellular destruction. Perhaps the most worrying aspect is that with the ends of chromosomes being left 'open' to unravel, cellular bonds can occur with other cells, leading to the formation of abnormal cells. Cancerous tumours are known to have a high amount of shortened telomeres in their cellular structure and are known to contribute to the risk of developing cancers in humans.
Oxidative Stress is the imbalance between free radicals (cells used in reactions) and the body's ability to counteract their effects via antioxidants. Whenever we use our bodies we are breaking molecules to create energy, muscular contractions and chemical transfers of oxygen/Carbon Dioxide. This forms free radicals (molecular structures left after chemical reactions). Our ability to target these free radicals and how they then react in our body and keep their levels manageable is a measure of health in a human. Thus exercise and cardiovascular stress can have an effect on telomere length and the ability of our cells to regenerate. Those who exercise intensely and over long periods of time without a down turn in activity or the appropriate balance of non-aerobic exercise and replenishment, will ultimately encounter an effect on how cells regenerate and behave and in particular on the length of the all important telomeres.
Diet has an impact on telomeres, though not in the way you might think. The adoption of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, even coffee red meat and sugars have no direct effect on telomere length directly, however they do contribute to cellular regeneration. High and continual dosages of certain food products that require the system to continue producing enzymes and involve highly 'energy rich' digestive processes have an effect on how hard the cellular network is operating, thus effecting the regeneration and oxidative stress that results in shortened telomeres. The real issue here is what happens to those cells that do have shortened telomeres and how they bond and create new cells or potentially harmful cells that become free radicals, pathogens and even carcinogens later.
Promoting active regeneration of the immune system which works with telomeres to limit the development of abnormalities in cells and actively combat pathogens, bacterias and foreign particles from having negative effects on the body is paramount. Engaging in activities that activate the parasympathetic system, deep breathing and restorative practices also promote a healthy repost for the cellular regeneration. A 2013 University of California, San Francisco study took a control group of 35 men and the findings were that those that engaged in 'lifestyle changing behaviour' (diet, exercise, stress reduction techniques) encountered a 10% difference in telomere length. Contrarily in older generations, the findings from a study conducted in 2014 (Stand up for health—avoiding sedentary behaviour might lengthen your telomeres: secondary outcomes from a physical activity RCT in older people) are different whereby exercise and diet changes actually contributed to a shortening of the telomere length. Both studies do concur that action and movement and a 'non sedentary lifetsyle' has direct effects on sustained telomere length.
In the second test findings of the two studies it still concluded that there was a significant lengthening in telomere activity with the group that was less sedentary and more active. As we age, our bodies process reactions slightly differently and the effects of intense exercise may be contrary to our health where once they were beneficial. Thus - less benefits could be derived from intense exercise and dietary changes and more improved from those exercises more 'restorative' in nature. These are the practices of yoga, exercise involving deep breathing and mediation.
Movement is key and to continue moving in whatever capacity is vital into the senior years to remain vital and add to quality of life. The old adage of 'move it or lose it' reigns very true in this circumstance. I often find myself speaking to clients saying 'any movement is good movement'. True there are some movements that we need to limit when we are injured or have an acute condition to prevent further injury or tearing of a frayed muscle fibre. But movement in general is vital for us to be healthy. Our body responds to stress. It responds to the loads we place upon it. When we test those loads, or go beyond them without considered 'training' of fibres, we risk injury. It stands true that as we age, our bodies process information differently, not always slower or more considered, but the cellular network does not reproduce as quickly and our DNA is geared to a finite number of regenerations. So restorative movement and practices are fundamentally the way to continue our 'movement' into our senior years.
To still be able to move into your 70's and 80's is a gift that must be cultivated early on and maintained through the lifespan. But there is no accounting for the effect that ageing has on us at a very cellular level and we must be mindful of these changes and adapt our lifestyle accordingly to incorporate the most advantageous programs and activities for us into the future. So we can't be expecting to maintain the types of exercise and output that we can do at 60 as we do at 40. We can still enjoy the actions, but "no longer the sprinters are we - the tortoise becomes us as it were". Each of us must find the balance and the right blend of activities and dietary combinations that allows us to live our lives with vitality, a little fun as well as in harmony with ourselves. Establishing these patterns and the developing the habits of restorative practices (yes this includes massages) is a good way to harken in the senior years of our lives so that we aren't playing too much catch up. If you want to be a Senior Stud and be that active and vital person, then this is the way forward for you - your telomeres will thank you for it.