How Far Can You Turn Back the Clock on Aging?
In 2018 a 69-year-old man from the Netherlands applied to change his birth date to one that would make him 20 years younger. It turned out that he was having trouble finding prospective partners on Internet dating sites. He felt that being able to say that he was only 49 would help his mating search. The court turned him down.
When I first read about this unusual request, I said to myself, “I think I know why this guy has so much trouble finding dates, and it has nothing to do with his age.”
But then I reprimanded myself for being “judge-y.” After all, what older person—including me—does not want to come across as younger? And what single person looking for love does not want to put their best foot—and face—forward?
As I continued to ponder this problem, I realized that there are a number of ways that older people can legitimately hold back the tide of aging—not by changing their birth date, but by changing their habits and by taking advantage of technology and science.
Of course, there are plenty of cosmetic solutions that can improve someone’s looks. Many are easy and relatively harmless, such as coloring your hair, using makeup, and whitening your teeth. There are also attitude solutions to the challenges of growing older. You can decide to accept the aging process and “grow old gracefully.” And whatever your age, you can be “young at heart.”
This blog post, however, will focus on actual age-reversing solutions that have either been extensively researched or show significant promise of effectiveness. By "age-reversing," I mean activities, treatments, or therapies that can slow or even reverse biological aging. Specifically, many actions on the list below act at the cellular level by repairing and lengthening telomeres—those caps at the ends of chromosomes that shorten as a result of aging—thereby reducing your DNA age (a.k.a, your "biologic age"). Other items on the list repair, replace, or regenerate aging body parts.
I must admit that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between actions that reverse aging and those that lengthen the life span, improve general health, or increase well-being. You will notice some gray areas. Also, I’ve excluded any actions that are too expensive, high-risk, or cause extensive suffering. You will not see facelifts on the list because they are expensive and, in some cases, dangerous. (However, I see nothing wrong with these if you can afford it and feel that the risks are worth it for you.) The items below are simple, low-cost, and low-tech, yet can bring about a youthful transformation.
(Caution: While science-based, some results that I describe below are based on small studies. Others describe correlation, not causation. Consult your health professional for medical advice tailored to your health conditions and situation.)
10 Easy Ways to Become Younger
1. Use retinoids.
Retinoids, including the most well-known brand, Retin-A, are topical skin lotions that perform a multitude of miracles, including reducing skin aging. They treat acne, lighten age spots, reduce wrinkles, and firm the skin. These wonder drugs can even soften rough patches of skin and lighten brown spots caused by sun exposure.
Retinoids work at the DNA level, increasing the skin’s production of collagen (the substance that keeps the skin firm), stimulating the growth of new blood vessels (a process which improves skin tone), and speeding the turnover of surface skin cells so new healthy cells can take their place. Retinoids fix so many skin problems with so few side-effects that one dermatologist quoted here said, “I recommend retinoids to everybody.” (Naturally, you should consult with your dermatologist about if and how to use retinoids in your case. Cautions here.)
2. Use sunscreen.
Sunscreen is a valuable anti-aging tool. It prevents premature skin aging, protects your skin from harmful UVA (aging) rays and UVB (burning) rays, and guards against many skin cancers. (More details here.) If you are using a retinoid lotion at night, it is essential to apply sunscreen daily, as retinoids cause susceptibility to sunburn. And you know that tanning beds increase your risk of skin cancers, right?
3. Exercise reverses aging, especially this kind of exercise.
You may already know that exercise possesses magical powers to prevent diseases and to promote both physical and mental health. Now for something even more magical: Exercise may actually reverse aging.
In this study from 2018, researchers studied a small group of people in their 70’s who had exercised regularly over their life span. They had the cardiovascular health of those 30 years younger. These lifelong exercisers were also compared to active young people in their 20’s. While the elders did not possess the aerobic capacity of the younger exercisers, the muscles of the older exercisers did resemble those of young people, even down to the number of capillaries and enzymes.
Added to these results, a study from 2017, reported by Mike Zimmerman in the AARP Bulletin, compared telomere length in sedentary and active adults. The researchers found that exercisers had a nine-year aging advantage.
And the one kind of exercise that appears to be particularly helpful? High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) slows aging and increases telomere length, according to Zimmerman. Basically, HITT programs involve alternating easy to moderate intensity exercise with short bursts of high-intensity exercise. My modified HIIT exercise: walk the sidewalks, jog the streets—or at least, a few of them.
4. Reverse decline in muscle strength with this simple exercise program.
"Sarcopenia" means a decline in skeletal muscle strength as a result of aging. (Sarcopenia is to muscles what osteopenia is to bones.) Loss of muscle mass can lead to falls, inability to perform simple daily tasks, and loss of independence. Many doctors do not even warn their patients about the debilitating effects of this condition, according to this article by New York Times health writer Jane Brody.
