Research shows that diet—and other lifestyle factors—can play a big role in keeping you sharp, energetic and youthful. Read on to find out how to add years to your life, and life to your years.

Joyce Hendley, M.S.
April 15, 2021
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Once upon a time, living to a ripe old age was merely a possibility—if you were lucky. In truth, most of us didn't make it much beyond our reproductive years; as late as the 1890s, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was just around 45. But major advances in medicine and public health have expanded that to an average age of 78 (and that includes the recent 1-year drop due to COVID). The number of centenarians worldwide is predicted to climb to 3.7 million by 2050.

Our understanding of aging, too, has evolved dramatically. We used to think of it as an inevitable descent into debility and disease, except for those lucky few who were blessed with "good genes." (Think: Tom Brady.) Today, it's known that genetics only account for 20 to 25% of our longevity, and much of how we age is determined by epigenetics—that is, the effect that environment, diet and other lifestyle choices, many of which are within our control, have on the way our genes work. (Again, think: Tom Brady.) Biological age, in other words, is not the same as chronological age. (Try these 5 healthy lifestyle habits that may slow aging.)

Researchers are now focusing less on the number of birthday candles on the cake and more on our "health span"—extending the number of years we can live free of the infirmities we've come to associate with aging, from a foggier memory and creaking joints to a weakened immune system and greater risk of cancer. Rather than chalking up those indignities to "just getting older," experts are looking at them as largely preventable and sometimes even reversible. "We don't have to accept misery and frailty as a 'natural' part of old age," says molecular biologist David Sinclair, Ph.D., co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School and author of the provocatively titled Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don't Have To. He believes that aging is primarily a function of problems reading the information—the genetic code—in our cells, and that epigenetic disruption is a key driver of that process.

Sinclair and other researchers are looking at ways of reprogramming those cells. Recent studies he has conducted in mice have shown that it's possible to restore cells' ability to read those genetic instructions, a process he likens to polishing the surface of a scratched CD to retrieve the stored information—the music—inside. In this case, Sinclair and his team were able to make the eye cells of old mice "younger" and reverse vision loss.

We're still years away from turning findings like this into a medical reality for us humans. "But we already have plenty of tools to help us maximize our vitality along the way," says EatingWell advisor David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., founding director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and co-author of How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered. "The most important elements are lifestyle practices and having a healthy, supportive environment."

And when it comes to lifestyle habits, experts are pretty unanimous that what we choose to eat is central to aging well. An overall healthy diet that includes what Katz calls "the usual suspects"—fruits, vegetables and other plant-based, whole foods—is important. But the foods on the following pages are rich in compounds and nutrients that are particular anti-aging heroes. Other factors, such as regular exercise, sleep and stress management, are also associated with better aging.

Researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently reviewed decades of data from more than 123,000 participants and concluded that those who maintained certain healthy patterns in adulthood—eating a good diet, exercising, keeping weight under control, not drinking too much alcohol or smoking—were able to add significantly to their projected life spans, with women gaining an average of 14 years and men picking up 12 years. Best of all: most of these habits are eminently doable, if not downright pleasurable (eating!). "We know what to do, and it's not that hard for most people," says Sinclair. "How you live now goes a long way to ensure you'll have a productive, healthy and enjoyable old age."

Here's what the science is showing, and which foods are worth putting on your plate.

What Is Aging, Anyway?

Time passes and we all get older, but it's clear that aging isn't just a function of time. Just attend a 20th or 40th high school reunion and you'll see a vivid tableau of how those decades seem to be kinder to some than others. Indeed, when it comes to the changes we associate with aging, the World Health Organization notes that "a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity [and] a growing risk of disease ... are neither linear nor consistent, and they are only loosely associated with a person's age in years." Aging is actually a series of changes that occur at the molecular level in our bodies' cells, and experts say that how well we age is largely dependent on how healthy these microscopic body parts are.

When our cells divide and new ones replace the old ones, the DNA in their chromosomes is copied, supplying the vital instructions that make them function as they should. Capping the ends of our chromosomes are telomeres—-segments of DNA that help protect the precious genetic material inside and keep it intact during this process, akin to the way the aglet on the end of a shoelace prevents it from unraveling. As our cells replicate, telomeres tend to get smaller. Eventually, too-short telomeres send out chemical signals that trigger cells to stop dividing. Some die off, while others become senescent—less able to follow their genetic instructions, work properly and fend off disease. When senescent cells build up over time, our body's tissues start to age.

