Have you ever asked yourself the question, Why do we age?
For me, the need to truly understand everything about growing older hit me on a random night out at a Santa Monica, California beer garden with my younger siblings. Much younger, in fact—my brother was 28 at the time and my little sister was just 24. Admittedly, I don’t find myself at bars filled with millennials often, but my little brother had recently had his heart crushed in a break-up and my sister and I were determined to help him get over it.
So, there I was, 43 years old, hanging out at a bar packed with twentysomethings, dressed low-key: no makeup, hair in a ball cap, wearing a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers. And I get carded—for real.
At first, I was like, this guy either thinks I’m some sort of undercover cop or he feels bad for me. But no. He took my ID, glanced at it, looked back up, immediately did a double take and said: “Wow! You’ve maintained really well.”
My little sister—the highly educated, idealistic, politically correct young woman that she is—was furious and offended on my behalf. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic. I thanked him and could tell he was genuinely shocked to discover I was 43 years old, but as I walked away, something struck me.
Why was he so shocked?
In my mind, I looked and felt my age. I felt wiser, stronger and more successful than when I was younger, possessing a confidence that only comes with time and experience. So why wasn’t that what 40-something looked like to him?
More importantly, what do you believe 40-plus is supposed to look and feel like? Let me guess. Getting older means you’re most likely going to be:
- Forgetful and out of touch
- Overweight and out of shape
- Inflexible and achy all the time
- Experiencing hair loss and/or gray hair
- Dealing with sagging, wrinkled skin
Well, guess what? I am none of the above. In fact, I am the exact opposite of all of the above. (OK, to be honest, I am super-forgetful, but that’s nothing new. I was born with that one.) But for weeks after that night out with my siblings, I started paying attention to everyone around me, trying to guess people’s ages in my head. I couldn’t help but wonder how people of the same age could be so different from one another when it came to their energy level, immunity, memory, productivity, functionality, personality and physical appearance. I couldn’t stop thinking about the cause for these huge variances in how people age. I knew I needed to explore, dissect and decode the habits and behaviors of those who seem to defy aging.
My fascination with aging led me to find what I call the six keys to ageless strength, health and beauty, which make up my 2018 book The 6 Keys. Be forewarned—there is a lot of science behind these six keys, which make up a comprehensive and effective approach to “anti-aging.” And although I know that term has become a dirty word in most circles, can we just call a spade a spade?
It’s not about being afraid to get older; it’s about aging well!
“Aging gracefully” doesn’t have to mean giving up and accepting decay. Self-care means keeping yourself in fantastic health, inside and out, for a hell of a long time. After all, would you want to live in a dilapidated home? Should you neglect your car until it breaks down? Would you wear stained, dirty or wrinkled clothes (unless you’re in the privacy of your home on a Netflix binge)?
Of course not. There’s a sense of pride and self-worth that comes along with caring for and about yourself. This is your body we are talking about—your one and only true home. You know, that physical shell that quite literally houses you for your entire life. And it’s the only one you’re ever going to get, so you should care for and about it! How it looks. How it feels. How it performs. And most importantly, how long it lasts.
So just in case you mistakenly feel that caring about your appearance, sex life, energy and vigor is arrogant, selfish or shallow, the six keys will put that notion to bed for good. How you feel about yourself, carry yourself and present yourself all dramatically impact the way you relate to your environment and other people in it, which, in turn, dramatically impacts your quality of life and how you age. I mean, longevity is great, but longevity without vitality, immunity and everything else I’ve mentioned—well, that’s not so great.
So, back to our original question—why are we aging? While there have been many theories over the years on this topic, several modern explanations fall under two major umbrella theories, which are as follows:
Some theories propose that aging is the result of a constant assault on various molecules and cells in our bodies ranging from proteins to our DNA. Everything from exposure to the environment and toxic byproducts (such as molecules known as free radicals) to inefficiencies in our body’s natural repair systems causes this damage, which accumulates like junk inside us throughout our entire lifespan. This prompts some biological systems to fail, which in turn causes and accelerates the aging process.
There are some that theorize aging is predetermined. These people believe that aging is encoded into our genes and occurs on a fixed schedule triggered by those genes.
Imagine there’s some sort of preordained “blueprint” that runs its course, then certain genetically regulated processes take over and just flip a switch in a way that signals, “OK, it’s time for you to go now!” But the question is… when do you have to age? At 40? 90? 200?
That is where the six keys, and your commitment to self-care within them, come into play. What I’ve done through the six keys is analyze both the causes and effects of aging together in order to give you a strategy for making the information work for you, not against you. This provides a comprehensive and effective approach to unlocking your healthiest, strongest, most cared-for self.
Here’s a brief introduction to each key and several of the many actionable steps to get you started:
Key No. 1: Master your macromolecules
Your cells (some 37 trillion of them) are the building blocks of you, and each one serves a purpose. Inside every one of those little suckers are different kinds of molecules that are absolutely essential to how well that cell functions.
