What words do you think of when you hear the word, “old”? Do words like dowdy, decrepit, antiquated, dated or archaic come to mind? Do you see a pattern here? These are all negative words we associate with aging and truth be told, most of us have a very negative connotation of the aging process for we, as a society, worship at the altar of youth. But, let’s put it out on the table: The aging process does have it’s challenges, just like every other stage of life! So, not only can we change our mindset by describing the word “old” with words like enduring, lasting, mature, wise and vintage, but we can also implement techniques for managing challenges that comes with advancing years coupled with acceptance AND celebration of the new “older” you! A great example is Don, our 91 year old neighbor who, at the age of 80 was lifting 2x10s and 6×6 posts to construct our barn and running circles around everyone else that was much younger! No you’re not hallucinating. This is a pic of that good neighbor Don who is a traditional Midwestern, Norman Rockwellesque, prototypical American farmer after his granddaughters painted his fingernails recently! What a good Grandpa sport!
And that is what we are going to explore- how to enjoy those later years with grace. I have utilized Healthy Aging by Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., world-renowned integrative health specialist as our master guide to help me take you through this journey. But first, some background on our youth obsession.
The celebration of youth and the search for retention of that youth when our years advance is not a new concept; it’s been around for centuries, enter The Fountain of Youth, first noted in writings in the 5th century B.C.:
Later, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, in the 16th century A.D. was noted for his quest to discover this miraculous fountain that, as the legend goes, just by bathing or drinking from it restores your youth. Today the same quest is being made continually in the science lab with new discoveries to turn back the hands of time on an almost daily basis, i.e. discovering specific genes that are responsible for aging (See Science) or reversing cellular death with the anti-aging enzymes (See Telomerase Reverses Aging Process). The Anti-Aging field of medicine has also entered the Fountain of Youth arena with recommendations to supplement hormones that decline with advanced aging, i.e. human growth hormone (HGH). This is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that regulates body composition, including fat and sugar metabolism and muscle and bone growth. HGH supplementation has remarkable claims to it’s name, as in restoring youth, energy, looks and athletic prowess. As with most popular panaceas, there are the usual following of celebrities and sports stars that buy into those claims. However, what the headlines don’t tell you is that research has found that HGH has a host of unpleasant and unhealthy side effects, i.e. increased breast size in men, joint pain and intensified risk of diabetes (See Is Human Growth Hormone the Key to Eternal Youth?). Please understand, I am not against hormone replacement for true medical reasons or, for that matter, cosmetics that enhance our older appearance. I just wanted to caution you about some of the hype associated with anti-aging products.
So what is my point? To date, the scientific world has NOT discovered the fountain of youth, yet their new daily discoveries will continue to give us insight on the process of aging and disease. AND there will always be those entrepreneurs who will push the envelope of scientific truth to give the public what is craves, namely, to stay youthful. What we do need to learn though is the aging process effects all of us and learning as we age to adapt to those changes in a healthful, graceful way is key.
1. Let’s Learn from Centenarians Who Do the Aging Thing With Grace– Just like superlative whiskey, wine and cheese that truly get better with age if the product is good to begin with, it’s important that our lifestyle compass give those aging genes a good foundation to start with:
But “experience cannot make a bad person good, but it can make a good person great. Experience cannot be gained except while undergoing the same processes that cause aspects of aging we think of as destructive, such as sagging skin and stiffening of the arteries.” (Healthy Aging).
The best example I can give you of aging adults that not only thrive in very old age but they are put up as models to aspire to by their younger peers are the centenarians highlighted in National Geographic’s The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. We had the pleasure of having Dan as a guest on our “Healthy U.” radio broadcast, and what a tour de force of common sense healthy-aging advice it was! The Blue Zones chronicles a trek all over the world to look for those populations of people with the highest percentages of its group living to 100 years or more and to delve into their “secret sauce” of longevity! They landed in Nicoya, Costa Rica, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, CA and Sardinia, Italy ( and believe it or not, the men live longer here than the women!)
The first order of business was to find out if they had some type of special longevity genes that give them the edge over us mere mortals. In other words, finding out if nature trumps nurture for this centenarian group:
”Dr. Gianni Pes, the scientist who first delivered the Blue Zones Data to demographers, also told us the environment and lifestyle might be more important factors than genetics to explain the longevity of Sardinians. Consider, for instance, the genes of inflammation. We expected to find something interesting in Sardinian DNA. We studied several types of gene variants related to inflammation but we didn’t find any evidence of their role in survival of Sardinians. The same for genes related to cancer, and those related to cardiovascular disease. I suspect that the characteristics of the environment, the lifestyle, and the food are by far more important for a healthy life.” (The Blue Zones).
