We all want to live long, healthy and youthful lives, and for many of us, longevity is no secret. The old wives’ tales and cultural wisdoms passed down generation after generation really do have elements of truth to them.
However, in recent years scientists have come closer to understanding what is exactly why it is that we age, and what we can do to slow and even reverse the ageing process. One of the most prominent theories at the moment for why we age is known as the information theory of ageing.
The information theory of ageing puts the ageing process down to a loss of information. There are two ways that our bodies store information. Digitally, in the form of DNA, and in analogue format in the form of the epigenome.
The reason we age is a bit like why as a society digital CDs replaced the analogue vinyl. Analogue sounds great initially, but quickly becomes corrupted and the quality deteriorates. Digital CDs, on the other hand, seem to preserve their quality forever.
The epigenome is like a CD player reader and our DNA is like a CD. If the reader gets damaged, then it cannot read the CD. This, very simply, is what we think causes the ageing process.
Furthermore, DNA gets damaged over time by outside forces, such as sunlight, and sometimes makes damaging mistakes as it copies itself. This can make it even more difficult for the ‘reader’ to read the genome and these mistakes become so prominent that the cells eventually lose their identity and die.
One of the most important discoveries has been the unveiling of seven so-called ‘longevity genes’. These longevity genes are collectively called sirtuins. Three of them work to repair DNA, three control energy metabolism, and one controls cellular division.
One way to think of these longevity genes is the emergency services, like firefighters or paramedics. Whenever they detect DNA breakage, they rush to repair the breaks.
Crucially, scientists now understand what we can do to encourage these longevity genes to become more active, thus repairing more DNA quicker and faster, and slowing the ageing process.
The key to encouraging our longevity genes into action is to trick them into thinking the body is in danger. By putting our bodies under mild stress, we send a signal to the emergency forces — the longevity genes — in our bodies to get out and start repairing DNA.
One way to do this is by fasting. By skipping a few meals every now and then, and feeling the twang of hunger, our bodies go into survival mode, and our longevity genes get to work.
This is not a message to tell you to starve or malnourish yourself. Not at all. That would be bad for the body. Rather, it is to try healthy intermittent fasting. Studies have shown that men and women can live for as much as 15-20% longer if they fast for three days a week. In the 1990s, an experiment that saw some scientists locked in a contained space with limit supplies for two years found their blood pressure and cholesterol levels dropped by 20 and 30%, respectively.
As for longevity foods, well that is a part of the age-old wisdom that most of us will be aware of. Longevity foods consist mainly of vegetables, and the general eat-well plate that the NHS recommends. Aim for a rainbow of vegetable colours and in particular purple and dark blue ones. Organic foods, which are grown under greater stress than non-organic vegetables, actually have more levels of resveratrol in them — a compound that helps to activate our longevity genes.
Longevity foods don’t leave a whole lot of space for meat. Eat meat sparingly. The amino acids you can get from meats you can also get from plants. Although it is more difficult to get enough amino acids from purely vegetables, this can, in turn, trigger a mild amino-fasting stress — which again can activate sirtuins.
There are therapeutic things you can do to place your body into a mild stress and kick-start your longevity genes into working. Such as cold therapy and hot therapy. The way cold and hot therapies work as a form of longevity physical therapy is that they take the body out of the thermoneutral zone.
When we are out of the thermoneutral zone, we are either too hot or too cold. When we are shivering or sweating, our body has to use energy to either cool us down or warm us up.
We can enjoy cold therapy by just being cold. Some people enjoy ice baths. Others, just to go for a brisk walk in a t-shirt on a cold winter’s day. Being cold for brief spells — remember it is mild stress that’s good, not hypothermia — can reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity by 43 and 13%, and there is even a link between cold therapy and a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The most common form of hot therapy comes in the form of sauna-taking. In fact, having more than four sauna sessions a week is associated with massive drops in sudden cardiac death, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease.
There are also plenty of longevity fitness workouts that you can do. Again, the theme here is to place the body under mild stress to keep the sirtuins — our longevity genes — working hard and repairing our DNA.
Some of these longevity fitness exercises involve a bit of cold therapy, such as doing exercise on a cold day. This is particularly effective if you are doing high-intensity interval training at the same time. HIIT training is a great surefire way to put the body under lots of temporary mild stress, especially if you trigger what is known as the hypoxic response.
If you have ever exercised even for five minutes and been unable to string a sentence together for want of breath and sweated profusely with your heart beating out of your chest, then you’ve triggered the hypoxic response.
Achieving longevity fitness doesn’t have to be life-changing. A short, 30-minute HIIT jog five times a week can make your body physically ten years younger. Even a 15-minute sprint can reduce all-cause mortality by 45%.
If therapy, dietary, or fitness regimes are too much to consider, then there may be an easier alternative. Anti ageing supplements. Although it must be stressed that this is not an endorsement of any of the following. You should do your research carefully.
According to David Sinclair, the head of ageing research at Harvard University, he takes the following anti aging supplements daily: NMN, Resveratrol, Metformin, Aspirin, and the vitamins D and K₂.
NMN, which stands for nicotinamide mononucleotide, is understood to engage the sirtuins at similar levels to HIIT exercise. Resveratrol can be taken in pill form, or found in organic fruits, red wines, and strawberries. It too is an anti aging supplement that boosts our longevity genes.
Metformin is a common drug already prescribed for diabetics. David Sinclair thinks that if society could only move to classify ageing as a disease, then doctors could start prescribing metformin as a treatment to slow or inhibit the ageing process. A huge study of over 41,000 metformin users found that frailty reduced as they got older by 24%; overall lifespan increased by 6%, and cardiovascular diseases and cancer rates all fell by 19% and 4% respectively.
Less controversial — because they can easily be purchased over the counter — is aspirin and the vitamins D and K₂. All three have been demonstrated to fight ageing, disease, and disease caused by the effects of ageing.