Growing Old Gracefully: Resiliency Slows Down the Epigenetic Clock
By Judith Finlayson
Aging is a complex process. Sure, if you’re counting the days, months and years we all march in step. But how to account for outliers, like Robert Marchand, an ebullient Frenchman and still a competitive cyclist at 106? Or even the indomitable Jane Fonda; she’s 83 and certainly not your image of a typical grandmother?
When experts take a close look at what distinguishes successful aging, the word resilience often crops up. Basically, resilience is the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. It’s been an active area of research since the 1970’s and the science tells us that among other characteristics, resilient people feel that they, not circumstances, determine what happens in their life. Scientists now suspect that this “can do” attitude, sparks physical changes that slow down the process of aging.
Numerous studies link resiliency with physical health and increased longevity. Centarians as a group are particularly resilient. One study showed that resilient people between the ages of 94 and 98 were more likely (about 43 percent) to celebrate their 100th birthday than nonagenarians with less resilience.
This intriguing aspect of mind-body integration has steered scientists toward a part of your body known as the epigenome --- the network of compounds surrounding your genes. Your genes don’t change but external influences like the food you eat, the stress you experience and your exposure to toxins affect how they behave, a process known as gene expression.
The epigenetic process that scientists have studied most is DNA methylation, which tends to decline as we age. Based on this knowledge, geneticist Steve Horvath developed a method for measuring DNA methylation in cells which he christened the “epigenetic clock.”
This clock can identify the difference between chronological and biological age by determining how well cells are aging.Theoretically, a unique 106-year old, like Robert Marchand, could have the cells of a typical 75-year old. The science isn’t there yet, but Professor Horvath believes that chemical interventions to slow down the aging process and extend longevity are looming on the horizon.
In the meantime, numerous studies have shown that lifestyle changes can also make the epigenetic clock tick more slowly. These include:
Eating a healthy diet: Most of the chronic diseases associated with aging are linked with inflammation, a condition so common in older people that experts have coined the term “inflammaging.” The good news is that certain dietary approaches, notably the Mediterranean Diet (MD; primarily plant-based foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, plus healthy fats obtained mainly from fish and olive oil) have been shown to reduce inflammation. The MD works its magic, in part, by positively influencing gene expression. It’s also been shown to build psychological resilience in elderly people, as well as adults in general.
Keeping your weight under control. Carrying around excess weight speeds up the epigenetic clock. Obese people are more likely to have a shorter lifespan and they are also at higher risk for many chronic diseases. Geneticist Michael Snyder found that gaining just six pounds over 30 days changed the expression of 318 genes and activated markers associated with heart disease. Watching your weight builds resilience on a day-to-day basis as you exercise control over what you eat, helping to keep you well, now and as you age.
Enjoying regular physical activity. Numerous studies have linked regular exercise with building psychological and physical resilience. Exercise has been shown to improve DNA methylation, slowing down the epigenetic clock.
One 2017 study found that high-intensity aerobic exercise could reverse some aspects of aging in cells. The scientists were most surprised by the influence exercise had on gene activity in older people, impacting almost 400 genes in participants older than 64.
On the other hand, being a couch potato can speed up the epigenetic clock. Consider one Finnish study of identical male twins whose exercise habits changed. Within three years, the sedentary twins began to show worrisome symptoms: less stamina, a higher percentage of body fat and indications of insulin resistance, which is linked with type-2 diabetes and other metabolic illnesses. Moreover, their brains had less grey matter particularly in the areas linked with motor skills and coordination.
Saying “no” to smoking and/or drinking too much alcohol.
The epigenetic clock is unequivocal on this: If you smoke tobacco and/or over-imbibe in alcohol, your biological age will be much older than your chronological age. It may also be worth mentioning that chronic drinking changes gene expression in your brain
Increasing the likelihood that you will become even more dependent on alcohol as you age.
Practicing stress reduction techniques: Certain practices and techniques, including yoga, meditation and Tai Chi build resilience. Research shows that these practices have the potential to reverse gene expression resulting from poor health. In general terms, mindfulness-based stress reduction practices improved the expression of many different genes linked with inflammation.
The takeaway: successful aging is not just one thing. It’s an entire package involving a positive attitude and a commitment to a healthy lifestyle. Over time this approach will build resilience, improving gene expression in many different pathways and slowing down the epigenetic clock.
Yi Zeng. Resilience Significantly Contributed to Exceptional Longevity. Curr Gerontol Geriatr Res. 2010;
Horvath S (2013) DNA methylation age of human tissues and cell types. Genome Biol
Llorenta-Cortes et al. Effect of Mediterranean Diet on the Expression of Pro-Atherogenic Genes in a Population at High Cardiovascular Risk. Atherosclerosis Feb. 2010.
Brian D. Piening, Michael P. Snyder et al. Integrative Personal Omics Prolifes during Periods of Weight Gain and Loss. Cell Systems. February 20, 2018.
Robinson et al. Enhanced Protein Translation Underlies Improved Metabolic and Physical Adaptations to Differet Exercise Training Modes in Youg and Old Humans. Cell Metabolism, March 2017
Gale, C.R., Marioni, R.E., Čukić, I. et al. The epigenetic clock and objectively measured sedentary and walking behavior in older adults: the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. Clin Epigenet 10, 4 (2018).
Ivana Buric et al. What is the Molecular Signature of Mind-Body Interventions? A systemic Review of Gene Expression changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Front. Immunol. June 16, 2017.
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.