So nurture CAN trump nature! Enter, the genetic field of epigenetics which has proven that we ALL have the power to turn off/on our gene expression, like a…
Through lifestyle (be it good or bad).
The crux of the matter is about making healthy lifestyle choices that can possibly trump the genetic hand of cards we were dealt! For more discussion on epigenetics, see What are SUPERFOODS?
The secret sauce for these centenarians were healthy lifestyle choices we can all learn from:
- Plant Slant- Consume a predominantly a plant-based diet.
- Move naturally- Constantly move! There were no gym members in the Blue Zones, just constant movement, i.e. gardening, walking to town, or get some sheep and shepherd them over the hills, like the Sardinians!
- Hara Hachi Bu-By painlessly cutting 20% of your calories.
- Drink red wine in moderation.
- Have a Purpose in Life- This acts as a buffer against stress in old age. Centenarians in these communities were celebrated, they were the true matriarch and patriarch of the family that were looked up to.
- Take time to De-Stress.
- Participate in a spiritual community.
- Make family a priority.
Now you might be saying to yourself, that is all well and good to list the healthy lifestyle choices that will probably help me age more healthfully and definitely more gracefully, but why (except for drinking a glass of wine per night) would I want to go to all of that trouble to do any of these major lifestyle changes like change my diet, get moving or de-stress?
Let’s explore why you age and then these changes might make more sense:
2. Caramelization and Radical (Oxygen) Terrorists in your body can take over!
a. Caramelization- If you’ve never made caramel sauce from scratch, I’m telling you, you are missing out on a delicious treat! You are also missing the amazing chemical reaction that takes place when cream and brown sugar, which signify our dietary proteins and sugars, are combined with heat. What happens? They brown beautifully!
This is called the Maillard Reaction or the caramelization of protein when sugar is added. Think back to the sizzling steak you seared to get that mouth-watering brown crust, that also is the Maillard Reaction. That same chemical reaction between proteins and sugars, forming AGEs (advanced glycation end products) is also happening in our bodies in a process called glycation which truly is nothing more than the Maillard Reaction I mentioned above. Glycation is recognized by doctors as being the pathology that leads to advanced development of age-related diseases like diabetes, cataracts and heart disease. In fact, the well known Hemoglobin A1c blood test that doctors use to diagnose and monitor diabetes, is one example of an AGE. AGEs can also cause further harm by damaging our DNA by forming cross-linked proteins. Together cross-linked proteins and AGEs can initiate the autoimmune and inflammatory response contributing to diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s. Caramelization is a theory of aging, but truly worth discussion. So the question is “might aging be the slow browning and caramelization of our tissues?” (Healthy Aging). The best preventative measure you can make is to make the lifestyle choice of consuming primarily quality complex carbohydrates, which we absorb and metabolize differently than processed sugars and starches, that are packed with fiber and protein, i.e. ancient grains, legumes instead of simple sugar products (see Warning: Instant Oatmeal Can be Hazardous to Your Health! for further discussion on healthy carbohydrate choices) coupled with exercise on a regular basis to efficiently metabolize those carbohydrates.
b. Radical (Oxygen) Terrorists– I am talking here about oxidative stress, both the good and the bad. It is pretty evident we all need oxygen to live but too much would put us all in a state of toxicity. The same with oxidative stress, which is an organism’s total burden of free radical (think terrorist here folks) production.
Oxidative stress has a good side, as in calling our body’s defense system to our aid in times if infection, however as we age, overproduction of those free radicals (terrorists) call inflammation to the frontline of our body’s defense. Prolonged and unnecessary inflammation has been cited as the root cause of many of our chronic diseases, like diabetes, Alzheimer’s , cancer and heart disease. Unchecked, free radicals damage our cell membranes, cellular machinery, and DNA (think cancer initiating mutations). So what can we do? Ramp up your intake of free-radical quenching fruits and vegetables, consume cold-water fish high in EPA/DHA (See CYH with EPA/DHA for ideas) to combat inflammation, along with daily movement, dealing with stress in a healthful and getting the right amount of rest for you, are all great allies for your fight against free-radical (oxygen) terrorists!
Now that I’ve laid the groundwork, let’s get to the fun part!!!
