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How to slow down aging and lead a better life

Although we cannot stop our body from getting older, there are many things we can do to soften its effects and live in better shape

Illustration of two people taking a walk
Cinta Arribas

We are born, we grow, we (sometimes) reproduce, we grow old and we die. From the moment humans become aware of their own fragility, they accept, with more or less dignity, the fact that one day their face will be wrinkled, their body will become heavier and they will end up wilting like a bouquet in a vase, until the moment of dying is upon them.

“We go through four stages to deal with the passage of life. The first is what we call a disease-free life, a life without any diagnosis of diseases. This generally lasts until age 35-40,” says Dr. Ángel Durántez Prados, a pioneer in preventive medicine in Spain and author of the book Joven a los 100 (Young at 100). Then, from 35 to 40 comes the decline. “Interestingly, age 35-40 coincides with the time when age-related damage begins to accumulate. This is the moment in which Homo sapiens have fulfilled their mission: they have been born, grown, reproduced and raised their offspring. From that moment on, we live an extra life,” states Durántez.

Later, old age usually brings problems like cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol and more. In fact, when we talk about longevity, we no longer talk about living for a long time; we mean living for a long time and in good condition. In other words, to be 80 and feel 40. That is no easy feat, and it is best to start as soon as possible by applying these seven anti-aging principles shared by Dr. Durántez.

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Exercise: the more, the better

“Human beings are not genetically designed to stand still,” says Dr. Durántez. The history of evolution supports his words. The centuries have forged us as bipedal mammals dedicated to hunting, gathering, migrating, procreating, resisting, building and fighting, among many other actions. Sitting in front of a screen for eight straight hours is certainly not part of our DNA — at least not yet. Studies indicate that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of premature death by between 20% and 30%. How can you avoid this? This is one of the easiest principles to fulfill: all you have to do is exercise.

How much? You can start with the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization, which is doing an aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. In other words, 150 minutes of exercise a week. To the extent of your possibilities, it is also a good idea to do some muscle toning exercises. Durántez also insists that in the case of women, especially after menopause, it is important to do some weight training. “Weight lifting is the best way to avoid sarcopenia (a progressive and generalized disease of the skeletal muscle characterized by a loss of muscle strength) and to ensure that women can continue to get off the couch with ease,” explains the doctor.

Many people, however, live in something known as blue zones. They have never picked up a ball to play any kind of sport in their entire lives; still, they live the longest. Why? “Because they move. They sweep, farm, fish, ride their bikes or walk everywhere,” Durántez points out. The blue zones are five areas of the world located in Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa Island (Japan), Loma Linda (U.S.), the Nicoya peninsula (Costa Rica) and Icaria (Greece), with high concentrations of people who have reached 100 years of age without major health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes. A lot can be learned from their life habits, as they complement physical activity with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and legumes.

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Nutrition: the Mediterranean diet

A lot has been written about diets and the proper nutrition that we all need to follow, but the best option is to go back to the basics. “Diets abound, but if I had to choose a regimen, it would be the Mediterranean diet, limiting the intake of sugar and avoiding processed and ultra-processed products,” says Durántez.

By “Mediterranean diet” the doctor means actual food, such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, fish, eggs and some meat (red meat in moderation). “Don’t call it Mediterranean if you don’t want to, call it ‘real diet,’ in which you see the food you eat, the lettuce, the tomato, the chicken thigh, as is. Croissants don’t grow on trees; they are processed food.”

Durántez is also an advocate of intermittent fasting and eating little. “Nothing bad is going to happen if you skip dinner twice a week. Human beings are used to not eating for very long periods of time,” he points out.

Illustration of woman sleeping
Cinta Arribas

In bed: the rules of sleep hygiene

When electric light was invented, human beings became nocturnal. In the past we used to fall asleep in front of the TV; today, we drift off after an infinite Instagram scroll. But while technology has changed, its power to disrupt our natural circadian rhythms remains the same.

Various studies have confirmed that poor sleep shortens life. Not only that; it also causes irritability and increases the risk of cancer, dementia and mortality. The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life will be.

The appropriate thing is to rest between seven and eight hours, but not only that. “There are four things to abide by: the sleep routine, avoiding screens, the temperature of the room and the darkness. In other words, the rules of sleep hygiene. It seems like a given, but people don’t do it,” explains Durántez.

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Cinta Arribas

Toxic habits: not one drink

We know that smoking is bad, but we still smoke. The same goes for alcohol. We know that drinking is bad, but we still drink. Some advocates even continue to spread the idea that a glass of wine a day is good for the heart.

“The cardiology theory states that a glass of wine a day produces a cardioprotective effect, but not if you drink more; that cardioprotective effect is biased because in the studies, being observational, drinking only one glass a day is a moderate consumption that corresponds to people who tend to have very good lifestyles. But if you look at cancer studies, zero is better than half a drink, and half is better than one. The incidence of cancer skyrockets as soon as zero consumption is exceeded,” says Durántez.

And what about people who live a long life without ever renouncing alcohol, like Elizabeth II of England? “Centerianism happens to be genetic,” explains the doctor.

Not only tobacco and alcohol shorten life, of course, although they are the most consumed substances. Other habits such as heroin, morphine, opiates or cocaine, rapidly age our body. “The good news is that it can be reversed as soon as you stop,” continues Durántez.

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Cinta Arribas

Supplements: a good diet is not enough

“Some people say that if you have a healthy and balanced diet you don’t need anything, but I don’t buy it. This is what they teach us in [the career of] medicine and it is what we pass on to patients, but it is not true. Why? Because the nutritional density of food has dwindled over time,” argues Durántez.

The amount of certain nutrients in a tomato from the 1940s and 1950s has nothing to do with a modern tomato, grown in a soil in which seven consecutive harvests have been grown, with different additives, fertilizers or pesticides. In addition, the needs of a human body change over time, and a person might not be getting all the nutrients that they need just with food.

But what supplements do we need? According to the doctor, they are the usual suspects: omega 3, group B vitamins, probiotics, coenzyme Q10 and vitamin D (which in Switzerland even the government recommends). Of course, it is important to have some blood work done first to measure your levels of each.

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Stress management: try to relax

In addition to being a global pandemic, stress and anxiety are among the causes that shorten life the most. “In the book The Telomere Effect, Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn explains how stress ages rapidly, and talks a lot about the caregivers of parents with Alzheimer’s or children with disabilities. And these women have a brutal aging process, they have much shorter telomeres (the ends of the chromosomes which are used to measure the biological age of a human being), which shows how mood affects health,” explains Durántez.

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Cinta Arribas

Hormone replacement: everything declines with age

The passage of time causes a decline in our hormonal levels because the glands that produce hormones deteriorate, both in men and women. The turning point is the age of 50, when a drastic hormonal decline occurs; in women, this usually coincides with the beginning of menopause.

Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and melatonin remain at more or less fixed levels until the age of 40, but then they drop sharply. Only insulin and cortisol, the hormones responsible for stress that are linked to aging-associated diseases, do not decrease with age; in fact, they increase.

Is this process reversible? According to Dr. Durántez, a proper hormone replacement therapy (giving patients the hormone they no longer have, or a drug that simulates its effects) could help balance the levels. “The question is whether hormone therapy can do more than just get rid of hot flashes, sweats or weight gain. Can we prevent chronic diseases related to aging? This would seem to be the case,” says the professional. We don’t age because hormones drop; hormones drop because we age.

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