10 'Normal' Habits That Trigger Inflammation & Aging: A Doctor Explains
Since learning that I was aging too quickly from my first telomere test, I've become obsessed with what makes you look and feel old before your time. I've discovered the conditions that cause inflammaging. Most pronounced after 40, inflammaging is the unfortunate hybrid of increasing inflammation, stiffness, and unnecessarily accelerated aging. How do you know if you're experiencing it? Some of the most obvious signs are stiffness, feeling slower than usual, always being tired, and forgetfulness.
The good news is that by stopping your "bad" habits, you can look and feel younger. Here are the top 10 causes of inflammaging and tips on how to stop and counteract the effects of each:
1. Getting "fat"
You may have heard about white fat and brown fat. White fat is a visceral fat that invades your inner organs with inflammatory messengers like interleukin-6 and TNF-alpha. It is harder to lose this type of fat, as opposed to brown fat found in the back and neck that also keeps the body warm and your metabolism high. White fat is typically concentrated in your belly and subcutaneous (under-the-skin) tissue and puts you at greater risk for diabetes and heart disease. Exercise shrinks the size of your white fat, and, ultimately, turns it beige (a mix of the two). You can reduce this kind of fat and hopefully convert it into brown fat. The first step is to get enough sleep so that your body maintains optimal levels of growth hormone and can be equipped to bounce back after injuries.
2. Sitting too much
Have you heard that sitting is like the new smoking? Unfortunately, over the past century, Americans have developed into a lifestyle that increasingly does include enough movement. Today, we sit more and move less than ever. As much as we know exercise is good for us, only about 20 percent of us do it regularly. On top of that, 70 percent of Americans work at desk jobs. Between commuting to and from work, sitting at a desk, and then coming home to sit at the dinner table or in front of the television, the average American spends eight hours per day sitting. Sitting accelerates aging. If you're a woman, that translates as follows: Sitting six hours or more per day increases your risk of cancer by 10 percent and your risk of early death by 34 percent. Men who sat six hours per day in the same study were 17 percent more likely to die early compared with the less-frequent sitters. Exercise partially mitigates the damage; women who sit a lot and don't exercise much are nearly twice as likely to die early than those who sit fewer than three hours per day and are physically active. You will find many benefits just by adding some more exercise and simply moving more often.
3. Taking certain medications, like anti-anxiety pills or antihistamines.
Certain types of anti-anxiety pills were shown in a recent study to raise the risk of Alzheimer's disease by more than 50 percent. Further, people who take drowsy meds for sleep or allergies should reconsider a natural alternative—the Journal of the American Medical Association just published a study linking frequent and long-term use of anticholinergic drugs like with dementia.
4. Eating too many carbs and processed foods.
Foods linked to inflammation also accelerate aging and take a huge toll on your body. Reduce unnecessary inflammation by avoiding foods most likely to cause intolerance, chiefly gluten and dairy. Moreover, avoid foods that are toxic and are linked to weight gain, aging, and even chronic disease. The biggest bandit? Sugar and sugar substitutes, which raise your blood sugar. Limit carbohydrates to only the "slow" carbohydrates that won't spike your insulin and are full of fiber, such as sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, and quinoa. Stay away from hidden sugars in ketchup, salad dressings, sauces, and packaged cereals. If sugar is one of the first six ingredients, avoid it.
5. Skipping strength training
Your metabolism slows down with age, which means you accumulate more fat and lose muscle. Think of aging as beginning in your muscles. The decline may not be noticeable at first, but on average, you lose 5 pounds of muscle every decade after 30, so you definitely start to observe the change over the course of middle age. If you no longer focus on building strength and regularly using all types of muscle fibers, especially the fast twitch, you will age faster. If left alone or ignored, your muscles usually get more "doughy" as they're replaced with fat, and you're not as strong as you used to be. The key is to focus on preserving and building your muscle mass as you age beyond 40.