Turning Back Time

The good news is that this process isn't all one way: Research has shown that telomeres can actually lengthen, thanks to an enzyme called telomerase, the availability of which controls whether these DNA caps shrink, hold steady or grow after certain cells divide. And lifestyle factors like a healthy diet can keep them robust. "The better we can preserve telomeres in healthy cells, the better our chances of a longer health span," explains molecular biologist Patricia Opresko, Ph.D., a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Proof of this concept was first demonstrated in a study led by Dean Ornish, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI). Ornish's plant-based diet and lifestyle program, which includes things like moderate daily exercise and stress management, is best known for reducing—and sometimes reversing—the course of heart disease, but this research looked at prostate cancer patients. His team discovered that disease progression was significantly slower among those on the Ornish plan. And a follow-up study in another group of men with early-stage prostate cancer found that those who adhered most closely to the regimen had, on average, a 10% increase in the length of their telomeres after 5 years. By contrast, a control group that didn't follow the diet and lifestyle interventions had telomeres that became 3% shorter over the same period. The findings were some of the first to show "a very promising potential for individuals to change their lifestyle and have more control over how they age," notes Carra Richling, RD, senior registered dietitian at PMRI.

Cooling "Inflammaging"

How can our eating habits and behaviors have such a profound effect? Namely, by regulating levels of inflammation in our bodies—a process so closely linked to the development of age-related diseases that researchers have dubbed it "inflammaging." (Here are 5 Things You Shouldn't Do When Trying to Decrease Inflammation—and 5 Things You Should.)

First, some background: Inflammation is the way our bodies respond to challenges like infections and injuries, activating the immune system to fight off invading pathogens. But this healing process can become dangerous if it's chronic—causing quiet but persistent damage to our cells that shrinks telomeres and speeds the march to mortality. Nearly all major health conditions—from Alzheimer's and diabetes to cancer, hypertension and heart disease—are linked to chronic inflammation, which is responsible for more than half of all deaths worldwide. And our risk for developing it tends to increase as we age. (Lifestyle habits have long been linked to many of these conditions, but it's only recently that scientists discovered the reason for it at the cellular level: inflammation and telomere length.)

Vegetables, raw fish, fruit, and grains on a textured white background
Credit: Leigh Beisch

The Food Factor

A major contributor to inflammaging is oxidative stress, or the production of so-called "free radicals" in the body that damage cells, including our telomeres. Research in Opresko's lab found that high levels of oxidative stress can speed up the shortening of telomeres. But a plant-rich diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains can "protect and preserve your telomeres in a natural and healthy way," Opresko explains. The antioxidants they contain act as an off switch to the oxidation-inflammation process by neutralizing free radicals and breaking the chain of reactions that leads to cell damage. That may be one reason why the oft-lauded, plant-centric Mediterranean diet and DASH eating patterns have been tied to both lower rates of inflammation and longer telomere length. These eating patterns also provide plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps support a healthy microbiome—another key way to keep inflammation at bay.

Equally important as what you eat is what you don't, including red and processed meats, like sausage and cold cuts. Both are sources of pro-inflammatory compounds and have high amounts of saturated fat, which lead to the production of chemicals that can tip the immune system's balance in an inflammatory direction, says Katz.

Other inflammation stokers are foods with refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, and added sugars. They cause insulin spikes that negatively affect the immune system. Sugary sodas are especially potent inflammagers: an American Journal of Public Health study of 5,300 participants found a significant link between soda consumption and shorter telomere length—and that each daily 8-ounce serving was associated with nearly 2 extra years of cellular aging.

Recent studies also implicate ultra-processed foods, like chips and fast food, with higher levels of inflammation and shorter telomere lengths. A Spanish study of 886 seniors showed that those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods (3 or more servings a day) had almost double the odds of having short telomeres compared with those who ate the least (less than 2 daily servings). Why? These foods deliver pro-inflammatory nutrients we already get too much of—salt, added sugars, refined carbs and unhealthy fats.

Sticking to a more plant-based, whole-food-rich diet is a recommendation we've all certainly heard before. But that is the point, experts say. It's a proven way to live better now, and it also happens to provide the best insurance for a longer and happier health span.

Foods to Eat More of for Healthy Aging

3 different types of raw fish on a textured blue and white background
Credit: Leigh Beisch

Fish more

As a rule, Americans aren't big fish eaters, but evidence suggests that those who do get a modest amount in their diets—1 to 2 servings weekly, which is around what the Dietary Guidelines recommend—are more than a third less likely to die from heart disease, our nation's top killer. And recent data from men and women enrolled in the huge NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study shows they may live longer, period. Among the 421,000-plus subjects, those in the highest fish-eating bracket (still just 2 servings per week) had a significantly lower risk of death during the 16 years of the study—it was 9% less for men, 8% for women—compared to non-fish eaters. (Importantly, no such associations were found for fried fish, suggesting that cooking method matters.)