Four classes of molecules—or macromolecules—are particularly important. You’ll recognize three of the four because you eat them every day. They are proteins, carbohydrates and lipids (fats). Surprised that every cell in your body is made up of the three things people have been arguing about whether or not to eat over the last 50 years? Fat-free, no carb, etc. It’s all bull. Remember this info the next time a fad diet is repackaged and hawked to you.
Your diet should include protein, carbs and fat. Period. The ratio can vary a bit, but ultimately it’s about feeding your cells because you are technically one big mass of all three. And no, this is not a license to eat crap food. It’s about quality versions of all three macronutrients.
The last macromolecule to discuss, nucleic acids, will also likely be on your menu tonight. They’re found in every type of food, but most predominantly in fish (or any form of protein), mushrooms, beans, etc. As you digest your food, the nucleic acids inside it get broken down into nucleotides, the molecules that all stick together to form your DNA.
Together, this fantastic four of macromolecules make up the majority of the dry weight of every one of your cells—I say dry because your cells are also packed with water—and are responsible for a litany of jobs that manage your cells’ functions. So you can only imagine how messing with any of the big four can completely mess up how well you age.
One thing to do:
Unfortunately, this isn’t a fun one. It’s not what to eat—it’s what not to eat. One of the biggest areas of interest in the study of aging right now is in the impact of calorie restriction on extending both lifespan and healthspan, or the amount of time you stay healthy.
Ultimately, eating less food has the potential to be effective at reversing many age-related issues in a variety of organisms—not just us. Eating less has made mice live 10% to 35% longer and may potentially allow primates to live longer as well.
A 2018 study found that when participants reduced their daily calories by 25%, they showed fewer signs of oxidative stress than participants who ate as they pleased.
Your best bet: Eat a balanced diet with the widest variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains possible, being sure to avoid processed foods and sugar whenever you can.
Key No. 2: Control the variables
You won’t be surprised to hear that your genetics play a role in your longevity. But did you realize that your genes aren’t necessarily set in stone from birth? Your DNA, like everything else about you, changes over time depending on the variables you are exposed to.
Scientists now believe that several factors can actually affect your genes. Scary, right? Exposure to everything from processed food to smoking, environmental toxins, UV rays, disease, etc. can change your genetic traits in a way that not only brings on age-related issues, but that also makes it possible for you to pass those age-accelerating glitches onto your kids.
It turns out your environment—what you eat and drink, how you exercise and what you’re exposed to—can influence your DNA and how you age. But there are several ways to get an edge over your genetics.
One thing to do:
To continue with the calorie restriction theme (sorry!), know that it’s not just how much you eat, but what you throw back that keeps your genome nice and happy. For example, you need to moderate your fat consumption, period. At the same time, consuming dark, leafy green vegetables and green tea have been shown to have positive effects as you age. Exercise has a similarly positive effect—shocking, right!?
On top of proper diet and exercise, here’s a hard-and-fast rule: If it’s known to be toxic, poisonous or bad for you in general, it’s probably making DNA alterations that are definitely not helping you age any slower.
Some of your genome’s enemies include air pollution and benzene (an industrial solvent found in paint, detergents, glue, pesticides, gas and other fuels—even in dryer sheets and paraffin wax candles!).
Key No. 3: Strong-arm stress
Stress ages us, and working against it is the definition of self-care. We’ve all seen presidents leave office with gray hair and sunken faces looking twice as old as when they started. We’ve all known people that have gone through hard times or worked demanding jobs who seem to come out the other end riddled with excess wrinkles, eye bags, thinning hair and a host of other symptoms that come with premature aging.
When your stress-response system stays active over time, so does the steady stream of stress hormones, particularly adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline raises your heart rate and boosts your blood pressure for more energy, but left on, it inhibits digestion, affects your vision and hearing, and increases your risk of hypertension and stroke.
Modern life is filled with stressful events. Most people think stress is caused only by things like the stack of bills piling up on your desk, relationship dynamics with your family or friends, or the long hours spent trying to manage both of the above. Unfortunately however, stress can come in many forms that you may not even be acknowledging:
- Physical: intense exertion, manual labor, lack of sleep, travel and long work hours, for example.
- Chemical: drugs, alcohol, nicotine and environmental pollutants/chemicals such as poor air quality, poor water quality, pesticides, toxins in cleaning products, toxins in beauty and hygiene products, and so forth.
- Nutritional: examples could include food allergies, chemicals in processed foods (fake fats, fake colors, preservatives, fake flavorings and sweeteners), vitamin and mineral deficiency, calorie deprivation, dehydration, excessive calorie intake, etc.
- Traumatic: this might include injuries or burns, surgery, illness, infections, extreme temperatures, extended exposure to UV rays and so on.
- Psycho-spiritual: this can range from troubled relationships, financial or career pressures, loss of a loved one, challenges with life goals, spiritual alignment, your general state of happiness and past childhood traumas, just to cite a few.
For this reason, getting a grip on stress and making it work in your favor instead of against it is a battle that must be fought on myriad fronts.
