"All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!' This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end."
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Just like Wendy, our only option is to accept the inevitable. Namely, that we must grow up, go to school, learn to be a parrot, and recite silly rules. Nevertheless, we occasionally come across an individual who embraces the aging process and maintains their physical health and a positive attitude across their lifespan. Is it magic or luck that allows those lucky few to continually hit their prime and surpass it? Thankfully, science has shown us that we do not need to accept a Faustian bargain to age well. Several authoritative and fascinating studies have demonstrated anti-aging benefits that are universally accessible. The results suggest that by following certain simple behaviors, all of us can embrace our inner Peter Pan.
1. Mediterranean diet
To stay young, it is not enough to follow any healthy diet. Science has demonstrated that specifically a Mediterranean diet improves cardiovascular, neurological, and bone health, and adds to longevity. This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and olive oil and derives protein primarily from fish and poultry versus red meat. One study of 1,300 participants from five European countries who ate a Mediterranean diet for one year had reduced levels of C reactive protein (CRP). CRP is an inflammatory marker linked to aging. Furthermore, the study participants had reduced levels of osteoporosis and bone loss. Another study of 562 participants found that individuals in their 70s who followed the Mediterranean diet had half the brain atrophy, or shrinkage, typical for individuals of the same age. Less atrophy means less dementia, better memory, and improved ability to think clearly and effectively.
Again, it isn't just sticking to any exercise regimen that helps you young and healthy, it is how you exercise. Interval training, which consists of moderate exercise followed by intervals of more rigorous physical activity, seems to actually reverse the aging process. One fascinating study assigned 72 healthy sedentary men and women from two age groups, under 30 and over 72, to three separate exercise regimes: rigorous weight training, brief interval training on bikes, and moderate bike riding for several days alternating with weight training during off days. The study participants were evaluated for improved physical fitness and received muscle biopsies to examine how the exercise regimens affected muscle cells. Everyone in the three groups improved in terms of physical fitness, but those who performed interval training had robust changes at the cellular level. The older cohort was shown to have 400 genes from their muscle cells that worked differently after interval training, while the younger group had changes in 274 genes. The genes that were affected influence the ability of mitochondria to produce energy for cells, which improves muscular health and cell life. Perhaps the most compelling part of this study is that the older cohort had even more robust benefits than the younger. It is never too late!
3. Social relationships
Relationships have a huge impact on physical health. Studies have repeatedly shown that those with stronger personal relationships live longer, and those with poor relationships suffer from chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diminished immune response, depression, sleep problems, and dementia. The Harvard aging study provides perhaps the most extraordinary data about the positive effects of relationships. This longitudinal study found that close relationships have a greater impact on quality of life than money, fame, IQ, or social class. Relationships were also shown to delay mental and physical decline and be strong predictors of long and happy lives.
There are countless studies of how meditation can improve psychological and physical health, but there are also many authoritative studies that show it can slow aging. Studies have shown that meditation has a positive impact on telomere length. The telomeres are protective caps on either end of our chromosomes, which hold the genetic information of our cells, or DNA. In order to maintain the health and longevity of our organs, our cells divide and replicate as we age. Each time our cells divide, the telomeres become shorter. The shorter the telomere, the more susceptible our cells are to disease. Those who practice regular meditation had longer telomeres, producing cells that are capable of living and dividing longer, and therefore maintaining the health and youth of our organs.
Meditation has also been shown to protect the brain from aging. Participants in an eight week mindfulness meditation program were found to have made measurable changes in regions of the brain that are associated with memory, stress, and empathy. Another study showed that regular meditators in their 50s had the same size prefrontal cortex as those in their 20s. This is incredibly compelling evidence that meditation can protect the most vital organ, the brain, well into middle age.
As hard as it may be at times, keeping a positive attitude has huge anti-aging benefits. One longitudinal study followed people over 50 for up to 23 years. Those with a positive outlook about their future who saw aging as "no big deal" had a greater ability to function independently, maintain physical fitness, work full time, and enjoy themselves socially. And when health problems hit, the lesson is to keep your chin up. Those that did had lower rates of mortality and morbidity. Whenever possible, ignore the negative stereotypes of aging. Instead, drink from the fountain of youth by choosing to look at life, including times of challenge, as opportunities for growth and renewal.