Have you ever wondered why some people who are well into their eighties or nineties seem to have an extra pep in their step, are full of life and have even been referred to as a spring chicken? Then there are other people that you might know who are in their twenties or early thirties that barely seem to make it through the day, they are essentially just surviving with their health, not quite thriving.
Why is it that some people seem to age so effortlessly and gracefully while others seem to lack vigor and zest? This article introduces the concept of biological aging versus chronological aging, which refers to our time on this earth versus the quality of life we have while being on this earth.
The field of gerontology looks at the process of aging, which can include biological, cognitive and psychological factors, as well as epigenetic factors (such as diet, lifestyle and environment) that result in chemical changes to our DNA sequence.
Thanks to advances in modern medicine, many of us are living longer than ever before; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of our lives is guaranteed to get better, which is why the differences between chronological age and biological age need to be understood.
It is important to note that aging is a process, and it comes with gradual changes in our body systems, our cells and our DNA sequences. With aging comes structural and functional changes to these systems as well.
The goal with aging is not to evade it, but rather to optimize the process and possibly prevent some age-related pathologies that come with living longer. Much like learning a new skill or language, you do not simply learn it in one month, and you certainly do not unlearn it overnight; we need to look at aging through the same lens.
Chronological Age vs Biological Age
Aging has been defined as the time-dependent decline of functional capacity and stress resistance. It is also a complex molecular process that is driven by many diverse molecular pathways and biochemical events that are influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. There is now newer research that shows that the rate of aging can differ between individuals, or biological age may indeed differ from chronological age.
Chronological age reflects age in terms of years, months and days. For example, I am 33 years old chronologically, but my biological bedtime would be that of perhaps a 90-year-old (who else loves to be in bed by 8:00 p.m.?). Chronological age is not always a good or true indicator of how healthy an induvial is or how well they are aging. Short of lying about your age to the bouncer at a club, this number is pretty much set in stone. Biological age, on the other hand, measures how you are aging and has quite a bit more wiggle room for improvement. Biological age reflects a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors. It can be determined by diet, sleep, stress, exercise habits and by how well our hormones are balanced, as well as myelination and methylation processes in the body.
It is a better indicator of how well-functioning we are and is generally a measurement of your age based on various biomarkers. In fact, in the journal Aging Cell, the study uses biomarker data collected from the blood samples of almost 5,000 participants in the Long Life Family Study, and researchers actually generated 26 different predictive biomarker signatures.
Biomarkers of Aging
These biomarkers assess the function of the body’s organs at a cellular level and can include hemoglobin A1C levels, homocysteine, insulin like growth factor, total cholesterol, vitamin D levels and various inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein levels, interleukins, chemokines and cytokines.
Telomere length and sirtuin genes (also known as longevity or vitality genes) such as SIRT1 to SIRT7, as well as AMPK and mTOR, have also been shown to play a role in the aging process, specifically in the biological aging process. Sirtuins act as epigenetic regulators, which means they can essentially influence how our genes are expressed and control DNA repair.
Research in mice has found that activating sirtuins can improve DNA repair, boost memory and increase exercise endurance. They seem to have the ability to extend both the average and maximum lifespans in many organisms, essentially making life longer and making it healthier.
The good news is many factors are in your control that you can work on to optimize the aging process. Modulating inflammation and stress are two important factors in aging.
Research has shown that we do need some levels of mild stress to activate our longevity genes. One example of positive stress would be exercise. Exercise positively affects the activity of sirtuins, which can result in better oxidative metabolism efficiency, increased mitochondrial function and balance of the antioxidant system in our bodies.
Other “good” stressors that can activate longevity genes without damaging the cells include intermittent fasting, low-protein diets and exposure to hot and cold temperatures, which is called hormesis.
Certain plant compounds, such as berberine, have been shown to be AMP activators. As a quick refresher, AMPK promotes regenerative pathways in the body and regulates cellular energy homeostasis (or balance). Berberine (an AMPK activator) has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels, which can influence the aging process. Hesperidin, a flavonoid that is highly concentrated in citrus peels and found in orange extract, has also been shown to activate some of these longevity genes.
Balancing oxidative stress, hormones, blood glucose levels and mitochondrial damage should also be considered. Lifestyle factors, such as weight, deep restorative sleep, social support and emotional wellbeing (cutting out pro-inflammatory people, thoughts and energy) should not be overlooked when it comes to aging gracefully.
Aging Is a Gift
Finally, I want to take a step back and discuss the relationship most Americans have with the concept of aging. It’s not hard to walk through a health food store, turn on the television or flip through a magazine without seeing at least a handful of anti-aging articles, products and numerous ways to find that elusive foundation of youth. We seem to be afraid of aging, or at the very minimum looking for endless ways to slow down the process and possibly even reverse it, but have we ever stopped to ask why we are so fixated on avoiding the gift of getting older?
In many other cultures, particularly in European and Asian countries, aging is seen as something to be celebrated, respected and honored. Growing old does not and should not mean losing your ability to enjoy life; in fact, aging isn’t guaranteed to any of us.
There is value in aging. Experiencing a long life truly is a gift and like with many things that hold high value, they get better over time and improve with age. Have you ever seen the price tag for a vintage bottle of whiskey or wine? Or perhaps you have gone antique shopping recently and experienced sticker shock. With time and age comes value, not only in the material world but also in life. As we age, we become a bit wiser, softer and understanding. We learn to hopefully slow down and embrace the small moments, reflect on the experiences that we have cultivated and hopefully add value to others on their aging journey. Aging is not a disease, but rather a gift to be cherished. Enjoy! VR
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Grabowska, W., Sikora, E., & Bielak-Zmijewska, A. (2017). Sirtuins, a promising target in slowing down the ageing process. Biogerontology, 18(4), 447–476. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10522-017-9685-9.
Hartmann, A., Hartmann, C., Secci, R., Hermann, A., Fuellen, G., & Walter, M. (2021). Ranking Biomarkers of Aging by Citation Profiling and Effort Scoring. Frontiers in Genetics, 12. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fgene.2021.686320.
Sebastiani, P., Thyagarajan, B., Sun, F., Schupf, N., Newman, A. B., Montano, M., & Perls, T. T. (2017). Biomarker signatures of aging. Aging Cell, 16(2), 329–338. https://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12557.
Brianna Diorio holds a PhD in integrative medicine from the University of Natural Medicine and is a clinical nutritionist with a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport. She is also a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner (FDN), an herbal practitioner through the Herbal Academy, a family herbalist through The School of Natural Healing, a NASM certified personal trainer, and a holistic lifestyle coach from the C.H.E.K Institute. Diorio is the host of the Brianna Approved Podcast, which is a podcast for people who like a holistic approach to real science and clinical research on all things nutrition, botanicals and balance. She currently works as a clinician with her private practice that specializes in alternative health, functional medicine and dietary supplements. Diorio works with a vast array of clients and businesses to educate and improve their health and dietary needs.