6. Sleeping less...or sleeping too much
Only about 3 percent of the population has a gene (DEC2) that allows them to function properly on less than eight hours of sleep. That means most of us are robbing ourselves of sufficient rest. The recommendation is to sleep between seven and eight and a half hours per night. Sleep expert Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School says that people who sleep fewer than five hours a night for five consecutive years have a 300 percent greater risk of hardened arteries. More than that, sleep deprivation makes your genes go rogue and changes the expression of one in three genes; 97 percent of rhythmic genes become arrhythmic, which is a dangerous alteration to your DNA because it may lead to diseases such as cancer. But that's not all: More sleep isn't always better. One study showed that women fare best on cognitive tests at seven hours of sleep. But increasing sleep beyond eight hours is associated with lower cognitive scores, equivalent to a five- to eight-year increase in age. While many of these issues are hard to reverse, with just a few weeks of restorative sleep, you can lower your blood pressure and improve cellular repair, which may indirectly help with aging.
7. Lacking purpose in your work
In studies on some of the world's longest living people, researchers observed paradigm shifts and cultural norms that link up to improved quality of life, better health, and slowed aging. For example, the Icarians, who live in a mountainous island in Greece, live longer and with great health to the end and also have a far better quality of life than we do in the United States. We can learn a lot from their lifestyle, taking away cues from their diet and how much walking up hills they do, but perhaps most significantly, they eschew retirement and live in a laid-back culture that infuses life with meaning and purpose. They don't wear watches and have a relaxed attitude about time, getting to work and going about their daily business. They view work as a way of life, not something separate from it. Believe it or not, they believe in waking up naturally and don't use alarms! They are surrounded by friends, family, and community. Icarians are famous for their open-door lifestyle and broad invitations to visitors to join them for a slow, friendly meal. Because their island is a 10-hour boat ride from Athens, they've been spared the trappings of tourism and live free from the influence of things like fast food and the hustle-and-bustle of urban living. They must be doing something right, because one in three people in Ikaría survive until 90.
8. Getting insufficient vitamin D.
Did you know that having low levels of vitamin D more than doubles your risk of dementia (sometimes called vitamin-D-mentia)? With your vitamin D levels in the optimal range, you can preserve your good brain. A major factor in longevity, vitamin D is also good for your bones, thyroid, and sleep. It influences thousands of genes. Vitamin D appears to have direct brain effects on your regulation of sleep, specifically in the diencephalon (the part of your brain that contains the hypothalamus and regulates hormones) and brain stem (trunk of the brain). Some hypothesize that sleep disorders have risen to epidemic levels because of widespread vitamin D deficiency, and I agree. Vitamin D has hormonal, neurological, and immunological influences on pain in the body, playing a key role in the cause and continuation of chronic pain and associated problems such as insomnia.
9. Feeling stressed out most days.
Most of us run around feeling stressed most of the time, but science proves that how we respond to stress carries great significance in our genetics and health, both physical and mental. Excess stress raises corticotropin-releasing factor, which pokes holes in your gut, leading to food intolerances, more stress, and lower vagal nerve tone, an indicator that your nervous system is out of whack.
High stress can make you absorb nutrients poorly, especially B vitamins. The other thing that happens when you perceive stress is that glucocorticoids are released into the blood so that you can run or fight. This is powered by raising your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. If this happens every once in a while, say every three to six months, it's normal, and the body adjusts accordingly right away.
But if you have genes that program you to anticipate stress, perceive a high level of stress, or recover slowly and/or poorly, excess stress hormones may become toxic to your system. High levels of glucocorticoids shorten your telomeres, which may arrest some cells into the zombielike state of senescence (where the cell is neither alive nor dead) and release chemical messengers that promote inflammation.
10. Being alone most of the time
Strong social connections improve health and longevity. Interacting with people stimulates the brain and keeps you sharp. Stronger social ties are proven to lower blood pressure and boost longevity. Having no social ties is an independent risk factor for cognitive decline. Talking to another person just 10 minutes per day improves memory and test scores. The higher the level of social interaction, the greater the cognitive functioning.
If you read this list and noticed that you do, in fact, have one or more of these habits, the good news is that these are reversible. By tweaking your lifestyle, you can reduce the effects of imflammaging, slow down your body's aging process, and regain a healthy balance. Consider which areas of your life need the most improvements and start small—it's the best bet for success. Gradually take on new adaptations, whether it's getting a bit more exercise, seeing an old friend, or drinking a delicious green shake. Read my new book Younger to find out how to upgrade your lifestyle to slow down aging and achieve better health.