We can slow it down but your genes are the biggest factor in the ageing process

Shocked by her own test results, Dr Sara Gottfried was spurred on to devise ways of improving her health and slowing down the ageing process, says Áilín Quinlan.

“I’m no supermodel,” insists Dr Sara Gottfried, who is half-Irish — but, it seems, those trendy Celtic genes are no great asset: “I have very resilient genes which allow me to store fat — a little bit too much fat,” she quips.

Genetic testing in her mid-40s (she’s just turned 50), showed Gottfried carries what’s known as the ‘Famine Gene’ which means her body is adept at storing fat and has a tendency towards insulin resistance.

And there’s more: “In fact, obesity, hair-loss, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease run in my family,” she says, adding that, essentially, she’s genetically programmed to be “a two-hundred-pound anxious diabetic with thinning hair.”

One glance at the attractive Harvard and MIT-educated physician and gynaecologist who also happens to be the author of two best-sellers, and you’re wondering how on earth she managed to duck that set of curve-balls.

Maybe it’s because a few years ago, at the age of 44, the mother-of-two became interested in things called telomeres. 

Telomeres are long trailing strands at the ends of our chromosomes. They start off long and shorten by more than 60% over our lifetime.

“Telomeres tell you how fast or slow you’re ageing — they keep your chromosomes from fraying,” she explains. 

If your telomeres become too short, you’re at a significantly increased risk of conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes or cancer.

Gottfried was fascinated by the concept of telomeres and their impact on the body, as well as the idea that the rate at which telomeres shorten can be accelerated or slowed or potentially reversed. 

She decided to get hers tested. At the time she was in pretty bodacious shape for a mid-forties mother-of-two, with a body mass index or BMI of 25. Yet the test results came as a huge shock.

“At 44 I was biologically 64 — 20 years older,” she says.

Gottfried couldn’t understand why she was ageing so fast. She knew she worked hard, and that, as a working mother, she had certain unavoidable stresses. 

However, she also knew something could — and should be done about it.

“I felt I could be rolling with the punches better,” she recalls.

Gottfried realised that she was navigating a dizzying array of challenges — “crazy work hours, perimenopause, grief, breast lumps, ageing parents, tight clothes, travel, and stress.”

She embarked on a major research programme into the whole concept of ageing, believing that it was time to find a way to fight back against the warning signs of age in the body — worsening vision, thinner skin, weaker lungs, faulty memory — and turn them around.

There are several key factors which make ageing more pronounced after year 40, she says — factors which lead to what she calls ‘inflammaging,’ a combination of increasing inflammation, stiffness and accelerated ageing.

First, there’s muscle loss and fat gain — as your metabolism slows with age, you lose muscle and gain fat. 

In fact, you lose five pounds (2.3kg) of muscle per decade. By age 50 you’ve on average lost 15% of your lean body mass. 

As for fat, after the age of 35, your body fat rises 1% a year unless you take specific action to build muscle.

In the meantime, ageing means nerve cells lose speed and flexibility so you may find you can’t remember some words as easily as you used to. 

Your hippocampus — the part of your brain that engages in memory creation and the control of the emotions — may shrink, especially if you’re stressed. Meanwhile, your hormones are changing for the worse.

With the passing years, men and women also make less testosterone. This results in more fat deposits at the breasts, hips, and buttocks. Women produce less oestrogen, which protects the hair follicles and skin. Lower oestrogen-to-testosterone ratios may trigger hair loss and heart disease. 

Your thyroid gland also slows, so does your metabolism — so your weight climbs. Your blood sugar levels also increase, which may result in stronger cravings for carbs. 

Your sleep may be affected. Lower levels of oestrogen and testosterone may weaken your bones. And that’s only a selection of the bad news.

The good news, however, is that the right food, sleep, exercise, and support for detoxification can reverse many of the problems associated with ageing, says Gottfried.

She says 90% of the signs of ageing and disease are caused by lifestyle choices — food, exercise, stress management, lifestyle habits — and not genes.

Gottfried — who doesn’t recommend that people have genetic testing, at least until the process is far more comprehensive and sophisticated — did another telomere test recently. After a few years of taking her own advice, that 20-year gap is now down to just two years.

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Eat well

“Your food can turn on and off the genes associated with ageing and telomeres,” says Gottfried who advises the avoidance of processed foods. 

That includes anything that basically doesn’t grow in or run around on the ground. Watch the balance between protein and carbohydrate intake, she says, and don’t fall into the trap of eating too much protein. 

Extra protein turns into sugar and raises your blood sugar levels, which in turn shortens your telomeres and ages your skin.

Floss

Flossing twice daily combined with regular trips to the dentist help decrease your mortality rate by 30% to 50%: “Your mouth is the most important part of your personal microbiome. Flossing helps remove bad bacteria from your mouth and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease,” she says.

Sit less, move more

“Exercise turns on about 6,000 anti-ageing genes so it’s as close to a panacea that we have when it comes to men and women over the age of 35... It tells the brain you’re young even when your hormones are otherwise. 

"There are certain obesity genes that get burned off by about 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day but the idea is to do about one to two hours a day.”

Drink a collagen latte

Collagen is an easily digested form of protein that improves skin, hair, and nails. As you age, you break down more collagen than you make, leading to saggy skin, cracking fingernails, dull hair, and wrinkles. Collagen is rich in antioxidants, lowers blood pressure and improves bone density.

Here’s how: Mix 250ml of decaffeinated coffee, or tea with 1 to 2 tablespoons collagen powder. Optional: A tablespoon of coconut oil or medium-chain triglyceride oil, four to six drops of stevia.

Place brewed coffee and remaining ingredients in a blender. Blend for 5 to 15 seconds until frothy like a latte.

Have a sauna

Positive exposure to saunas turns on a longevity gene called FOX03, says Gottfried. “Having a 20-minute sauna four times a week will reduce your mortality by 40% ...

It’s considered a form of exercise because it raises your heart rate.”

Take vitamin D

It’s associated with healthy sleep which, says Gottfried, helps to prevent osteoporosis, mood and reduces restless leg syndrome.

Meditate

“I have a headband that is called the Muse,” says Gottfried. “It costs about €200 and it’s like an EEG on the brain.” The device basically ‘gamefies’ meditation by giving you feedback on how well you are doing your meditation, she says.

“You get feedback on your mental state from the headband and if you reach a certain level of calm birds start chirping — that is your reward for being really calm and meditative — meditation is one of the things that very good for the telomeres!”

Meditation also helps you manage stress, which is extremely ageing, she warns.

“It can age you by a whole decade,” says Gottfried.

Know your ‘WHY’

“For me, it’s about the power of why and connecting to the why. The why is a very valuable touchstone for me to stay on the path. My why is about my kids and wanting to see them when they’re older.

“My great grandmother danced at my wedding and flirted with every man in the room! I think about myself in 25 years’ time and I want to be kind to that future self. I think about the choices I have to make now. Looking after yourself now is all about taking the micro decisions that add up to being kind to your 75-year-old self.”

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