The benefits are commonly ascribed to the inflammation-fighting effects of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in abundance in many types of fish, such as salmon, sardines and tuna. And there's evidence at the cellular level, too: University of California, San Francisco researchers measured health markers in 608 elderly patients with stable heart disease (who therefore were already at risk for accelerated aging) over a 5-year period. They found that the higher the levels of omega-3s in their blood at baseline, the less their telomeres shortened during the course of the study. And a recent report published in The BMJ that measured blood levels of omega-3s in 2,622 elderly adults for 13 years determined that those with the highest amount (again, equal to 2 weekly servings) had an 18% lower chance of experiencing an "unhealthy aging factor," such as heart or lung disease, cancer, or cognitive or physical declines during the study period, when compared to those with the lowest omega-3 levels.

That said, the benefits of eating fish must also be balanced against the negatives—overfishing of certain species, and the risk of exposure to environmental contaminants like mercury that can accumulate in fish, particularly larger ones, such as swordfish. Experts recommend staying within the 1 to 2 servings a week guideline and buying sustainable, low-mercury species. Or, like Yale's David Katz, you can get your omega-3s from plant sources instead. He suggests a daily supplement derived from algae, versus plant-based sources, such as flaxseed and walnuts. "You'll much more reliably get the optimal dose," he says. "Fish and seafood may be the best-known sources of omega-3s, but fish and seafood get it from algae." (Try these 8 vegan sources of omega-3s to get your fill.)

Boost with berries

Mixed berries on a textured blue and white background
Credit: Leigh Beisch

Berries of any type—blueberries, cranberries, strawberries—offer a host of healthy-aging benefits for the body and brain. They're great sources of microbiome-friendly fiber, plus the flavonoid pigments that give berries their blue, red and purple hues, called anthocyanins, are powerful cell-protecting antioxidants that have been associated with a reduced risk of age-related diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. For example, a study published in the journal Circulation analyzed 18 years of data from more than 93,000 middle-aged women and found that those whose diets contained the highest amounts of anthocyanins—equivalent to roughly 3 servings a week of blueberries or strawberries—had 32% lower odds of having a heart attack compared to those who rarely ate them.

Anthocyanins—also found in similarly colored produce, such as pomegranates, grapes, red cabbage and plums—can also cross the blood-brain barrier to regions involved in memory and learning. They appear to protect neurons from damage caused by certain toxins and inflammation and play a role in preventing some of the cognitive declines associated with aging, including Alzheimer's disease. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at data from 2,800 people enrolled in the massive Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort—which tracked the dietary records and health status of thousands of participants for decades—and found that those who ate the most berries (just under 2 cups per week) were 4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease over a 20-year period compared with low- or non-berry-eaters. "I get berries every time I go grocery shopping," says lead study author Paul Jacques, D.Sc., a senior scientist at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. Similarly, researchers with the Nurses' Health Study (another large-scale under-taking that has been assessing the health of more than 275,000 people since the 1970s) conducted memory testing in 16,010 elderly women over a 6-year period and discovered that berry eaters consuming at least 1 to 2 servings per week slowed their cognitive aging by up to 2½ years when compared with participants who ate 1 serving a month or less. Frozen berries, which might be more affordable or easier to find when berries aren't in season, have the same benefits. Get your berry fill with these recipes to help you use up your pint of berries.

Go green

Leafy greens, that is. Recent research has linked a number of nutrients found in foods like chard, kale and spinach to aging more healthfully, including anti-inflammatory carotenoid compounds and vitamin K, which play a role in protecting aging bones and keeping arteries flexible. Leafy greens are also rich in folate—a B vitamin that works closely with B12 and B6 to help keep the body's levels of the amino acid homocysteine in check. High levels of homocysteine in the blood are considered a marker for heart disease, as they can damage the lining of the arteries and increase the risk of blood clots. Studies have also associated elevated homocysteine with inflammation and shorter telomere length.

Bet on beans

What's so magical about "the magical fruit" when it comes to living longer and better? For one, beans and legumes are packed with the nutrients associated with healthier aging—including fiber, folate and trace minerals like iron and zinc. And they're rich in protein, which makes them a good swap for animal-based proteins, such as red meat, that may stoke inflammation levels and shorten life span. One study that looked at the diets of 5 cohorts of people age 70 and older from Sweden, Greece, Japan and Australia concluded that for every 20 grams (about 2 Tbsp.) of beans people ate per day, their risk of dying dropped by 8%. What's more, a review published in the journal Nutrients found that consuming beans and legumes was associated with longer telomeres, while protein sources like red meat had the opposite effect. No wonder they feature so heavily in the diets of people living in centenarian-rich blue zones. Dan Buettner, who identified these blue zones, notes that whether residents live in Okinawa or Sardinia, their mostly whole-food, plant-based diets include a lot of beans. (He devotes a quarter of the recipes in his cookbook, The Blue Zones Kitchen, to beans, lentils and other legumes.) Try these healthy bean recipes.

