From the minute we’re born, we’re aging. Constant exposure to our environment, the things we eat, and stresses from both inside and outside our bodies all cause us to age over time. Aging is highly complex, but scientists are starting to understand what happens at the cellular and molecular levels. For example, healthy cells are damaged over time when our immune systems shift from reacting to short-term problems like injuries and infections, to gradually producing chronic inflammation throughout the body. Time also gradually shortens the telomeres that act as protective caps for our DNA-containing chromosomes. These and other changes make our bodies less and less able to deal with stress from inside and outside of our body, so when damage reaches a critical level, our cells, tissues, and organs may no longer perform normally and our health starts to decline.
The changes associated with aging start to happen on some level at day one. We begin to experience their effects early in life. For example, we lose the ability to hear certain high-frequency sounds as teenagers, our cognition and memory slowly decline after they peak in our mid-20s, the strength of our bones starts to decrease in our 30s, female fertility sharply declines after 35, age-related near-sightedness begins in our mid-40s, and our hair starts to gray and thin as early as our 30s and 40s.
After the age of 50, the changes of aging become increasingly noticeable, and because aging is the biggest risk factor for most of the diseases that affect us as adults, the older we get, the higher our risk of chronic disease becomes. While scientists have not yet found a way to stop these processes of aging, they are learning more and more about how to maintain health throughout our lives. Some aspects of aging are out of our control–like our genetics and our family history–but we can educate ourselves about moderate risk factors and do our best to reduce them through healthy lifestyle and diet choices. Most of us can be healthy and active well into our later years, if we take care of ourselves.
It’s no surprise that regular physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight, improve moods and sleep habits, and boost overall health. And it’s clear that a well-balanced diet full or nutritious foods, is critical to good health. But when it comes to understanding which foods are the best choices, much nutrition research has focused on how certain foods or nutrients may have a negative effect on health, or even play a role in disease development. More recently, scientists have begun to explore and understand how nutrition may play a role in promoting healthy aging throughout of all life’s stages. We are rapidly learning about what foods and nutrients should be emphasized in our diets, and how they can enhance our health. Diets full of fruits and veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and lean meats, have proven health benefits like lowering blood pressure, improving glucose control in diabetes, weight loss, improving arthritis, and reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular events, to name a few. And we are learning more about the specific nutrients that can impact health. For example, plant pigments found in bright orange and red fruits and vegetables may prevent and slow the progression of eye diseases.
Calcium helps to keep bones strong. B vitamins play a role in maintaining brain health. And flavanoids from many plants may improve the health of our cardiovascular systems. The bottom line is that YOU have the power to maintain and improve your health, add vitality to your years, and reduce your risk of disease. And it’s never too late to make a change. To learn more about the nutrients that are critical to your health, and how to safely turn to supplements if you aren’t getting enough of these nutrients in your diet, watch Healthy Aging With Nutrition at www.agingresearch.org/nutrition..