Are people who look younger than their age just genetically blessed-or is it really possible to turn back the hands of the clock?
One anti-aging strategy that has received lots of attention is calorie restriction, a strategy Ellen Maltz inadvertently adopted when she wanted to lose weight. The idea is that a diet 25 to 40 percent lower in calories than normal may boost the quality and length of a person’s life. Research in animals suggests that calorie restriction can extend the life of a lab rat by 25 percent and may improve biomarkers of aging such as body temperature and insulin levels. But little research has been done to see if those results apply to humans.
And “my question is: Did anyone ever ask those rats if they’re enjoying themselves?” Peeke quips. “You need to rein in calories because we all eat too much—but you don’t have to become extreme about it, especially if you exercise regularly and do the right intensity of exercise.”
Peeke also is dubious of hormone supplements. Key hormones—estrogen, testosterone, DHEA (dehydroepiand-rosterone), human growth hormone and thyroid hormone—decline significantly with the passing decades, and some of these reductions have been linked with age-related health conditions, such as an elevated risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. Short-term hormone replacement can ease the most bothersome symptoms of menopause, and testosterone replacement can boost the energy and mood of men deficient in the hormone. But the jury is still out on whether taking DHEA or human growth hormone to combat aging is worth the potential long-term risks (an increased possibility of cancer or diabetes, respectively).
“When people ask me about taking human growth hormone or DHEA or related ‘anti-aging’ hormone supplements, I caution them about turning themselves into a science-fair project,” Peeke says. “We lack credible scientific evidence that tinkering with growth hormone or the like is making things better or worse. To further complicate it, as people age they’re taking a lot of medications anyway. If you add these other ‘anti-aging’ pills and injections, you have no idea what these things are doing to you.”
The NIA’s Guralnik agrees. “The knee-jerk reaction is: If it’s going down with age, we better replace it and bring [the level] back to that of a 20-year-old,” he says. “But there’s no definitive proof that hormone replacement offers benefits in terms of preventing age-related muscle loss and strength.”
People would be better off running, walking (briskly) or biking toward the fountain of youth, and refueling with healthy foods, says Peeke, spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine’s global “Exercise is Medicine”campaign. “The combination of physical activity and good nutrition is the most important way to slow aging,” she says. Regular physical activity helps preserve metabolic function, bone density and healthy body composition. It promotes heart health and good circulation. Plus “regular physical activity can reduce your cancer risk by 50 percent,” Peeke says. A recent report by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston concluded that higher levels of physical activity at midlife increase the odds of living to age 70 or older and of enjoying better physical and mental health when we get there.
If anyone can attest to these benefits, it’s Starr Ezra, 68, a mother of two and grandmother of eight who lives in Bethesda. “I don’t have time to feel old,” she says. “I work out with a trainer three times a week, take a private Pilates class once a week, play tennis once or twice a week, walk whenever I can instead of driving, and take voice lessons.
“My trainer says I’m in better shape than most of his young clients,” she adds, “and when I’m with my teenage grandkids, strangers often assume I’m the mother. I’ve been blessed with good genes—but my attitude, healthy dining habits, lack of stress and a great marriage certainly help.”
Taking an enthusiastic, proactive approach to your well-being obviously makes sense, but eating healthfully and exercising regularly should be done in moderation, experts say.
“There are a lot of people in this area who have become fitness-obsessed and food-obsessed in order to slow down at least the appearance of aging,” says Faye Berger Mitchell, a nutritionist in private practice in Bethesda. “It’s good to be concerned about your health and fitness, but not to cross the line into obsession.
“Not long ago a 54-year-old man came to see me because he was doing weight-training for an hour, then cardio for an hour every day, and he was having muscle weakness,” Mitchell recalls. “He had cut his diet to virtually only fruits and vegetables with some whole grains, and hardly eating protein or fat. So he wasn’t getting the necessary nutrients and energy to fuel his intense workouts—and he was burning muscle and losing muscle mass as a result. In essence, he was inadvertently accelerating the aging process—until we added healthy fats and more protein to his diet.”
Mitchell also has seen an increase in eating disorders among women over 50. “They’re trying to fit into those tight jeans and look younger, like their teenage daughters,” she says. “Not only does it take away from enjoying other aspects of their lives, but if you’re too thin, there are health repercussions—for bone health and heart and thyroid issues, among others.”
So in the aging equation, it’s a matter of achieving a balanced lifestyle. Though the ultimate goal may be to boost longevity, the quality of a person’s years is equally (if not more) important as the quantity.
“It’s fine to try to add years to your life,” Katz says, “but it’s also important to add life to your years.”
That approach is working for Ellen Maltz. “I have a fabulous marriage—I give that a lot of credit for my aging well,” she says. “I can have a crummy day at work and I come home to an absolute haven that keeps me mentally alive and well.”
Stacey Colino lives in Chevy Chase and regularly writes about health, psychology and family issues for national magazines.