Enjoy some soy

Speaking of beans, soybeans (aka edamame) and foods made from them, such as tofu, tempeh and miso, have an added anti-aging benefit over their cousins (no offense, lentils). They contain compounds called isoflavones, which have a weak estrogen-like activity as well as antioxidant effects in the body. Studies show that diets that include soy can lead to a lower incidence of arthritis, a typical old-age bane. And in postmenopausal women, soy intake has been associated with greater muscle mass, skin elasticity and stronger bones (which the drop in natural estrogen levels can negatively impact). Like other legumes, soy is a good source of protein and an easy way to replace more-inflammatory animal-based proteins in your diet—while getting some micro-biome-supporting fiber in the bargain. For example, 1 cup of shelled edamame has about 22 grams of protein, similar to a 3-ounce portion of steak, plus 18 grams of fiber. (Beef has no fiber.)

And, while some people have worried that soy may increase cancer risk, "the associations don't hold up when you review the research, especially when people focus on whole or minimally processed soy foods—rather than those made with soy isolates, which are highly processed," says Richling of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. (Think: edamame or tofu versus a tofu hot dog.) In fact, recent evidence suggests that when eaten in this form soy may not impact cancer risk, or may even protect against it—namely breast cancer. As with all things, don't go overboard. Richling adds that in countries like Japan and China, where people consume soy foods regularly and experience a low risk of certain cancers, they tend to eat 1 to 2 servings a day at most.

Get whole grains

From whole wheat and farro to millet and oats, whole grains deliver in a big way when it comes to fighting age-related body declines as well as diseases like cancer and heart disease. Because they still retain their nutrient-packed outer hulls rather than losing them in the refining process, whole grains provide nutrients like folate and other B vitamins, and free-radical-squelching compounds including phenolics and lignans. Even more notably, they supply plenty of fiber, which has been associated with longer telomere length in studies. Oats and barley are particular standouts. They're rich in soluble fiber, a nutrient that helps control blood sugar levels—and fights the insulin resistance that tends to increase with age. Insulin resistance can also damage and shorten telomeres. (Of course, most of the foods you're reading about here contain fiber, but whole grains and beans tend to offer the highest dose per serving.)

Current dietary guidelines recommend women get at least 25 grams of fiber daily; for men it's 38. However, most of us average just 15 grams a day. Senior citizens get even less fiber, due to diminished appetite and more difficulty chewing hard or fibrous foods. That said, making the effort to get more of this nutrient can have a big age-fighting payoff: a study of over 1,600 older adults found that those who ate fiber-rich diets (averaging about 29 grams daily) were 80% more likely to live longer and "age successfully" (staying free of disease, cognitive decline and other disabilities) over a 10-year period compared with those who didn't.

A fiber-rich diet can also help support a healthier microbiome. Interestingly, studies suggest that people with the most diverse and balanced gut flora tend to live longer, with less frailty, although the hows and whys are still unclear.

Try tea

Habitual tea drinkers, especially those who favor green tea, tend to have longer telomeres than those who sip it less often. Why? The science points to polyphenols—compounds abundant in tea that help give the brew its distinct flavors—which are powerful inflammation fighters. Green tea is rich in a type of polyphenol called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that has been shown to fight free-radical damage, reduce blood glucose levels and have neuroprotective effects, even in moderate amounts. In a study published in the journal Aging, researchers conducted brain scans and collected dietary information from 36 seniors over a 3-year period. They found that the longest-term tea drinkers—those who reported consuming at least 4 cups (of any kind) each week for the past 25 years—had better neural connections between different areas of the brain. "Our study suggests that tea drinking is effective in preventing (slowing) or ameliorating cognitive decline," the researchers concluded, "and that tea drinking may be a simple lifestyle choice that benefits brain health." Pinkies up!

Crunch on cruciferous vegetables

Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables—named for their cross-shaped petal formation when the plants flower—have long been linked with a lower risk of age-related diseases, like cancer and heart disease. They're also rich in fiber, vitamins A, C, folate and vitamin K—all associated with healthier aging.

A key phytonutrient in cruciferous veggies, called sulforaphane, appears to be especially protective at fighting the chronic inflammation that makes us age faster. One Chinese study found sulforaphane to be a potent activator of the body's NRF2 signaling pathway, which controls gene expression and is crucial for suppressing inflammation, improving antioxidant function, triggering our natural detoxifying processes and guarding against degenerative brain disorders. If we do say so ourselves, this Parmesan-Crusted Cauliflower with White Beans & Tomatoes would be a delicious place to start.

Joyce HENDLEY, M.S., is a Denver-based food and health writer and teacher.