In its State of Aging Report for 2022, the Center for Aging Better declares that England is becoming an increasingly difficult country in which to grow old. In 10 years’ time, the number of people aged 65 and over will have increased from 11 million to 13 million people, 22 per cent of the population.
However, despite living longer, the number of those years spent in good health is in decline. What can we do to prevent that?
It appears that a 26-year-old biomedical scientist from the University of Copenhagen may have some of the answers, and they might surprise you.
Nicklas Brendborg’s book, Jellyfish Age Backwards is, he says, quoting anthropologist Ashley Montagu, a guidebook on “how to die young as late as possible”.
The title of the book refers to the Turritopsis, a tiny jellyfish that, when stressed, reverts from being an adult back to a polyp. It then grows back with no physiological recollection of having been older. It can do this on repeat. Imagine that.
Brendborg takes us on a fascinating biological odyssey looking at creatures such as the naked mole rat, the centuries-old Greenland shark and disease-free tribes to find clues as to how we too might live longer and age better.
“Humans are just animals, so we share a lot,” he says. “A lot of the time you don’t really know what is biologically possible, and the best way to find out is to go and study nature.” After all, trees and lobster get stronger with age, not weaker. How then can we be more lobster?
In a world where we read one week that coffee is going to kill us and the next that it prolongs life, it’s no wonder we’re confused about this question.
Brendborg thinks we’re not looking at it from the right angle. If we eradicated major diseases tomorrow, life expectancy would only increase by a few years.
“We’re trying to cure cancer, dementia and heart disease, but ultimately all these diseases are caused by aging. If we could slow down the aging processwe could basically hit all these areas at once,” he says.
Here are some of the ways Brendborg suggests we might be able to do just that.
Stress can be good for you, as long as the dose is right
“It seems that the secret to a long life is not to live without difficult times, but to be able to withstand the onslaught,” Brendborg states in his book. We’re on a mission to eliminate stress from our lives. However, it appears that the maxim “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” holds some truth (think trees and lobsters again). It’s a process called hormesis.
“Certain kinds of stresses can be beneficial for biological organisms,” says Brendborg. “Unlike a car that wears out, we undergo a process of repair.” He cites exercise as a good example of this. “When you’re running, your heartbeat and blood pressure is raised, you’re getting some damage to your bones and your muscles. That converts to a message to your body that you need to get stronger, which is what it does.”
This is why, according to Brendborg, the optimum exercise regime is steady state training, HIIT (high intensity interval training), and some resistance work. If you focus on one type of exercise, it should be cardiovascular.
The Nordic culture of saunas and winter swimming supports the stress theory. The stressors on the body from the heat and cold make it stronger. Studies from Finland show sauna lovers have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and longer lifespans. So, find a sauna at your local gym and, if you don’t fancy jumping in a lake and Channeling your inner Wim Hofsteel yourself for an icy blast at the end of your shower.
There’s also intriguing research in Brendborg’s book about those living in higher than usual radiation areas living longer than average.
Brendborg is not advocating radioactive substances, but it’s an interesting if extreme example of how stressors can be good for the body provided the dose is right.
Ditch the multivitamins
Free radicals and antioxidants have long been buzzwords in the arena of health and beauty; the former seen as bad, the latter good. Antioxidants neutralize those pesky free radicals, but free radicals are a normal by-product of our metabolism. Ultimately, they contribute to our aging and death, but they can play a positive role. Antioxidants are not all we perceive them to be either.
Brendborg highlights that some dietary supplements containing antioxidants don’t help people live longer. Research indicates that people who take them die earlier and that they can promote the growth and spread of certain cancers. Antioxidants can also cancel out the benefits you gain from exercise, because exercise produces free radicals, a form of “oxidative stress” which, as we now know, can be good for us and help us get stronger.
Our bodies are adept at excreting what we don’t need, but one thing we can’t excrete is iron, found in most multivitamins. Iron is important to our bodies but an excess of it is toxic.
In his book, Brendborg refers to the Iowa Women’s Health Study of 39,000 women. Those taking iron supplements had a higher risk of dying early compared to those who didn’t. For men, Danish research indicated that high ferritin levels (the protein that stores iron) was also linked to an increased risk of an early death. He highlights that our belief of “more is better” when it comes to health, is flawed. Save your money.
