Are people who look younger than their age just genetically blessed-or is it really possible to turn back the hands of the clock?
The year Ellen Maltz turned 50, she looked at how her parents were aging and didn’t like what she saw. Her mother and father both had osteoporosis, her father had just been diagnosed with diabetes, and her mother was in and out of the hospital for various reasons.
“It was definitely not a road I wanted to go down,” says Maltz, 64, a banker who lives in Brookeville and works in Rockville.
To avoid following in their footsteps, Maltz joined a gym and began circuit training, focusing primarily on strengthening her core muscles—efforts that paid off when she needed abdominal surgery two years later. Warned there would be a considerable recovery period, Maltz was home within two days and up and around the following day. That’s when she became a true believer in the power of fitness and decided to crank up her exercise regimen even further. More than a decade later, she does Pilates, Spinning or yoga five times a week and works with a personal trainer once a month.
Maltz is equally disciplined with her diet. Though she doesn’t count calories, she estimates she consumes 1,000 to 1,200 a day. She avoids starches, and otherwise consumes a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, salads, fish and chicken, keeping her portions small. A typical day features cereal and fresh berries for breakfast; yogurt or cottage cheese for lunch; and a protein, lots of veggies and a glass of red wine for dinner. On weekends, she loosens the reins of restraint a bit and eats what she wants, including occasional sweets, but in small amounts. “I’ve trained myself not to be a big eater,” Maltz says. “I eat less now than when I was 50, and I weigh 20 pounds less. I step on the scale once a week, and I try not to fluctuate by more than 2 pounds.”
Today Ellen Maltz has the lithe, sculpted figure of a dancer in her 20s, perfect posture, a smooth, radiant complexion, bright eyes and energy to spare. Meeting her for the first time, you might think she’s a decade younger than she is—which is just the way she likes it.
“I work in an industry where I am truly the oldest person in my office, so part of it is a concerted effort not to look like I’m 64,” says Maltz, who has a grown daughter and two grandchildren. “I want to look good as long as I can, but more importantly I want to feel healthy. I’m stronger, fitter and I feel better than when I was 50—and I want to stay that way.”
Maltz is hardly alone in her efforts to stop the aging clock. “A lot of baby boomers are aging now, and that generation is not going down quietly,” says Dr. Pam Peeke, a nationally recognized nutrition and fitness expert who practices in Bethesda and is author of Fit to Live: The 5-Point Plan to Become Lean, Strong & Fearless for Life (Rodale Books, 2007). “They’re saying: We’ve been proactive all our lives and we’re not going to sit back and let our bodies fall apart.They want to hold on to the youth and vitality they had for as long as they can—and they have the money and resources to push the envelope.”
That money has fueled a market for anti-aging products and services—drugs, supplements and appearance-enhancing lotions, potions and procedures—that was projected at nearly $72 billion in the United States last year, according to BCC Research, a leading publisher of market research and trend reports.
Meanwhile, the field of anti-aging medicine is burgeoning. A clinical specialty that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago, anti-aging medicine is devoted to the early detection, prevention, treatment and (when possible) reversal of age-related dysfunctions, disorders and diseases—with the goal of prolonging a healthy life, says Dr. Ronald Klatz, co-founder and president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, which is based in Boca Raton, Fla., and has more than 22,000 members worldwide. “While we cannot yet reverse aging itself,” Klatz says, “we are able to curb its otherwise relentless progression.”
A variety of intrinsic and extrinsic elements affect the rate at which a person’s body, mind and skin age. “Genetic factors play a substantial role in longevity, but not a dominant role—they contribute 25 to 30 percent to how long we live,” says Dr. Jack Guralnik, chief of the laboratory of epidemiology, demography and biometry at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Bethesda.
Other key factors include lifestyle, environmental influences and ongoing strains from illness, injuries and psychological stress. Each of these has a trickle-down effect on various physiological mechanisms—including oxidative stress and free radical damage, chronic inflammation and the ability of the kidneys and liver to detoxify the body—that can affect how someone ages, experts say. And sometimes one problem can trigger another, causing a snowball effect that accelerates aging.
As a young adult, Tom Giles developed stellar health habits, not to stave off aging, but to avoid an early death.
“I have bad genes: My father had quintuple bypass surgery at 50 and passed away from cancer at 57. And his father, who had heart disease, died at 39 due to complications from diabetes,” says Giles, 45, a health-care lobbyist, husband and father of three in Chevy Chase. “My attitude is: There are some things I can control and some things I can’t, so I prefer not to eat things that aren’t good for you. You can’t avoid fat, so I eat healthy oils, nuts and avocado. I won’t eat beef, but I eat bison [which is low in fat]. I don’t eat ice cream, but I eat yogurt.” And salmon, brown rice and broccoli is a staple meal in the Giles household.
In addition, Giles exercises vigorously (running three or four days a week, plus swimming and biking), gets plenty of rest and takes a daily baby aspirin (to protect his heart), multivitamin, vitamin C supplement, niacin supplement (for his cholesterol) and a statin drug (also for his cholesterol).
He says he reached his fitness peak in the summer of 2006, when he completed an Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y. Now his sights are set on another one in British Columbia, Canada, when he turns 50. “I’m trying to stay healthy and strong and active for as long as I can,” he says. “As we age, we all want to fight it.”
Though the mechanisms behind the aging process can’t be avoided entirely, it is possible to mitigate them, as Giles is doing. As Peeke puts it, “Genetics may load the gun, but your environment pulls the trigger. You may have a genetic propensity for specific age-related diseases, but you can minimize that tendency through healthy living.”
The core components of a healthy and youthful lifestyle, according to experts: exercising regularly, consuming a wholesome diet, managing stress, avoiding smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, getting plenty of sleep and minimizing sun exposure. In a recent study involving 1,190 people ages 65 to 90-plus from the Mediterranean islands, researchers at Harokopio University in Athens, Greece, found that regular walking, adhering to the Mediterranean diet (which is high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil and fish), taking midday naps and quitting smoking contributed to the subjects’ greater longevity.
Sticking with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, lean protein and low-fat dairy products can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and keep hormones in balance, says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat: A Six-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control (Sourcebooks, 2002). Antioxidants—present in berries, leafy green vegetables, cocoa, tea, red wine and nuts—are the superheroes among anti-aging nutritional forces because they neutralize free radicals and decrease cell damage.
It’s also wise to limit or eliminate refined sugars and processed or manufactured foods filled with chemicals, experts say. “Your organs don’t want to get tsunami-ed with waves of refined sugar, especially as you get older,” Peeke says. Excessive sugars or refined carbohydrates cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar and insulin and low-grade inflammation at the cellular level, changes that can accelerate aging.
“I can always tell which clients eat a lot of sugar by the appearance of their skin,” says Amy Boyce, owner of Pureskin in Chevy Chase and mother of two. “It’s duller in appearance and predisposed to earlier wrinkling and loss of elasticity.”
Boyce tries to stay away from sugar, and takes meticulous care of her skin with regular sessions of LED light therapy and gentle glycolic peels. “I don’t think of it as trying to turn back the clock,” she says. “I think of it as preservation, as being able to gracefully age as I go forward.”