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What does it mean to age well?
The average American who reaches current retirement age (65?) is taking more than a handful of medications. Thatís not aging successfully. Successful means that you live longer than the average American (78 years) and you do it well. It means you look good for your age, you feel good, your brain is working, you can live on your own if you want to, and you donít need medications or surgery to survive.
So how do you outlive the average American and feel good about it doing it?
Some of the reasons people age well are obvious. For years we’ve been told that the best way to stay healthy is to eat the right foods, get plenty of exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Click here for a MedPageToday.com study on how obesity shortens life.
While all the above is true, a voluminous body of aging research shows that some of the most significant enemies of old age are far more insidious than a penchant for fried food or a couch-potato lifestyle. Instead, how well we age may be tied to our most basic personality traits, the social relationships we have formed and — perhaps even more important — our ability to cope with stress.
How long can we live?
Scientists think that the maximum potential life span of the human body could be as much as 120 years. They came to this conclusion after observing the oldest ages achieved by a variety of organisms, noting that aging, no matter what the species, seemed to follow a consistent mathematical formula.
How about this formula? The maximum age achieved by any species appears to equal about six times the number of years from birth to biological maturity. So humans, who take about 20 years to reach maturity, have the potential to live six times as long as that — or about 120 years. Notably, the oldest well-documented human age is 122. But who wants to live that long in a nursing home?
You knew this instinctively. Now researchers have proven that chronic stress shortens lives.So, how do you age successfully? Aging researchers are beginning to get some answers. Numerous studies of rats, monkeys, nuns, British government workers and centenarians have unlocked many of the secrets of successful aging.
Many of the answers were expected. People age better if they don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol, maintain a healthy weight and get regular exercise.
But a huge culprit in unhealthy aging also gets the least respect from both the medical community and individuals is stress. Increasingly, researchers are viewing stress — how much stress we face in a lifetime, and how well we cope with it — as one of the most significant factors for predicting how well we age.
How Stress Works
To understand why it’s so important to learn to manage stress, you have to understand what happens inside your body when you experience stress.
When you interpret your situation as stressful your body goes into survival mode.
- The body rapidly mobilizes energy, delivering glucose to your muscles.
- The heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase so that more oxygen can be delivered more quickly throughout your body.
- Functions that aren’t needed in an emergency — such as digestion, sex drive and even your immune system — are eventually suppressed.
- Meanwhile, stress hormones that help dull pain and sharpen your senses are released.
- Blood vessels constrict and clotting factors increase to slow bleeding in case you are wounded.
The stress-response has a useful purpose
It is meant as a way to deal with an immediate crisis. An animal fleeing a predator, a soldier at war or a mother fleeing a burning house with her child all benefit from the fact that the body, under stress, responds by giving your muscles, your heart and your lungs an added boost to help you flee or fight for your life. Ideally, this stress response is turned on for a short time, just long enough to get you out of danger.
The problem is, it doesn’t take much to switch on the human stress response. Worrying about your job or fighting with your spouse can both trigger it. If you’re good at coping with stress, then your stress response will eventually turn off.
Today we can be ďstressed outĒ when there is no physical danger. Our human brains remember negative memories and worry about the future. For example if you worry about losing your job, or you lost it, you feel stressed. Rightfully so. When that happens itís our brains that create the stress-response.
But unremitting stress — in a person who can’t shed it — leaves the stress response in the “on” position. All those changes that protect you in a moment of crisis suddenly turn on you. Now you’re just a person with unregulated blood sugar, high blood pressure, blood clots, a depressed sex drive and an immune system buckling under all the strain.
Since animals donít have the memories that humans do animals donít feel chronic stress. They can let it go after a threat is gone.
Thereís no way for the average person to get a reading of what scientists call allostatic stress load. It is still just a research tool. Even without a high-tech measurement of our stress burden, most people are well aware of the stress in their lives. So letís call what we can feel a ďstress load.Ē
Want to lower your ďstress load?Ē
We wish we could help poor, less-educated people because they tend to have a higher stress loads than highly educated, wealthy ones.
- Employees with the most authority and power show lower blood-pressure rates, than low-level workers, who lack power and fear most for their job security. If you lack control, this leads to being stressed out.”
- People who have strong social and family relationships tend to have a lower stress load than loners.
- People who are sleep deprived or who don’t exercise tend to have higher stress loads than those with good sleep and exercise habits.
Chronic stress impacts our immune systemsAnother study shows that chronic stress increased risk for catching a cold. A Carnegie Mellon study surveyed 300 volunteers about stress and then injected them with a cold virus. The people who had reported little chronic stress didn’t get sick — their immune systems battled the virus. But volunteers who had reported chronic stress that lasted for a month or longer — such as unemployment or family crisis — fell ill.
Loneliness creates stress
One reason successful agers may be better at handling stress is that they tend to have a lot of social support. Successful agers are not loners. People who age well tend to be close to extended family and have a strong network of friends and social relationships. Marriage in particular protects men from the perils of aging. (Among women, it doesn’t seem to matter if they are married or not, as long as they have other close relationships. It seems that men tend to have less friends then woman so a spouse is very important to an older man.)
In primate studies, relationships also make a difference in the quality of old age. Think of this: “One of the crappiest positions you can get late in life is to be an old baboon in a troupe where you were once a young baboon,” says Dr. Sapolsky of Stanford. The reason: high-ranking male baboons spend their lives terrorizing those with lower rankings. But rankings slide. Powerful baboons get old, and the young baboons they once terrorized eventually end up in a position to get revenge.
But one subset of male baboons escapes the stress of old age. These are the animals that spent their middle age establishing close relationships with the females in the troupe. Late in life, these baboons get harassed just as much as any other baboon, but they stick around anyway, because they’ve got a network of nice, female baboons that keep them company, groom them and generally act as a buffer against what would otherwise be a miserable life.
The same thing that helps baboons age successfully also helps humans. Study after study has shown that relationships make an important difference in the ability to achieve old age. Even centenarians, who have pretty much outlived most everyone they know, have a history of strong social relationships.
Significantly, it isn’t the practical support of relationships — having somebody to cook for you, for instance, or drive you to a doctor’s appointment — that seems to make the most difference. Itís the frequency of emotional support. Having friends and family in your life increases the likelihood that you will get out more, keep moving and actually improve with age, rather than decline.
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