How Superagers Make Epigenetic Changes For Long and Healthy Lives
This post is about how so-called "superagers" age superbly by epigenetic changes that their lifestyle choices facilitate, but first I'd like to dispel the notion that to experience an advanced age means that you must also experience suffering.
I remember watching a video of a lecture that a Harvard geneticist gave to an audience presumably interested in aging well. He asked them, by a show of hands, how many wanted to live to 100 years of age.
Very few raised their hand.
He then asked the question a bit differently. He asked them if they would like to reach that same venerable age, but in the same physical shape that they were currently.
Very few raised their hand.
He then asked the question a bit differently. He said, "How many of you would like to live to be 100 in the same shape that you're in now?".
Nearly everyone raised their hand.
We tend to link "old age" with "infirmary", "incapacity" and "decrepitude". But what if you could be spry at 90 or 100 - wouldn't you want to live that long and beyond if your physical and mental constitution was robust?
If you need some examples, read on and meet some "Superagers". You'll find out that they have some genetic advantages over most of us, but that the lion's share of their seeming immunity to the vagaries of aging is that, perhaps unwittingly, they know how to make the epigenetic changes that enable them to age better than most of us.
Let's let them show us how we too can live long and healthy lives.
The Lifestyle Habits of Superagers"Superagers" is a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam, says Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, and refers to those 65 and older (usually much older) whose memory and attention is not only above average for their age, but is on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds.
How do you achieve that, you may wonder?
Work hard at something, Dr. Barrett says. She believes that one common factor Superagers have in common is that they engage in demanding mental exercise; that they continually challenge themselves to learn new things outside of their comfort zone.
In her article about Superagers, Dr. Barrett admonishes us not to spend the last half of our life seeking ways to live on autopilot free of cares, concerns and the normal stress of life, but to engage in activities that provoke change and are challenging.
Yes, chronic stress can kill you, or certainly shorten your life. Nobel Laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn's research showed us this by revealing how chronic stress actually shorten telomeres, and thereby, lifespan - but that's not the kind of stress that help make Superagers thrive.
Research suggests, says Dr. Barrett, that you need some amount of stress in your life if you want to stay mentally sharp – in particular, the momentary stress that comes with hard work. Your nervous system evolved so that occasional bouts of stress, where you tax your body and brain for a short time, is necessary to keep your brain healthy as you age.
Superagers have these five attributes in common:
- They possess enough grit to persevere in the face of unpleasantness.
- They are able and willing to engage in strenuous mental activity on a regular basis, even if it feels momentarily unpleasant.
- They exercise.
- They eat healthy food and get enough sleep.
- And, they have specific genes that have been identified, which I'll get to next.
Superager Genes and Epigenetic Changes
Dr. Nir Barzilai studies old people; very old people. Not only are his subjects very old, but they're unusually healthy. He wanted to find out why, so like any good scientist, he gathered them together and studied them and their genetic code.
Dr. Barzilai's work focuses on the genetics of exceptional longevity. His work has demonstrated that centenarians have protective genes which allows the delay of aging or for the protection against age-related diseases. He discovered the first "longevity genes" in humans, and established that the gene variant that leads to high HDL, or "good cholesterol," is linked to healthy aging and extreme longevity .
These longevity genes were found in the majority of the cohort Dr. Barzilai studied. In combination with the nutritious diets that many of his subjects claimed they practiced, these genes may be responsible for the outstanding HDL results.
HDL (the so-called "good cholesterol") was tested to be well above 80 mg/dL. Many of those tested had HDL between 100 and 150 mg/dL . Keep in mind that the overall population in the U.S. averages about 45 mg/dL for men and 55 mg/dL for women. (Yes, higher is better.)
Cardiologist Dr. William Davis of "Wheat Belly" fame says:
"Very high HDL values, for instance, are associated with extreme longevity. Centenarians typically have values of 90 mg/dl or higher...Conversely, low values for HDL cholesterol can suggest that some bad things are going on in health."
What if you don't have longevity genes?
Odds are that you and I don't have the longevity genes that enabled Dr. Barzilai's cohorts to live healthily pretty much to the 100 year mark and beyond.
