Debunking the Myths of Aging
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By Jill Horn
In this article, I will discuss and debunk some of the myths commonly associated with the aging process. For example, many people think that physical deterioration happens to everyone in old age, which is not true. Though most people do experience some wear and tear, the extent of that is largely dependent on lifestyle. I will also discuss how some kinds of mild stress can actually be good for us, though the more serious types of stress do accelerate ageing. Another common belief is that dementia is a normal aspect of aging, which could not be farther from the truth. Though mild cognitive decline is very common in older age, dementia is a serious neurodegenerative disease to be considered separately from normal ageing. The last myth I will discuss is the one of a decreased or increased need for sleep with older age, which also happens not to be true. We will unwrap all these myths and replace them with the emerging scientific evidence of aging and longevity research, while also providing you with evidence-based strategies to counteract the aging process through lifestyle changes.
“… increased physical activity, healthy sleep, and improving one’s diet can induce epigenetic changes which effectively tackle many of the problems associated with the aging process.”
Myth #1: Physical deterioration is inevitable. This is not true because although ageing can be associated with problems such as reductions in muscle strength, increases in body fat, increases in blood pressure, and decline in bone density, these deteriorations are largely dependent on lifestyle and psychological expectations, and do not necessarily occur in all ageing individuals. And if they do occur, the extent to which this happens is largely dependent on lifestyle, as evidenced by a large body of epigenetics research. The field of epigenetics studies how environmental and internal factors as a response to behavior and nutrition affect the genome, or more precisely, which genes are being expressed and which ones are being muted. It is known that increased physical activity, healthy sleep, and improving one’s diet can induce epigenetic changes which effectively tackle many of the problems associated with the aging process.
“[The good type of stress] is called hormesis, and it reflects a mild stress-induced stimulation of certain protective mechanisms in cells, which then results in biological anti-aging effects.”
Myth #2: Stress is always bad for you. Although chronic psychological or physical stress can be very harmful to the brain and body and accelerates aging through various mechanisms, another type of stress can be beneficial through its anti-aging effects. This type of stress is called “hormesis”, and it basically reflects a mild stress-induced stimulation of certain protective mechanisms in cells, which then results in biological anti-aging effects. It involves exposure to low doses of otherwise harmful body states, substances, or environments, such as food limitation, extreme temperatures, or physical exertion. Hormesis has been well-studied both in vivo and in vitro, and the pathways of stress-induced maintenance and repair are now well-understood. These pathways include endogenous mechanisms counteracting free radicals, improvements in protein repair and turnover, the activation of detoxification mechanisms, and the stimulation of other beneficial stress responses. Importantly, the mild stressors involved in hormesis pathways are acute types of stress and often associated with adaptation to environmental or internal changes. Events triggering these changes include physical exertion, exposure to extreme heat or cold as in a sauna or ice bath, and safely executed caloric restriction such as in time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting. In the example of caloric restriction, the pathways involved in bringing about the benefits of hormesis include the activation of nucleotide excision repair, proteasome activity, antioxidant activities, and regulation of insulin, glucose metabolism, and hormone release. In the case of heat stress, exposure to really hot temperatures is known to activate the heat shock response which stimulates increases in levels of heat shock proteins and has been associated with significant increases in lifespan in animal studies.
“Activities and lifestyle factors that have been shown to decrease risk for dementia include being physically active, eliminating smoking, avoiding harmful use of alcohol, a healthy weight, eating a healthy, Mediterranean style diet high in fiber and polyphenols, healthy social connections, and maintaining normal blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.”
Myth #3: Dementia is a part of normal aging. Though cognitive decline to some extent is observed in most aging individuals, it is not true that dementia is an inevitable part of ageing. Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease that occurs in about 10% of older individuals. This means that just one out of 10 individuals develops dementia, and 90% of individuals age without having symptoms of dementia. Though dementia is often preceded by cognitive decline, not everyone who experiences cognitive decline also has dementia. The core symptoms of dementia include forgetting things or recent events, misplacing or losing things, getting lost when walking or driving, being confused, losing track of time, difficulties performing familiar tasks, and can even lead to not recognizing one’s own family members. There are different stages of dementia, and it often starts with mild symptoms which can then develop into more serious problems. Activities and lifestyle factors that have been shown to decrease risk for dementia include being physically active, eliminating smoking, avoiding harmful use of alcohol, a healthy weight, eating a healthy, Mediterranean style diet high in fiber and polyphenols, healthy social connections, and maintaining normal blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Factors that increase the risk for dementia include depression, metabolic syndrome, being overweight, social isolation, cognitive inactivity, and air pollution.
“Following a regular sleep schedule, establishing a bedtime routine, keeping a nice temperature in the bedroom, not eating 2-4 hours before bed, and avoiding exposure to bright light at nighttime can greatly help enhance sleep for people of all ages.”
Myth #4: As you age, you need to sleep more or less. It is not true that older individuals need more or less sleep, as it has been shown that the optimal amount of sleep per night ranges between 7 and 9 hours for adults of all ages. It is true, however, that older individuals often do experience more fragmented sleep and frequently report difficulties with their sleep in either falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early. Though the origin of these sleep disturbances at older age can vary greatly dependent on the circumstances, it is clear that maintaining a healthy and regular circadian rhythm is positively associated with a wide range of health parameters and reduced aging of both brain and body. Following a regular sleep schedule, establishing a bedtime routine, keeping a nice temperature in the bedroom, not eating 2-4 hours before bed, and avoiding exposure to bright light at nighttime can greatly help enhance sleep for people of all ages.
In conclusion, many of the common beliefs about aging are myths. In fact, studies have shown that just expectations about the aging process can bring about the expected outcome. This means that people who expect to experience physical deterioration in old age, actually do show these changes in their bodies, whereas people who have a positive outlook on growing old and believe in keeping themselves young actually have a younger biological age. Keeping this in mind, as well as the scientific findings discussed earlier in the article, the outlook and approach one has toward aging may largely determine the actual outcome on a cellular level. It is therefore helpful to adopt not only a healthy lifestyle but also a mindset that conveys optimism about growing older. These little changes applied on a daily basis can do wonders when it comes to growing older healthily and happily.
Jill Horn is a recent UCLA graduate with a degree in Neuroscience. She is deeply interested in the interconnectedness of body, mind, and spirit takes an integrative approach to health and well-being. She aspires to the public about a research-based lifestyle and mindset that promote health. Jill also deeply resonates with the One Health concept, which emphasizes the interdependence of the health of people and the health of our planet, given the climate crisis we are facing.