Your biological age reveals more about your health than your chronological age, discovers Rowena Walsh.
WHAT if feeling younger actually made us live longer?
It may be simply the effects of a virtuous circle — when we exercise, keep our brains active and embrace new experiences, we feel younger than our chronological age. However, scientists from New Zealand to South Korea are now reporting on the tangible benefits of a young mindset.
In these days of Covid-19 restrictions, we’re all too aware of age and some of the negative connotations around advancing years. However, no two 70-years-olds are the same or should be treated as much.
We refer to age in two ways, says Professor Rose Anne Kenny of Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Chronological age is the number of our years of life, while biological age is the actual ageing of our cells.
The two can be very different, she says, referring to the ongoing longitudinal Dunedin study in New Zealand, where a group of 38-year-olds are followed every four years. Researchers measure their biological ages and have found differences of up to 20 years among the group.
The factors that determined those differences were related to mental health issues, socio-economic issues, environmental factors such as diet and health behaviours such as smoking or obesity, says Prof Kenny.
There’s a lot of different ways of measuring biological ageing, she says. Probably the most up-to-date measures are what we call epigenetic ageing — epigenetics is the science of how environmental factors influence our genes.
The reason people are interested in the idea of biological age is because it’s a truer representation of health, says Aisling O’Halloran, senior research fellow at TCD.
“There’s a big gap between what we call healthspan and lifespan. So while lifespan has been increasing, what we’re not seeing is a corresponding increase in healthspan. Healthspan is defined as years that are disability-free over the age of 65,” she says.
Scientists are trying to understand biological ageing to narrow the gap between healthspan and lifespan in order to improve quality of life for people as they age.
So what can we do to slow our biological age? Exercise is extremely important at all stages of life, says O’Halloran, adding that The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing study shows the majority of people over 50 do not get the recommended amount of exercise of 150 minutes per week.
It’s never too late to make a difference, however.
“There are some really good new studies that show that we can manipulate biological ageing, so it’s not written in stone that once you’ve reached a certain biological age, that you will continue to age at that pace,” says Prof Kenny.
It’s crucial that as we age, we still have a purpose in life, adds Prof Kenny. “It’s having goals and a sense that there’s a meaning to your present and past life. There’s a lot of research showing that if you have a purpose right to the bitter end almost, that you have much better physical and mental health in old age, and much better quality of life and much more positive sense of wellbeing and happiness.”
Mental attitude is extremely important in maintaining health, says O’Halloran. “It’s very important to keep up contact with friends and family and to socialise with people. This helps to stave off some of the adverse health outcomes we see with increasing age.
“An important aspect of why social connectedness and social engagement is so important as we get older is because it really does appear to have an impact on cognitive ageing and cognitive health,” she says.
Thanks to Zoom, What’s App and FaceTime, we’re still able to communicate with our family and friends while respecting social distancing.
In a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, South Korean researchers scanned the brains of 68 healthy older adults and found that those who felt younger had thicker brain matter and less age-related deterioration. This may be the benefits of a virtuous circle: that feeling young prompts you to exercise more, to eat well and keep your weight and blood pressure down which in turn may impact on keeping your brain healthy.
“If you are doing all of these things, you are likely to feel better and therefore feel younger. But even in people who are feeling older, who perceive themselves to be at the same age as they are chronologically or older than they are chronologically, if you can encourage them to begin exercise and introduce nutritional interventions, often in group situations, which then bring a social aspect, you find positive results,” says O’Halloran.
People who perceive themselves as younger than their chronological age, and who have positive perceptions about ageing and the ageing process, have faster walking speeds than people who have negative perceptions about the ageing process and who feel their age to be around the same or older.
“We’ve looked at this in The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing,” says Prof Kenny.
Within the study, a number of measures of strength were used, including muscle strength and physical ability, as well as cognitive tools, such as memory, concentration and ability to plan.
Optimists are more likely to have more positive ageing perceptions, she says, and they and people who are conscientious and people who are neurotic are all more likely to employ good lifestyle behaviours.
Prof Kenny says it’s not social isolation but loneliness that is most important in terms of poor health. “Some people elect to be socially isolated, and it doesn’t cause negative consequences. Loneliness is not a good emotion.”
She is a huge advocate for being sociable, saying that good social engagement is as powerful a risk factor as physical activity, smoking and low cholesterol combined.
However, if you were only to do one thing to improve your health, then Prof Kenny suggests getting physically active.
In an ideal world she recommends physical activity with others, such as group walking, group gym classes or group exercises. This offers the double whammy of social engagement coupled with physical activity.
However, there’s no excuse in our Covid-19 world either when we can still go for a walk or run with someone from our own household or opt for an online group class whether that’s Pilates, Zumba or a targeted workouts from Joe Wicks. No two 70-year-olds are the same and neither is the way they can choose to stay active and alive.