But sarcopenia can be reversed at any—and I mean any—age! Brody writes that, "No matter how old or out of shape you are, you can restore much of the strength you already lost ... research documenting the ability to reverse the losses of sarcopenia — even among nursing home residents in their 90s — has been in the medical literature for 30 years, and the time is long overdue to act on it."
What works? Strength training, a.k.a weight lifting or resistance training. You can use free weights, bands, or machines, gradually increasing the degree of difficulty. You can find helpful guidelines in the Brody article.
5. Sex may be good for your telomeres.
A very small but suggestive 2017 study of 129 women found that those women who’d had sex with their long-term partner during the week had significantly longer telomeres and more telomerase (the enzyme that stimulates the growth of telomeres) than those women who did not.
Surprisingly, telomere length was not associated with factors like relationship satisfaction or stress. But which came first—healthier women or partner sex? The researchers acknowledged that healthier women with longer telomeres could be more interested in sex. Still, the results are intriguing.
6. Take advantage of ED medications.
And speaking of sex, you could also consider medications for erectile dysfunction.
A former colleague worked for the Masters and Johnson Institute. If a man had erectile dysfunction, the therapists at the Institute recommended that the couple do a series of "sensate focus" exercises over a period of weeks. "Now I would recommend Viagra along with those exercises," he said. "Let's face it: It's a medical miracle."
Of course, the decision to use any ED medication should be made as a couple. And ED meds are not a cure for relationship issues. Couples with problems should consider seeing a couples therapist.
Also, not every man is an appropriate candidate for ED drugs. See your doctor. More details about that here.
7. Sleep well.
In general, longer sleep duration is associated with longer telomeres, as reported in detail here. Specifically, six hours of sleep or less is linked to shorter telomeres, while nine hours of sleep is associated with longer telomeres. (Results vary depending on age and other factors.) Most health professionals recommend getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
8. Look into cataract surgery.
I am including this medical procedure because it is outpatient, very low-risk, and covered by Medicare and other insurance plans. This amazing surgery involves replacing the cloudy, aging lenses of the eye with artificial lenses that restore youthful sight. "Was blind but now I see" accurately describes the experience of some patients. My own experience was more complicated, but I am clearly better off than before.
9. Meditate: It's exercise for the mind.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist with Harvard Medical School, has studied the effects of meditation on the brain. Her 2005 study showed that regular meditators had more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the executive area of the brain. Moreover, 50-year-old meditators had as much gray matter as 25-year-olds, leading Lazar to hypothesize that meditation could reverse or slow the natural age-related atrophy of the brain.
Another one of her studies indicated that just eight weeks of regular meditation practice could thicken the memory part of the brain, the hippocampus, and reduce the stress reaction in the amygdala, the flight-or-flight area.
In 2014, Lazar and colleagues reviewed 12 studies about meditation and cognitive decline, concluding that “meditation techniques may be able to offset age-related cognitive decline and perhaps even increase cognitive capabilities in older adults.” More details here.
10. Good relationships promote health, happiness, and longevity.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed over 700 men since 1938. The results have consistently shown that good social relationships promote physical and mental health, provide a buffer against loneliness, increase longevity, and foster happiness. The Harvard Nurses' Health Study found similar results.
Why? Safe and supportive social relationships help calm our stress-response system, according to an article by Karin Evan here. Lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol mean less wear and tear on the brain and body, longer life, and more joy in daily living.
Other Possible Age-Reversers
People who want to live long and prosper could take advantage of other activities that are linked to a more youthful old age. For example, research shows that older people who have a purpose in life tend to sleep better, have better brain health, and feel happier. A Mediterranean diet has been linked in some research to better brain health. The decision to adopt better posture when standing, sitting, or moving may not change your DNA, but good posture is an easy way to broadcast youth and vitality, help you breathe better, and protect your spine, shoulders, and neck.
So, don't try to change your birth date with an official piece of paper. Instead, focus on choices that will promote physical and mental health, vitality, connection with others, and longevity. Although time and trouble will happen to us all, we can make numerous positive changes in both our actions and attitudes, as well as learn to accept what we cannot change.
Note: This blog emerged out of an email exchange between my sister Kate Kimelman and me. Thanks for your input, Kate! Kate is an editor in the Bay Area.
© Meg Selig, 2019. For permissions, click here.
Change legal age. Domonoske, C. "69-Year-Old Dutch Man Seeks to Change His Legal Age to 49."
Zimmerman, M. “Ways to Add Healthy Years to Your Life,” AARP Bulletin, Jan/Feb 2019, p. 10-16.)
Evans, K. "Why Relationships Are the Key to Longevity," mindful.org.
Dolan, E.W. “Study finds sexual intimacy is associated with longer telomere length in women,” psypost.org.
Selig, M. "Older But Happier? 5 Amazing Findings from Recent Research," psychologytoday.com.
Alderman, L. “The Surprising Benefits of Meditation for Brain Health,” considerable.com.