We get lots of wake-up calls that we're getting older. Suddenly we can't make it up the hill without stopping for breath, or we misplace the keys -- or acquaintances' names -- more often. But no whining; there's also lots we can do to slow the aging process.
"We have way more control than most people think over the factors that affect aging," says Kelly Traver, a physician and professor at Stanford University and author of The Program: A Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You (Atria, 2009). "A few simple lifestyle changes and you can look ten years younger, feel better, and get your energy back." Let's get started!
Add a sport or physical activity to your regimen. When you engage in a physical activity that requires coordination, you stimulate the connections between neurons, essentially juicing the brain's circuitry, experts say. So get out the golf clubs, take a dance class, try tai chi, get that old bike out of the shed, or join a local sports team.
Have more sex. Is sex the new anti-aging secret? Some experts think so. Researchers in Scotland following a cohort of 3,500 people concluded that regular sex slows the aging process. Sex is good for the obvious reason: It makes you feel close to your partner and gives you that Zorba-like zest for life we all want to feel. But there's a physical effect as well. During sex, the body secretes the hormone DHEA, which has been linked to weight loss and muscle strength. Studies show DHEA production declines as we age; having regular sex may be one way to prevent that decline. For women, sex releases the hormone oxytocin, which can help moderate mood swings. For men, having sex stimulates production of testosterone, the decline of which is linked to a host of aging"“related issues.
Get your 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. Recent studies have surprised neurologists by showing an even stronger connection between aerobic exercise and memory than previously understood. It seems that stimulating circulation bathes brain cells in oxygen, "feeding" them to keep them young. One study even found that exercise caused the growth of new brain cells in the part of the brain that controls memory.
Stop smoking pot. THC, the active chemical in marijuana, works by stimulating brain cells to release the chemical dopamine, causing relaxation and euphoria, or the feeling of being "high." This sounds innocent enough, but over time, chronic pot use may speed up the normal age-related loss of neurons, impairing memory and overall sharpness. One study found that rats exposed to THC every day for eight months (the equivalent of 30 percent of their lives) showed they'd lost the same number of brain cells as rats twice their age. In the short term, smoking pot limits the brain's ability to absorb and retain information and to shift focus easily from one concept to another.
Wrinkle less. The quickest route to fewer wrinkles? Quit smoking. Smoking causes the blood vessels that feed the outer layer of the skin to narrow, leading to dry, papery skin and accelerating wrinkling. In general, experts say, the skin of a smoker looks ten years older than that of a nonsmoker. If you can't tackle this one solo, enlist expert help or join a support group, as studies show smokers are more likely to quit when they do it in company.
Sleep more hours. Sleeping fewer than eight hours a night doesn't just leave you feeling tired; it packs on pounds and ups your risk of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. How? Lack of sleep boosts levels of a hormone called ghrelin, which triggers snack attacks by upping appetite. Lack of sleep also suppresses the hormone leptin, which makes you feel full. Studies have found that people who routinely cut back on sleep are more likely to be overweight and have other resulting health problems than those who get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Revamp your skin care routine. Our skin doesn't refresh itself as well as we get older, leading to that leathery texture and to discolorations such as age spots. There's a way, however, to prompt the production of new collagen, the building block of new skin cells. That's to use a prescription-strength vitamin-A-derived retinol cream, which stimulates the turnover of skin cells. However, because the new skin cells created by retinol are tender and sun-sensitive, you need to be even more vigilant about protecting your skin from UV damage by wearing moisturizer with SPF 30 or higher every day, rain or shine.
Do yoga. Yoga is particularly effective for anti-aging, says physician Mary Monroe-Rodman of Woodland, California, because many of the postures require balancing, which stimulates the circuitry in the brain. "I recommend yoga to anyone who's concerned about memory, energy, or just healthy aging in general," says Monroe-Rodman. "I take yoga myself, and if I miss a class I feel the difference."
Take fish oil supplements. The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in fish oil provide one of the best ways to halt all types of physical and mental decline, experts say, because they prevent aging at the cellular level. In fact, interview doctors about what they do themselves to combat aging and they answer: 3 grams of fish oil a day. Think of omega-3 fatty acids as a way to inoculate your body against stress, says Nicholas Perricone, physician and author of The Perricone Promise (Warner Books, 2004). One 2010 study found that omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil actually prevent DNA from unraveling -- which means you're stopping the aging process where it starts. And consumer tests show supplements don't contain significant levels of mercury, a danger with fish itself.
Lift weights. The gym may seem like foreign territory as you edge past 50, but it would be a mistake to cede the weight room to the gym rats. Weight training builds lean muscle, one of the best ways to stave off the weight gain that's so common later in life. In fact, studies show that the more lean muscle you have, the easier time you have losing weight -- without cutting calories. Resistance training is also a key way to prevent osteoporosis. By sending a signal to your bones that you need them to stay strong, resistance training stimulates the remineralization of bone tissue.
Feel More Energetic
Get your thyroid checked. If you feel like your body and brain are stuck in low gear all the time, see your doctor and request a thyroid test. The thyroid regulates the entire metabolic system of the body, so when it's out of whack the result can be weight gain, loss of energy and libido, and depression. The most common test used is the TSH test, but if your results come back normal, you can also request the T4 test, which some experts consider more sensitive and accurate.
Cut down on drinking. There's a reason heavy drinkers look -- and act -- so much older than they are: Alcohol is classified as a neurotoxin, and it has an oxidizing effect on body tissues, which is a science-y way of saying it damages cells. Over time, high alcohol intake causes weight gain and memory loss, increases the risk of diabetes, and leads to flushing, rosacea, and burst capillaries in the skin. It also gives you that puffy look. Men should limit themselves to fewer than two drinks a day, women to one drink or less. And beware of measuring over-generously; one drink is classified as 5 ounces, much less than a typical glass of wine.
Get a full sleep evaluation. If you're experiencing general mental and physical sluggishness and don't know why, it's quite likely you're sleeping poorly and don't know it, sleep experts say. A host of sleep problems, including sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), restless leg syndrome, teeth grinding, and other breathing and swallowing problems, can prevent you from entering the deep, regenerative REM phase of sleep. An evaluation by sleep specialists can determine what's causing your sleep to get stuck in the shallow phase. Treatment of the underlying issue can allow you to once again experience the regenerative qualities of deep sleep.