One thing to do:
Turning the stress key in the right direction requires a holistic approach of eating and exercising right, mitigating psychological stress, adapting your mindset to best manage stress’ biochemical age inciters, and avoiding physical trauma and environmental chemicals as much as possible.
You’ve heard about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, talk therapy and a host of other strategies to de-stress—try them. They have the potential to change your brain’s physical and biochemical composition for the better.
Key No. 4: Ease inflammation
First point: Inflammation really is your ally. It is your immune system’s first responder, a process that comes to the rescue to fight bacteria and viruses as well as to heal after injuries and infections. Your body manufactures certain immune cells and antibodies that attack foreign and bad-for-you substances, then certain hormones are released (such as histamine) that expand your blood vessels so all of those healing elements can flow directly into compromised tissue. It’s that surge of extra blood flow that causes an area to become swollen, red and hot. That is acute inflammation.
But there is a slow, gradual increase in inflammation within the body as we age, and low-level chronic inflammation is destructive—a phenomenon known as “inflamm-aging.” There are a host of internal and external factors that can cause it, from what we throw in our bellies as food to the bacteria that actually live there.
It’s chronic inflammation that leaves us looking and feeling older than we really are, and which makes us more susceptible to age-related diseases.
One thing to do:
Studies have suggested that chronic inflammation is linked to imbalances in gut bacteria. For example, when gut bacteria from old mice were placed in the bellies of young, healthy mice, they experienced chronic inflammation.
Consuming fermented foods like kefir and kimchi, which are high in probiotics (live beneficial bacteria), can help replenish your good gut flora. And eating foods with prebiotic (non-digestible) fiber, like apple skins and beans, helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut.
How you end your day affects your inflammation levels, too. Turns out that a good night’s sleep greatly reduces chronic inflammation. But here’s the bad news—hitting the snooze button is no solution. Getting more than your fair share of sleep has the same effect on inflammation levels as not getting enough! So what’s the sleep sweet spot? According to science, it’s seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night for adults.
You know the basics of metabolism: The faster you metabolize food, the less weight you gain.
But you know that old adage that the candle burning twice as bright burns half as long? It’s a pretty good metaphor when it comes to aging, because faster metabolisms do create oxidative stress within your body. That’s not to say a slower metabolism and the adjoined effects, like obesity and its deadly cohorts, are superior, either. If you’re one of those people who can eat whatever you want and not gain a pound, is it worth doing things that actually slow down your metabolism? For example, not exercising, not sleeping properly and not eating protein-rich foods (which require more energy to digest than carbs and fats)? No, of course not.
Our goal is not to slow down your metabolism but to inhibit certain aspects of metabolism that accelerate aging and maximize aspects that help combat it.
One thing to do:
Ready for the good news? Diet and exercise remain the major game-changers when it comes to affecting your metabolism, and we’ve covered those thoroughly. But, there are others to consider, and here’s one:
How much sun you are exposed to—particularly ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation rays (the ones responsible for sunburn)—may negatively influence your levels of the enzyme mTOR, which is responsible for regulating metabolism at the cellular level. Researchers looking into ways to reduce the risk of skin cancer by inhibiting mTOR have made a connection between UVB radiation and abnormal activation of mTOR, but the link between UV radiation and mTOR signaling has not been fully established.
Still, if you really need another reason to watch your sun exposure, there you go.
Key No. 6: Tackle telomeres
At the end of each and every DNA strand in your body are protective tips—like the little plastic ends of your shoelaces—called telomeres. These telomeres shorten as we age. Each time your DNA replicates itself, it shaves off a little more.
Size matters here, because when these strands become too short, they “lose their caps,” so to speak, leaving cells unable to divide and marking the cells for death. As skin and pigment cells die, we start to see wrinkles and gray hair. But the really bad stuff is when our immune cells start to die off, and our risk of heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, premature death and a number of age-related issues increases.
But this is not inevitable. We can greatly slow the rate in which our telomeres are “shortening,” and in some cases even regenerate them. Everything from what you eat, how you exercise, and even how anxious or depressed you feel can play a part in keeping your telomeres long and strong. The sixth key lies in delaying the fraying of your telomeres.
One thing to do:
The good news is that by taking steps to improve the other five keys, you’ll also protect your telomeres. But the first and most important thing to do is calm down.
Research has shown that how you react to life events can impact your telomeres. One of the most comprehensive investigations to date on the effects of short-term stress on telomeres—a meta-analysis that drew from every single study in all languages on the relationship between the two—found that the relationship between telomere length and perceived stress was approximately equal to the relationship between telomere length and obesity.
Experts believe that approaching any new struggle in life not as some massive insurmountable threat but as a new challenge ready to be overcome might make a difference.
Care for yourself by starting now
We’ve covered a lot here. But you should know this: No single factor is truly independent from—or more important than—the rest, and it’s the intertwining of these causes and effects that ultimately ages us.
Well, I take that back. There is one single factor that can slow your aging: It’s you. It’s in your commitment to caring for yourself mentally and physically.
Treat your future self well today.
Adapted from The 6 Keys © 2018 by Jillian Michaels with Myatt Murphy. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo © BRIAN BOLTON