Islamabad: Are we on the cusp of cracking the secret of living to 130? That was the speculation last week, following reports that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, and billionaire, is behind a new anti-aging company, Altos Labs, that’s going to ‘reprogramme’ cells to extend life. The company has a host of illustrious scientists on its board and one of the first things it’s said to be looking at is to turn adult cells into embryonic stem cells.
These have the potential to be used to regenerate or repair diseased tissue. For this isn’t just about helping us live longer, but ensuring that those extra years are healthier. But few of us reading this have time to wait for Jeff Bezos to come up with a solution. The good news is scientists already understand a lot about why and how we age, including the role of telomeres.
The ‘caps’ at the ends of our strings of chromosomes that protect the genes when our cells replicate — can shorten faster as a result of factors such as pollution, poor diet, and lack of exercise. And there are things we can all do now that have been shown to improve our ‘healthspan’ — the number of years of good health we enjoy.
We spoke to some of the UK’s leading anti-aging experts as well as specialists in fields ranging from cardiology to dermatology, for the latest thinking on how to live longer, look younger and stay healthy.
From your brain to your bones, gut, this unique Good Health series, starting today and running for the next few weeks, will show you the simple steps that could transform your future years — starting with how to rejuvenate your heart to help you to live a long, healthy life.
Prioritize exercise over dieting:
To age healthily it’s better to be a little overweight and physically fit, rather than thin and unfit, says Stephen Harridge, a professor of human and applied physiology at King’s College London.
‘Exercise tends to get relegated in importance for health because of a large focus on diet. People don’t want to hear about what else they might have to do in addition to eating a healthy diet because it involves more effort and potentially more discomfort.’
However, keeping your muscles moving is crucial to maintaining not only muscle strength but also metabolic health (protecting against metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes) as we age.
‘The hormone insulin directs the muscle to take in the glucose and when the muscle is active that glucose is utilized,’ says Professor Harridge. ‘In this situation, the fatty acids in the muscle do not produce by-products that can negatively interfere with the action of insulin.’
A review last year in the journal iScience concluded that people simply need to focus on exercise rather than dieting to live longer. ‘Many obesity-related conditions are more likely attributable to low physical activity and cardio-respiratory fitness than obesity per se,’ U.S. researchers said. It’s not just about your heart — exercise also gives our blood vessels a workout, which is vital to help stop age-related stiffening.
‘Exercise flexes our blood vessels and keeps them fit, and the more flexible they are the better your blood pressure is likely to be, and muscles can grow more capillaries which better deliver oxygenated blood,’ says Professor Harridge.
‘Our bodies are designed to receive blood flow at a higher rate than they do when we are at rest.’
Exercise — pumping blood at a higher rate — also helps prevent deposits (‘plaques’) on the walls of our arteries, which leads to atherosclerosis, the furring of the arteries, and cardiovascular disease.
An exercise so you’re breathless:
The best way of knowing whether an exercise is improving your cardiovascular fitness is whether it leaves you feeling out of breath — i.e. ‘aerobic’ exercise, meaning exercise that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe harder. This includes activities such as brisk walking, swimming, jogging, and playing tennis.
‘Aerobic exercise seems to do something magical,’ says David Russell-Jones, a professor of diabetes and endocrinology at the University of Surrey. It makes people more insulin-sensitive, which means the body is better able to keep blood sugar levels under control and reduce blood pressure.
It also increases levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and reduces ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, says Professor Russell-Jones — ‘all these effects protect against heart disease’.
So how much should you do? Even 15 minutes each day could increase lifespan by three years. For intensity, ‘walking is a good exercise’, says Professor Harridge. ‘But walking along the flat at a low pace, not getting out of breath, will not be as beneficial as a brisk walk up and down a hill.’
Take your blood pressure every three months:
Millions of people in the UK have undetected high blood pressure, which, left untreated, could lead to a heart attack or stroke. Although people aged 40 to 74 should receive a letter from their GP or local council inviting them for a free NHS Health Check every five years,
‘it’s important that people do check their blood pressure more often’, advises Chris Gale, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Leeds University. He suggests doing this every three-to-six months from your mid-50s.
Have a coffee break…for coffee:
People think that coffee is bad for your heart as it’s linked with marginally raised blood pressure. But this is offset by the beneficial effect on cholesterol if you drink small amounts, says Dr. Thomas.
Up to three cups of coffee per day is associated with a lower risk of stroke and fatal heart disease, according to 2020 research from Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary. The theory is that caffeine positively changes cardiac function, although it’s not clear exactly how. Dr. Thomas adds: ‘I have two to three cups a day — timing my drinks with a break which also helps relieve stress.’