3. Action Plan to Age Gracefully-
a. Rainbow Colored Plant Slant with Powerful Protein Power-
1) Rainbow Colored Plant Slant- As we discussed above, fruits and vegetables are your best defense against those free radical terrorists that oxidative stress produces. Dr. David Heber, director of the Center for Studies of Human Nutrition at UCLA with his book What Color Is Your Diet” cites the fact that there are at least 25,000 chemicals in fruits and vegetables that are beneficial in protecting our DNA from damage (think aging here) so by making those weekly rainbow of colors choices you will be giving yourself the gift of optimal phytonutrient protection. Dr. Heber outlines 7 fruit/vegetable colors groups to look for: Red, Yellow/Green, Orange, Orange/Yellow, Red/Purple, Green and White/Green. Each one have varying degenerative disease defenses, i.e. red/purple group is loaded with the powerful antioxidant anthocyanin, believed to protect against heart disease and blood clots available in red wine, all berries and eggplant or the green group, rich with the chemical sulforaphane and indoles that inhibit carcinogens, thus warding off cancer. This is a picture of produce available at the Farmer’s Market that just started on our local hospital grounds at Scotland County Hospital. Remember local is always best too!
2) Powerful Protein Power -is also so important as we age, along with regular strength training (see below for discussion) to combat the dreaded “S” word, that is sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and function starting at the age of 30 years old, so by the age of 50-56 muscle mass loss can total .5% to 2%, accelerating even more at the age of 65. Please note that loss of muscle mass is replaced by fat and lowers your metabolic rate, making you more prone to weight gain, loss of vitality and increases your risk of physical impairment. “No one has done an age-related curve of protein needs,” says Dr. Donald Layman, Ph.D. Protein Researcher in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, “but by age 65, you need the combination of exercise and high-quality protein. Older adults are less efficient in using amino acids for muscle protein synthesis than are young adults” Now that muscle mass can be even more pronounced at an early age if you are a bonafide “couch potato”! Now I’m NOT advocating mega-doses of protein here, just a little adjustment to your protein needs is what I’m talking about, for example, the general recommendation of protein for adults is .8 grams per kilogram of weight but that recommendation jumps at the age of 65 to 1.2 grams per kilograms of weight.
What does that mean to you?
If you are 200 lb. adult man for example that would correlate into the equivalent of about 73 grams of protein or 2 ½ chicken breast protein equivalents per day (3 oz. of chicken breast have 28 grams of protein) but if you are 65+, your protein needs would jump to 109 grams per day or about 4 chicken breasts worth of protein.
If you are a 150 lb. adult woman that would correlate into the equivalent of about 54 grams of protein or 2 chicken breasts of protein per day but if you are 65+ your protein needs to jump to 82 grams per day or 3 chicken breasts worth of protein.
Remember that you are also getting protein in complex carbs, eggs, milk, yogurt, kefir, nuts, seeds, and legumes too, and it is total daily protein intake we’re targeting.
b. Why the French Don’t Get Fat– Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food points out “What nutritionism sees when it looks at the French Paradox is a lot of slender people eating gobs of saturated fat washed down with wine. What it fails to see is a people with a completely different relationship to food than we have.”
That healthy relationship with food is the same as The Blue Zone centenarians outlined above. Our American culture celebrates cheap, quality-vacant big portions served on huge plates with minimal socialization and eating very quickly until we are stuffed! Whereas the French serve their meals on small plates, with small portions, serving quality foods all the while enjoying their food with friends and eating at a slow leisurely pace, leaving the table pleasantly satisfied. See the difference? Remember the Hara Hachi Bu or painlessly cutting 20% of your calories that I mentioned as being part of the secret sauce for longevity for the The Blue Zone centenarians? This is how to do it! Follow the French example of eating less but quality foods, on smaller plates with smaller portions, eating slowly with friends or family if possible at a table and throw in planting a garden so you can eat all of that fresh, healthy produce! Simply stated, it means being mindful of every bite, and enjoying nature’s bounty through it’s eye, nose, and palate appeal. This is a great formula not only for weight loss but for graceful aging!
c. If You Don’t Use It You Lose it– You don’t need a gym membership to just follow the mantra of “keep moving” to stay youthful in your aging years as I mentioned with The Blue Zone centenarians. Aerobic, steady exercise everyday in the form of walking is just right for us aging boomers (that includes me)! Of course, swimming and biking are also excellent too! I remember in my former days doing those high impact aerobics and running for hours. That is all part of graceful aging, knowing when a type of exercise no longer fits our particular age and adapting to it cheerfully. As I type this out, I’m propping my left foot up on a pillow after reconstructive foot surgery to repair and rebuild a flat-foot that probably had no business running all those years in my youth. This is the second identical surgery I had on my right foot two years ago! Live and learn I say!! Strength training is also key in the form of yoga, pilates or weight lifting for two reasons. 1) To lessen your chances of injury, having quicker recovery time before a possible fall. 2) Decreasing the effects of sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss. Increasing your protein intake along with regular strength training can have the effect of blunting your age-related muscle loss. The real bonus comes in increasing your muscle mass, while you are also increasing your metabolic rate at rest and burning more calories. And that mirror check will unveil a more vital you too! There is a great book I can recommend, called Your Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren that gives you some simple exercises, no gym required, strength training routines that have a variety of different levels of physical fitness you can tailor your workout to. Mark Lauren has trained in the elite levels of the Special Operations Community like the Green Berets and Navy Seals. His recommendation is to do a routine he has outlined everyday for 20 minutes, that’s it, working a different muscle group each day. It was a real surprise to me that I really received a workout by performing these exercises slowly and deliberately! I thought it was a great change of pace in my foot recovery period to put my money where my mouth is and do some serious strength training:
d. Get Your Snooze Time on a Schedule- Sleep is so important for recovery for the body and the mind. It performs a garbage disposal function, washing all of the chemical debris that has built up from the day especially in your brain (See Lack of Sleep: Medical & Economic Consequences). There are also changes in our sleep patterns as we age that sleep experts coin as “advancement of sleep phase” making us opt for earlier bedtimes and sleeping lighter than our earlier years. However, sleep hygiene is important to be aware of in this phase because going to bed too early leads to waking in the middle of the night. With that said, try not to eat too early and opt for some type of mental stimulation (like writing a blog!) before turning in too early for bedtime.
