Can you cheat the ageing process? Secrets of ‘super-agers’ revealed
Super-agers are active senior citizens whose physiology far exceeds the average for their age group Credit: E+/Johnny Greig
Patrick Cangley covers 160 miles a week in the saddle of his bicycle. The gentle undulations of the Surrey countryside no longer challenge him, though: instead, he prefers to power up lung-busting steep inclines, and has secured his status as one of the fittest and fastest cyclists in the advanced group of the club he rides with.
At 71 years old, 6ft 1ns and 70kg, Patrick is what experts class a ‘super-ager’ – an active senior citizen whose physiology is aeons above the average for his age group. A study published this month in the journal Aging Cell indicates that older cyclists such as Patrick, who exercise vigorously throughout their lifetimes, cheat the ageing process by circumnavigating physical decline which is not, the research purports, an inevitable part of growing older, but merely the result of too little activity.
Scientists at the University of Birmingham compared 125 keen cyclists aged between 55 and 79 with 75 similarly aged non-cyclists, and another cohort of 20-36 year-olds. The cyclists all covered 300km a month and had cycled for 25 years: the results showed they had muscular strength, lung function, fitness levels, blood pressure and, most surprisingly, immune systems far better than people decades younger.
This can extend to cognitive function, too: a Swedish study released this week, which followed 200 women from middle age until their nineties, found that the physically fittest among them reduced their risk of dementia by 90 per cent.
Patrick, a keen member of Bike Beans Cycle Club, Ashtead, is modest about his super-aging status which, according to experts in genetics, nutrition and exercise, there are proven steps everyone can take to achieve. Having previously been a keen basketball player and windsurfer, he switched to cycling during his retirement in 2000 – meanwhile completing a degree, a Master’s and a PhD in bioengineering ‘for fun’.
If everyone aged the way Patrick did, the NHS would save millions. “I started cycling because I struggled with the impact and strength requirements of the other sports I enjoyed,” he explains. “I didn’t get into them for health reasons, although in the last five to ten years, I’ve realised there are health benefits.”
When he came off his bicycle last year, in fact, breaking a collar bone and a month later needing emergency cranial surgery due to the fall causing a slow bleed in his skull, he recovered within three days – much to the surgeon’s amazement. “I probably get a cold once a year and it clears up in a week,” he adds.
His wife, Jean, 73, is also a keen cyclist and the couple ride together. Yet for those whom a bicycle holds no attraction, the national governing bodies of volleyball, weightlifting, orienteering and boccia have adapted their sports specifically for older people.
Pensioners in select retirement homes will be able to trial this initiative, which is being run by Oomph! Wellness, a company that designs activity programmes in retirement homes, housing associations and daycare centres. But how can ordinary folk reach super-ager status? Here’s what the experts say.
The once-held belief that if nature deals you a bad genetic hand, your fate is sealed, has been refuted by the science of epigenetics – which studies how environmental factors can change gene expression. Professor Ilaria Bellantuono from the Department of Oncology and Metabolism at The University of Sheffield explains: “Genes are far less important to ageing well than exercise and nutrition.
Genetic components play a very small part compared to lifestyle factors such as obesity, sedentary lifestyles, stress and even inequality. Some genes will give you an advantage, but you can modulate your genes and give yourself the same advantages if you exercise.” On a cellular level, aging is linked to a process called senescence in which older cells self-destruct to prevent the generation of damaged copies. As we get older, our immune system becomes less effective at removing the senescent cells which accumulate.
This build-up triggers the immune system to generate excessive inflammation which, in turn, impairs healthy tissue regeneration and accelerates the aging process. “If dead and senescent cells are not dealt with effectively damage is not repaired, and cells become less good at doing what they should,” says Prof Bellantuono. “But you can influence some of these systems and it depends when you start.
That’s why the cyclists in the study had exercised all their lives. Their genetic systems were kept up to speed, and boosted.” Although it is not fully understood how exercise reduces ageing on a genetic level, one of the key indicators is reduced cellular inflammation, a marker for ageing. Tantalisingly, a new drug that mimics the anti-aging effects of exercise could soon be delivered. “We are close to pharmaceutical drugs that will modulate the ageing process. They will not stop ageing and make us young forever but they will maintain tissue in sufficient working order to decrease the chances of getting age-related disease,” explains Prof Bellantuono.
According to the Office for National Statistics, around one in eight Britons (8.45 million) will live to 100 and spend a third of their lives in old age. Yet people become more sedentary as they get older, with less than five percent of over-65s doing the recommended two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise the NHS recommends each week.
Physiotherapist Carrie Mattinson is head of therapies at The Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London. She says the key to quality later life is to maintain independence. “Most people want to be able to continue doing what they enjoy and to be active in old age. In order to keep that independence, muscle strength is important as people lose muscle mass with age, which leads to decreased strength and problems with frailty and increased risk of falls. It’s important to keep up resistance training – be that through body resistance exercises, the gym or with resistance bands.”
And don’t be afraid to up the ante: higher impact activity can improve bone health among older people. “Bone reacts to its environment,” explains Mattinson, who advises that anyone with pre-existing health issues should see a professional before starting exercise .“The type of exercise depends on your starting point, so it could be aerobics or walking.”
She recommends an exercise programme which comprises resistance training to maintain strength, aerobic exercise for cardio-vascular health and balance and flexibility, such as yoga, to develop co-ordination. Aches and pains should not be an automatic bar to exercise in the elderly, as with professional advice and physiotherapy many injuries can be cured or mitigated. Mattinson continues: “There is no evidence to say you will not benefit from exercise at any point in your life…even if you have never exercised.”
Plus, “people are doing a lot better in their old age. Forty or fifty years ago, fewer older people were exercising intensively. Today people in their forties, fifties and beyond do marathons and triathlons, which inspires more older people and breaks down the myths that you get ‘too old’ to do things like that.”
In 2013, a University of Glasgow study found that nearly one in four people are now obese in older age, while a new Cancer Research campaign labels it the second most preventable cause of cancer. A non-negotiable part of super-ageing, according to nutrition experts, is staying lean.
Dr Martin Whyte is the senior clinical lecturer in metabolic medicine at the University of Surrey, and explains that calorie restriction can extend lifespan. “The main nutritional point for ageing well is to avoid over-calorie consumption. Restriction, not starvation is the key. Too few calories impacts negatively on lifespan. 1500 to 1800 calories a day minimises your chances of life loss, as you go above that you gradually lose life from over-feeding.” Scientists studying the link between nutrition and ageing have identified a specific molecule which accelerates the ageing process.
When we eat foods high in processed sugar and saturated fats, we produce molecules called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). These stick to proteins and other molecules and reduce their function. They can play a role in the development or worsening of degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, chronic kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s disease; it is believed that calorie deduction reduces AGE molecules.
Dr Whyte points to the classic Mediterranean diet of fresh fish, fruit and vegetables as the best model for longevity. On a nutritional level, it also shares many similarities with the foods eaten by people in Okinawa, Japan, where many live well into advanced old age. “They both contain a lot of oily fish and plenty of fresh fruit and veg, low levels of saturated fats and much less processed fat. Those are the key components. There are micro components within that that may be relevant, such as omega three oils, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin E,” explains Dr Whyte, who also points out that protein, which builds and maintains muscle, is essential to healthy aging.
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