Flossing can save your life
Every time I think of swerving the floss, I think of this book, then I floss. This could be the equivalent of Baz Luhrmann’s “Wear Sunscreen” song. Brendborg highlights studies which found that bacteria usually found in the mouth (Porphyromonas gingivalis), which cause the gum disease periodontitis, were also found in the brain tissue of deceased Alzheimer’s sufferers and inside blood clots. Studies showed that those in their sixties with gum disease had a greater risk of developing dementia two decades later.
A different bacterium, also found in the mouth, is strongly associated with colorectal cancer. “We don’t know exactly why these bacteria are in a place they’re not supposed to be, but we know that getting periodontitis is associated with an increased risk of all these diseases and an increased risk of dying early.” If ever there was a case of spending a few extra minutes removing food debris from your mouth, preventing bacteria from multiplying, this is it.
Donating blood can also prolong your own life
Through history, drawing off blood has been regarded as having health benefits. Scientific experiments on older mice have shown that if blood is removed and replaced with a saline solution, they are rejuvenated by it. In humans who give bloodthe lost blood volume is replaced by fluid from the rest of the body, then over weeks blood cells are replenished.
“It could be a stress factor that’s beneficial,” says Brendborg. He highlights that a recent study showed that toxic chemicals that come from our households and cleaning products can also be removed by blood donation. “blood donation is not going to be as effective as a weekly jogging habit, but it’s easy to do and there is a health benefit.”
Always look on the bright side of life (or try to) – and socialize
Staying positive is easier said than done for many of us, but mindset does affect our health. Brendborg says that studies show that those who feel younger than their actual age tend to live longer. The placebo effect isn’t a myth.
“You can give people fake medicine telling them it’s a new drug and it tends to relieve their symptoms. It can have an impact on the immune system. We’ve seen it on blood sugar levels where believing something is healthy or unhealthy can influence how your blood sugar levels are affected,” he says.
In contrast, he talks about the “nocebo” effect, where negative expectations can be self-fulfilling. For example, those told they were in poor physical shape, even if this was not true, performed badly on physical tests.
Also linked to our outlook is the question of loneliness. A tendency to withdraw from company may be one of the reasons why depressed people suffer poorer health, says Brendborg.
“People with depression tend to have accelerated aging of the brain,” says Brendborg.
“This may be due to the high stress burden of loneliness. We are the most social of all the animals and relationships and a sense of belonging are one of our core needs. Loneliness is one of the factors most tightly correlated with an early death, only surpassed by smoking.”
Indeed, a strong sense of community and purpose is one of the factors linking the inhabitants of the “blue zone” areas of the world – places such as Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italywhich are home to the world’s longest-living inhabitants.
Fibre, fasting and the power of garlic
You are what you eat or, if fasting, when you eat. Fasting or time-restricted eating is favored over calorie restriction. This triggers our friend hormesis, making us stronger.
“It’s an old obsession,” Brendborg says. “Calorie restriction is one of the most robust ways to prolong life, but long term it’s pretty miserable.”
The holy grail, he says, would be a medicine that tricks your body into thinking it’s fasting.
Meanwhile, the key is to avoid eating overly processed “Frankenfoods”. Brendborg is a big advocate of garlic, a key feature of the Mediterranean diet, “the healthiest of all the diets tested”. There’s good evidence, he says, that garlic lowers “bad” cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Eating more fiber also gives the life-extending good bacteria in our guts something to feed off.
Brendborg says the goal for aging is that perhaps in 20 years, someone aged 70 will be as healthy as someone who is 55 today. To some extent this has already been happening.
“There’s a hope,” he says, “that in the next five to 10 years we can see the first drug to slow down aging. It would be a huge milestone in this field.”
Brendborg’s book is a mine of fascinating information, from reminding us that coffee drinkers might have a lower mortality rate, because coffee acts as an appetite suppressant, to how longevity favors smaller people, as illustrated within species like dogs, for example. For now, though, adopting these habits may prolong your life in a healthy way before the elixir of youth arrives in pill form.