e. The Wrong Kind of Stress Makes You Age- Stress is part of life and healthy stress (eustress) actually makes us perform better! However, too much stress, that is chronic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, can lead to chronic inflammation, seriously impairing our lives with possible chronic disease, needlessly ramping up our aging process. Rethinking your reaction to the stress response is the first order of business. See Turning Unhealthy Stress Into Eustress for helpful techniques AND having a positive outlook on life (see Drink from the Healing Pitcher of Optimism) will go a long way to improve your graceful aging process!
f. It’s Time to Draw Up Your Ethical Will!- No, I didn’t say Last Will and Testament, that is a legal document. The Ethical Will, or legacy letter is something you would like to hand down to your children or heirs about life lessons you’ve learned or maybe hopes or dreams for the future that you’d like to pass onto those closest to you.
The cool thing about this is once you do sit down and write out those life lessons you’ve learned, you start to understand even more the wisdom you (I’m sure) have attained by living and learning on this crazy earth we live on, giving you more insight into your life’s purpose and that aging gracefully really is where it’s at!!!
Recap of ANTI-AGING VS. GRACEFUL AGING -WHICH WILL YOU CHOOSE?
1. Let’s Learn from Centenarians Who Do the Aging Thing With Grace.
2. Caramelization and Radical ISIS (Oxygen) Terrorists in your body can take over!
3. Action Plan to Age Gracefully:
a. Rainbow Colored Plant Slant with Powerful Protein Power
b. Why the French Don’t Get Fat
c. If You Don’t Use It You Lose it
d. Get Your Snooze Time on a Schedule
e. The Wrong Kind of Stress Makes You Age
f. It’s Time to Draw Up Your Ethical Will!
As always, I like to end a with a great recipe you can try at home that has the feel of fine dining but the taste of a comfort laden home-cooked meal. I highlighted beets in this recipe because of their incredible health qualities, containing betaine, a super inflammation fighter. The greens you see with this dish are beet greens, which taste slightly bitter, offering a perfect balance to the sweet beets along with the citrusy flavored butter that pairs perfectly with the seared chicken breast and glass of Chardonnay. Enjoy!!!
ORANGE BUTTER CHICKEN
ATOP SAUTEED GRATED BEETS & GREENS
2 T. butter, at room temperature, divided
¼ tsp. finely grated orange peel
1 T. EVOO
2 skinless boneless chicken breasts
2 medium shallots cut in small dice
4 medium red beets with greens, grated
Greens and stems of red beets, evenly chopped
2 T. Golden Sherry
2/3 cup chicken broth
- Mix 1 T. butter and orange peel in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Let it set up again in the fridge.
- Heat ½ T. oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Add to skillet and sauté until cooked through and golden brown (about 4-5 minutes on each side). Place chicken breast to the side on a plate and keep warm with Reynolds wrap.
- Melt 1 T. butter and ½ T. oil in same skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and stir until tender and begin to brown, about 1 minute.
- Add beet greens and stems and toss until greens and stems are tender but greens are still bright green. Add 1 T. sherry and stir for 30 seconds. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Put in a separate bowl and keep warm with Reynolds wrap tent.
- Add grated beets to the same skillet the chicken and beet greens and stems were cooked in. Add chicken broth. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes or until chicken broth is evaporated and beets are tender. Stir occasionally. Add remaining Sherry and stir for 30 seconds. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Make a small mound of beet greens and stems on the plate. Top that with a mound of grated beets. Set the chicken breast atop the beets. Spoon orange butter atop the chicken and serve.
*Adapted from Epicurious