Find me a woman who doesn’t want to be judged as younger than the candles on her birthday cake. I will openly admit, I’m tickled pink if someone shaves a few years (any number will do at this point) off my chronological age. And it’s true, for some of us, our “real” age – or biological age – doesn’t match up to our chronological age. Here’s why.
What is biological age?
“Our biological age takes into account our chronological age, but then adds factors that influence the ageing process, such as healthy or harmful habits, and genetic predisposition,” says nutrition and exercise scientist Amelia Phillips.
“Even in a predominantly healthy country like Australia we have huge health challenges – such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular health – that age us faster than our years.”
The research backs this up – where you live, how you live and what happens to you in life will affect how fast you age. In fact, one 2022 study found that these lifestyle factors were a stronger determinant of health and lifespan than genetics (up until the age of 80 at least).
“The effect of any one gene or specific lifestyle factor on biological ageing is quite small,” says Professor Andrew Zalesky from the University of Melbourne, whose recent research found that internal organs can actually age at different rates. “The effects most likely accumulate across multiple genes or environmental factors.
Can you reduce your biological age?
The short answer is – yes. “For now the best we can do is limit premature biological ageing by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and mental wellbeing,” says Professor Zalesky, who explains that research has found a link between expedited biological ageing and smoking, exposure to air pollution, and poverty.
“We can now estimate the biological age of your organs based on a simple blood test and medical imaging data,” he says. “We know that if a person’s lungs appear older than peers of the same age and sex, it is more likely that their heart and brain appear older as well.”
Recently, a US study proved an increase in biological age due to short-term stress such as surgery can be reversed – that suggests our biological age is not necessarily fixed, and that it’s potentially malleable.
“Further work would be needed to determine whether these effects generalise to other biological clocks and whether it is lifelong but, overall, the findings are very promising,” says Professor Zalesky.
According to Amelia, reducing inflammation is the best starting point. “Chronic inflammation underpins almost every lifestyle-related disease out there,” says Amelia, who points to environmental pollutants, stress, weight gain, poor quality sleep, lack of exercise and a diet of processed foods as major inflammation drivers.
She says healthy changes in diet can be felt within days as the intestinal wall cells begin to function more effectively. “You could say they start to behave like a younger cell. It is entirely possible to turn back the cellular clock after just a few months of healthy lifestyle interventions, which is very motivating,” says Amelia. “Our bodies are forgiving creatures!”
How you can reverse biological ageing
Small lifestyle changes can really turn things around.
1. Reduce stress
Physical stress, such as surgery, can increase biological age but so can psychological stress.
“Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol has been associated with accelerated cellular ageing, various age-related diseases and cognitive decline,” says Amelia Phillips.
“I see a ripple effect with my clients as stress can also throw healthy habits out the window.” To reduce cortisol, try exercising, cutting caffeine, sugar and alcohol, and reducing screen time.
2. Get enough shut-eye
When it comes to longevity, Amelia puts sleep on the same pedestal as exercise and food.
“It’s a winning trifecta … adequate sleep supports cellular repair and regeneration, regulates immune function, balances hormone levels, reduces inflammation, enhances cognitive function, and improves overall wellbeing, all of which contribute to healthy ageing,” she says.
Seven to nine hours is ideal, but you naturally need less as you age. If you are over 60, you might get five to seven hours.
One study found that engaging in regular exercise can reduce your biological age by up to nine years compared to people with sedentary lifestyles.
“Exercise also improves mobility, enhances cardiovascular function, maintains healthy body weight, promotes mental wellbeing, and improves immune function,” says Amelia. “All of these really add up to increase lifespan but, more importantly, also health span.
“Under-or over-training can be harmful to cellular health. The sweet spot is about 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity.”
4. Eat wholefoods
Research shows a Mediterranean-style diet, which they follow in the Blue Zones, can slow the ageing process by up to five years.
“Diet is by far one of the biggest influences on cellular health. A healthy diet reduces the flood of pro-inflammatory triggers and neutralises those already present – it’s a double win!” says Amelia.
“Intermittent fasting protocols also promote cellular health as it encourages autophagy, a cellular process in which damaged cell components are recycled or degraded.”
Leave 12-14 hours between dinner and breakfast. It’s thought to help your cells become more resilient to stress.
5. Reduce inflammation
Stress, weight gain, lack of exercise, diet, and environmental toxins all impact your inflammation levels.
“Low-grade chronic inflammation is the cause of rapid cellular damage and is one of the biggest factors determining health span. This includes cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and certain types of cancer,” says Amelia.
Daily exercise, a wholefood diet, stress management and adequate sleep can mitigate the impact of stress.