Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis: these are among today’s most common chronic health conditions. And a shocking 62% of Americans over age 65 have more than one of them (1).
But these age-associated conditions needn’t be the norm. The diet and lifestyle choices we make every day significantly impact the aging process and influence whether we age gracefully or succumb to a life of doctors visits and feeling unwell. Our goal? To increase healthspan, or the functional and illness-free period of our lives and to feel empowered in our health.
Research has identified nine underlying processes, interconnected and even overlapping in some cases, that shorten healthspan (2). Let’s explore what these “hallmarks” of aging mean.
1| Genomic Instability
As we age, our DNA’s integrity is continuously challenged by both external and internal stressors, such as environmental toxins and byproducts of our own cellular metabolism. These can irreversibly change our genome and garble the “instructions” our genes give out. Our bodies know how to repair DNA, but these mechanisms are compromised as we age.
2| Telomere Attrition
The genetic “blueprint” for the human body is contained within 23 tiny structures that live in the nucleus of cells called chromosomes. The average human experiences approximately 10 quadrillion cellular divisions throughout a lifetime. With each division, small pieces of DNA break off, shortening critical chromosomes. Telomeres — tiny caps of genetic material — protect the ends of vital chromosomes, but they inevitably suffer wear and tear (or attrition), contributing to age-related declines in health.
3| Epigenetic Alterations
Our body tacks small chemical groups onto our DNA segments, among other molecules. The addition or removal of these “methyl groups” changes how a genetic blueprint is read and implemented — without changing the underlying genetic sequence. Research indicates that the epigenetic (“on top of” DNA) alterations that come with age play a role in the body’s ability to function correctly and may impact age-related health declines.
4| Loss of Proteostasis
The human body relies on proteins to control essentially every biological process. Proteostasis (“protein homeostasis or balance”) is the process by which the body regulates the key actions of proteins in the body. A loss of proteostasis, which leads to an excess of dysfunctional proteins, degrades health and is implicated in age-related conditions, including widespread neurodegenerative processes such as Alzheimer’s disease.
5| Deregulated Nutrient Sensing
Nutrient sensing is the cell’s ability to recognize and properly use fuel, such as glucose, fatty acids, and ketones, for energy production and other physiological processes. Nutrient-sensing pathways in the human body are diverse, but among the key players is AMPK, which when activated counteracts age-related impairments in nutrient sensing.
6| Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Mitochondria are the “power plants” of our cells. They produce cellular energy in the form of ATP, an essential fuel for the body. Healthy mitochondria keep us well as we age, whereas mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to accelerated biological aging.
7| Cellular Senescence
Cellular senescence happens when once-proliferating cells become old and cease to work properly. This is a normal part of being human, but the rate of this phenomenon accelerates as we age. Senescent cells secrete inflammatory mediators, which act like tiny “zombies,” infecting healthy cells around them, causing a decline in the health of the entire body.
8| Stem Cell Exhaustion
Think of stem cells as the “baby” cells in your body: They’re young, vibrant, and act as reservoirs that the body can tap to replace old, damaged cells. A loss of stem cells promotes whole-body aging. In fact, stem cell loss, or “exhaustion,” is a central factor in the aging process.
9| Altered Intercellular Communication
Aging changes how our cells communicate with one another. When intercellular communication becomes dysfunctional, this plays a role in “inflammaging,” an inflammatory process that is part of biological aging. Cell membranes, the lipid-based structures that surround all cells and organelles serve as the initiation point of all intercellular communication. Aging, lifestyle, and environmental factors can damage cell membranes, threatening this vital and necessary communication.
Longevity is partly under your control. Keep these nine factors in mind as you choose the diet, lifestyle, and targeted nutraceuticals known to help slow underlying conditions and activate the biological pathways that are key to aging with grace.