These 3 Things Could Make You Age Faster, According to Research

Were you diagnosed with any of these conditions from age 11 to 15? Here's what you need to know.

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Photo: Adobe Stock / Dmytro

We often think of cognitive decline as a consideration and challenge among seniors, but new research published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics proves that certain characteristics in our pre-teen and teen years can increase risk for accelerated aging later in life. Adolescents who smoked or who have been diagnosed with obesity or a psychological disorder aged faster than their peers, this study found.

Researchers analyzed data from 910 New Zealanders who had enrolled in the Dunedin Study, each of which were born between April 1972 and March 1973. This long-term data pool included health and behavior information from those individuals from age 3 to 45. For this particular study, the researchers looked at body mass index (BMI), waist-to-hip ratio, blood tests, levels of certain hormones, blood pressure, cholesterol, tooth decay, gum disease (something that has been linked to heart disease and mental health), cardiorespiratory fitness and brain MRIs.

By the time the study participants were 45, the scientists discovered that the adults who had any two or more of the three risk factors—smoking or a diagnosis of obesity or psychological disorders between 11 and 15—walked about 2 inches per second slower, had a "brain age" 2 ½ years older and looked about 4 years older in their faces.

The scientists' goal with this study, they share in the paper, was to pinpoint certain conditions or features of early life that might help individuals and their medical team slow aging and prevent poor health later in life.

"The hope is if we were to study a cohort now, a much higher proportion of those children and adolescents are actually going to be treated for these things, which will reduce the risk of accelerated aging later in life. Our paper reaffirms that those are important treatments and those kinds of investments younger in the lifespan could net big benefits in terms of both health and the cost of healthcare later on as well," one study author Kyle Bourassa, a clinical psychology researcher and advanced research fellow at the Durham VA Health Care System, tells CNN. This study "shows that these have independent effects, so each of them is exerting their own association with later aging."

Admittedly, tobacco is addictive and the habit can be tough to quit. (You can access smoking cessation resources for you or a loved one on the CDC's How to Quit Smoking guide.) But this factor is more of a modifiable choice than the other two—obesity and mental health challenges like depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder—which countless studies have found to have strong genetic ties.

The researchers do believe, however, that all three of these factors have a common manifestation within the body: each has been linked to more chronic inflammation, plus possibly additional oxidative stress, which is an imbalance of disease-causing free radicals and disease-fighting antioxidants in the body. This aging can lead to cognitive decline, early mortality, the development of one or more chronic diseases (such as lung or heart disease) since those conditions may progress at a more rapid rate.

Early treatment for any or all of the above can benefit mental and physical health, the study authors confirm.

"If we can treat these conditions, slow people's aging, then that's going to have health benefits across the lifespan and basically through their entire body," he said.

A care team—including a doctor, therapist, dietitian and beyond—can help customize a healthy and sustainable lifestyle shift.

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