What we have is the capability to make the epigenetics changes happen through adopting certain lifestyle habits that influence how our genetics are expressed; ie: "turned on" or "turned off".
Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off; meaning, epigenetics essentially affects how genes are read by cells, and subsequently how they produce the complex protein protein molecules that trigger various biological actions to carry out life functions.
The website What Is Epigenetics.com summarizes the powerful impact of epigenetics thus:
Epigenetics Controls Genes. Certain circumstances in life can cause genes to be silenced or expressed over time. In other words, they can be turned off (becoming dormant) or turned on (becoming active).
Epigenetics Is Everywhere. What you eat, where you live, who you interact with, when you sleep, how you exercise, even aging – all of these can eventually cause chemical modifications around the genes that will turn those genes on or off over time. Additionally, in certain diseases, various genes will be switched into the opposite state, away from the normal/healthy state.
Epigenetics Makes Us Unique. Even though we are all human, why do some of us have blonde hair or darker skin? Why do some of us hate the taste of mushrooms or eggplants? Why are some of us more sociable than others? The different combinations of genes that are turned on or off is what makes each one of us unique. Furthermore, there have been indications that some epigenetic changes can be inherited.
- Epigenetics Is Reversible. With 20,000+ genes, what will be the result of the different combinations of genes being turned on or off? The possible arrangements are enormous! But if we could map every single cause and effect of the different combinations, and if we could reverse the gene's state to keep the good while eliminating the bad… then we could theoretically* cure cancer, slow aging, stop obesity, and so much more.
The beauty of having some influence over our inherited genes through making epigenetic changes is that we don't have to have all the longevity genes possessed by some Superagers to live a long and healthy life. As Dr. Nir Barzilai's research indicates - only 20% of our aging is modulated by our genetics, leaving 80% influenced by our environment, which is where epigenetics comes into play.
You influence your gene expression (on or off) by what you do or don't do. And crazy as it may be, your gene-altering behavior can leap to the next generation.
How Epigenetic Changes Play A Role In Chronic Diseases
A 2008 paper explains that epigenetic changes can play a critical role in whether you succumb to disease, or survive it. Eight years later, a review of the epigenetic literature showed that epigenetic changes (modifications) in cells has been shown to be correlated with many human diseases.
In a paper entitled Epigenetics and Lifestyle, the authors examined various studies that looked at how lifestyle factors have been identified that modify epigenetic patterns, such as diet, weight, physical activity, tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, environmental pollutants, psychological stress, and working on night shifts.
This is the summary: Environmental and lifestyle factors may influence epigenetic mechanisms.
The HDL Example of how lifestyle changes can enhance your health
Returning to HDL and its noted importance to longevity, wikiHow lists six things you can do to support healthy HDL levels even if you don't possess the longevity genes that naturally keep its levels high.
Presumably, if you were blessed with the longevity genes that Dr. Barzilai discovered, it wouldn't much matter if your lifestyle was tuned to improve HDL and lower LDL. But since most of are not so blessed, you now know about six actions to take to countermand any lack of HDL-supporting genes in your genome.
The Longevity Genes Project and The Superagers
What I've been telling you about Dr. Barzilai and his longevity study comes from his work with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Longevity Genes Project.
In the video below, Dr. Barzilai expresses his confidence that one day drugs will be created to imitate what the longevity genes are doing.
But why leave it to the future?
An anti-aging drug based on Dr. Barzilai's work was supposed to clear testing and approval and be on the market in 2011, but guess what? Now six years later and it's not. Which again begs the question: Why leave your healthy lifespan in someone else' hands?
As I already outlined, this is what epigenetics is all about -- influencing gene expression through your behavior and lifestyle choices.
As you watch the videos and hear the emphasis on "good genes" remember that 80% of the influence of your health and longevity comes from your environmental inputs (such as your lifestyle, the health of your environment, etc.) - not your genes alone.
Odds are, you aren't blessed with longevity genes. But you can be blessed with the grit to apply yourself to using epigenetics to create the right environment for you to shape how your genes are expressed; meaning, to turn on the "good" ones and turn off the "bad" ones.
If you need an attitude adjustment, read again the five attributes that Superagers have in common. Then make them your own.