By Sandra Prior
For many of us, old age conjures up ghastly images of decrepitude and degenerative disease. So, panic-stricken, we fork out thousands of dollars for anti-wrinkle creams, blood-pressure pills and Botox. Yet simple lifestyle changes and a bit of old fashioned discipline can win back decades.
A small but very definite vertical line recently appeared on my top lip. It’s like one of the many you see around the mouths of long-term smokers, or on grumpy people who express their displeasure by frequently pursing their lips. I’m neither of those, yet no amount of anti-wrinkle cream is dislodging it.
‘It’s hereditary, you know,’ my husband opined as I glared into the mirror. ‘You’re wasting your money on all those so-called miracle creams.’ He’s right. My father has a (slightly deeper) line in exactly the same spot.
‘It’s not the lines you should be worrying about,’ persisted the marital sage, ‘it’s the other stuff you could have inherited.’ And he listed them: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, bowel cancer, cataracts… I had to lie down.
Age terrifies me. I don’t like that my breasts no longer point perkily skyward when I lie down. I’m frightened of the way my back stiffens when I’ve been sitting in front of the TV for a while; and I hate that I need glasses to read, and a different pair to drive. Ageing is forcing me to change my lifestyle. I’ve had to give up running and take up yoga and swimming instead. I drink less wine and I need more sleep. And every decade another barrage of tests is suggested by my GP.
Apparently, that’s good news. Because science now knows so much about how we age, it can slow the process – or, at the very least, make it more comfortable. It has proven that genes affect the way we age and that some diseases we carry in our DNA.
It also has ample evidence to show that environmental scavengers strip our minds and bodies of their youthful vigor. And it has proof of the impact healthier choices have on the speed at which we age, and how we age.
‘We have been taught to think that dysfunction and degenerative disease are a natural consequence of time passing. They most certainly are not,’ says Leslie Kenton, author of the best-selling Age Power.
Kenton made television history when an anti-ageing program she designed for the documentary To Age or not to Age physiologically transformed the lives of participants in medically measurable ways in just five weeks.
‘Scientists William Evans and Irwin Rosenberg cited that when it comes to how old you are, it is your biological age that is important, not your chronological age. But, unlike your chronological age, which cannot be altered, how old you are biologically is fundamentally under your own control,’ Kenton says.
When I was 20, my mother sent me for my first pap smear; since I turned 40, I’ve endured two mammograms. Every year, I visit the dermatologist and have annual cholesterol, glucose, blood pressure, lung-function and eye tests. My husband has prostate checks and blood tests. Hypochondriacs?
Given our family history – and our understanding of the benefits of preventative care – our doctor doesn’t think so. My grandmother died in her early 60s of lung cancer. She had been a heavy smoker (I never have) but she also had several cancerous skin lesions (from excess sun exposure) excised during her adult years. My husband’s brother died at 43 of mestastised bowel cancer. He was a committed runner, and when stomach pain persisted he simply ran harder. Had he gone to his doctor when his digestive discomfort first arose, he might well have beaten the disease.
There is plenty of science-backed evidence to suggest that simple lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, enough sleep and reduced stress, have a significant impact on age-related illness; but so does preventative medicine. It’s a case of knowing thy enemy and sharpening your sword as each decade rolls in.
Something as simple as cutting your salt intake from the average 2-3 teaspoons per day to one can have a marked effect on your risk of heart disease.
Jennifer was managing director of one of the top financial and corporate communications companies. At the age of 50, she gave up 16-hour days to retire to the Nevada desert, where she has improved her diet and cut down on the many hours she used to spend in front of a computer.
‘I have quit stress. I sit far less during the day, and I am fairly religious about exercising – Pilates or yoga – and I walk a lot more. My diet changed completely about a year ago when I discovered I had high cholesterol. I eat far less meat, fat, and other cholesterol-laden or -inducing foods and I eat loads more grains, seeds, vegetables, salads, fruit and fish, which is no easy thing in the middle of the Nevada.’
‘While it is true that genetic diseases can shorten life, studies have also shown that how you live and how you eat have the most powerful influence on whether you actually develop a disorder to which you have inherited a genetic tendency,’ says Kenton. ‘The MacArthur Study, carried out from the mid-80s, showed that heredity is far less important than environment and lifestyle in determining how, and how fast, we age. And, as we get older, our genetic inheritance becomes far less important and our lifestyle factors become far more important.’
In fact, only a small portion of the genetic information in our cells is expressed. ‘Our diet, lifestyle and environment modify the nature of this information.’ The Cancer Association says that 90 percent of cancers are caused by environmental factors, and these include lifestyle-related factors, which account for up to 40 percent.
Scientists also once believed that the loss of our brain cells with age was inevitable, and that once lost, there was no possibility of growing new ones.
‘This is not true,’ says Kenton. ‘Your brain can grow neurons regardless of your age, so long as your body is functioning well and is supplied with adequate minerals, vitamins, protein and essential fatty acids. Loss of mental capacity is the greatest fear most people have about getting older. Everything you do to protect your body from ageing, you must do for your brain – but even more so,’ she says.
To maintain a youthful brain, implement a program that combines correct nutrition, vitamin and mineral supplementation, physical and mental exercise, and adequate relaxation as well as brain stimulation and cut down on stress. Prolonged stress can actually kill brain cells.
Believe you have control. Findings from a large research study showed that those who believed they had greater control over their physical and cognitive health had better memory and intellectual functioning as they aged. ‘When people feel they don’t have control, they’re likely to be anxious and distressed. Those feelings can interfere with performance,’ says the American Psychological Association.
Give your brain a workout. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities like reading, going to classes or playing musical instruments can improve your cognitive functioning.
Exercise your body. Exercise prompts new neural connections in a part of the brain responsible for age-related memory decline.
‘We have inherited an albatross. It hangs about our necks in the form of a widely accepted, negative and highly destructive view of ageing. Your emotions, your state of mind and your unconscious assumptions can influence both your susceptibility to illness and the rate at which you age,’ says Kenton.
The notion that age degeneration – including the loss of good looks and the onset of long-term illnesses such as arthritis, coronary heart disease and cancer – is a normal experience of growing older is simply untrue.
These conditions develop primarily as a result of eating foods that the body has not been genetically programmed to deal with, the build-up of toxicity in the body over long periods, lack of physical exercise or crash dieting, which shrinks lean body mass.