8 healthy habits may slow biological aging by 6 years, study finds

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Good heart health can slow biological aging by up to six years, a study suggests. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new study shows having good cardiovascular health may decrease the pace of biological aging.
  • Using Life’s Essential 8 (diet, physical activity, nicotine exposure, sleep health, BMI, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure) to measure biological age, researchers discovered those who had the highest score had a biological age that was on average six years younger than their actual age.
  • Aiming to maintain a high Essential 8 score may not only lower your biological age but will boost your overall health.

According to a new study, having good cardiovascular health may slow the rate of biological aging, which can lengthen life and lower the risk of heart issues and age-related health conditions. These findings were presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2023.

To explore the connection between cardiovascular health and biological aging, researchers used the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 checklist and measured phenotypic age — determined by your chronological age and biomarkers including:

The higher your phenotypic age, the faster you are biologically aging.

Results showed that participants with good cardiovascular health had a negative phenotypic age acceleration. In other words, they had a younger biological age (the health of their cells) compared to their chronological age (the number of years they have lived).

Conversely, participants with poor cardiovascular health had a positive phenotypic age acceleration, indicating they had an older biological age than their actual age.

The average chronological age of people with good cardiovascular health was 41, and their average biological age was 36. On the other hand, the average chronological age of those who had poor cardiovascular health was 53, and their average biological age was 57.

When researchers looked at participants’ Life’s Essential 8 score (diet, physical activity, nicotine exposure, sleep health, BMI, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure), they found those who had the highest score had a biological age on average six years younger than their chronological age.

The new research has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

A person’s chronological age is when someone was born. Biological age is measured by how old your cells are and how your body functions.

“Biological age takes into account chronological age, genetics, lifestyle, other diseases, and other health things, such as nutrition,” said Dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao, assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine and Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation Services, Yale New Haven Hospital Heart & Vascular Center, who was not involved in the study.

“A person’s biological age depends on the damage that the body accumulates over time, related to illnesses and lifestyle,” Dr. Oen-Hsiao added.

For example, if a 30-year-old male doesn’t exercise, eats a high fat fast food diet, and smokes, his biological age will be older than 30, Oen-Hsiao explained.

“However, patients who have a healthy lifestyle monitoring their health, exercising regularly, maintaining a good weight, and eating a heart-healthy diet, can have a biological age younger than their chronological age.

The connection between cardiovascular health and slow biological aging is thus related. So patients who have a healthy lifestyle and thus improved cardiovascular health will have a lower biological age…or their body’s aging process will be slower than those people who do not have a healthy lifestyle.”

– Dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao

The Essential 8 hits on every good lifestyle modification a person can do to improve their health, according to Oen-Hsiao. These include:

1) Diet: Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats and avoiding trans-fat, fried foods, and sugary foods can help to lose weight, reduce oxidization, lower cholesterol, and prevent diabetes. All of these will help reduce biological age.

2) Activity: Being more active. AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly.

Moderate aerobic activity includes activities such as walking, jogging, biking, water aerobics, or social dancing.

Vigorous aerobic activity includes running, spinning, swimming laps, or jumping rope. Exercise can reduce blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. It can also help people lose weight. All of these benefits can help to reduce biological age.

3) Quit tobacco: Smoking cigarettes, vaping, or using e-cigarettes have negative effects on the body, which include higher blood pressure, damage to the blood vessels (because of the toxins), and shortness of breath (due to changes in the lungs which can reduce oxygen exchange).

People who quit smoking can reduce their risk of coronary heart disease by half within a year of quitting. All of the negative effects of smoking lead to increased biological age. By quitting, a person can slow down the biological aging process.

4) Get healthy sleep: People who do not sleep well tend to have higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, higher sugars, and lower metabolism. These effects can lead to increased weight and obesity. By getting at least 7-9 hours of good sleep, people can improve their cardiovascular health, which slows down biological aging.

5) BMI/weight: Many factors lead to overweight or obesity. Genetics definitely plays a role. However, lifestyle plays a larger role. Eating the wrong foods and a sedentary lifestyle all lead to weight gain.

The increased weight leads to strain on the heart, joint tissues, and other diseases, such as diabetes. These negative effects will accelerate biological aging. To combat this, people should control portions, choose healthy food options, and get active/exercise. Reducing weight to a normal BMI will slow down the biological age.

6) Cholesterol: High cholesterol usually leads to increased cardiovascular inflammation, which can cause increased plaque deposition in the heart arteries. This inflammation and plaque can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.

Cholesterol comes from two sources: what your body makes (genetic) and what you eat. People cannot change their genetics, but they can change their eating habits. By making healthier choices with foods (specifically to reduce saturated fats and carbohydrates and to eat more vegetables and leaner meats), cholesterol levels can be reduced, decreasing the risk of plaque forming and cardiac inflammation. This will slow down the biological age.

7) Blood sugar: Elevated blood sugar will lead to diabetes. When people have elevated blood sugars, there can be damage to the arteries in the heart, brain, eyes, and kidneys. This leads to the acceleration of atherosclerosis, leading to earlier heart attack and stroke.

Uncontrolled sugars will accelerate a person’s biological age. By reducing blood sugars, the biological age can also slow down. People should avoid eating refined sugars, carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice), and sugary drinks. Exercising will also help to lower blood sugars by “burning off” the excess blood sugars that are circulating.

8) Blood pressure: High blood pressure can strain the cardiovascular system — not only the arteries but also the heart.

Uncontrolled blood pressure can lead to heart failure, stroke, and heart attacks. This strain on the cardiovascular system will accelerate the biological age. Controlling blood pressure can be done with increased activity and heart-healthy eating, especially reducing salt intake.

Along with slowing down biological aging, adhering to the Essential 8 can improve overall health in many ways.

Dr. John Higgins, a cardiologist with UTHealth Houston, not involved in the study, explained that improving your endothelial (vascular) function affects multiple organ systems in a positive way:

Reduces your risk factors:

  • Better blood pressure
  • Better cholesterol
  • Better blood sugar
  • Less smoking

Improves organ function:

  • Better kidney function
  • Better blood flow to the heart, brain, limbs, and muscles — better aerobic exercise capacity
  • Better bone & muscle health, so less likely to fall/fracture
  • Better blood flow to the skin helps skin health and reduces sunburn and skin cancers

“Eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising, getting good sleep, and not smoking can lead to a reduction in blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. All of these things will lead to reduced weight, which allows people to be more active,” said Oen-Hsiao.

“Keeping an active lifestyle is not only good for the heart, but also the bones/joints. People will have fewer joint issues/muscle aches if they are active consistently daily. Weight loss will take the strain off the joints as well, which will allow for even more activity,” Dr. Oen-Hsiao added.

Lastly, maintaining an exercise routine (you can start at any age) and staying active will help with mood (people who exercise regularly have less depression) and improve the mind (there is less risk of dementia with controlled blood pressure and regular exercise).

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