Ageing is both a natural and unavoidable part of life but anti-ageing diets and many other dietary approaches can help to support healthy ageing and longevity pathways and minimise the risk of disease. In addition to the visible signs of ageing, there are many associated conditions, which include cognitive decline, osteoporosis, reduced mobility, hearing loss, and many more.
However, many conditions related to ageing should not just be an inevitable part of getting older and the dietary and food choices we make throughout life play an important role in determining how our ageing process takes place. With an ageing population and a rising life expectancy, it is more important than ever to consider how to stay healthy as we age.
In this week’s blog we will take a look at some of the processes that drive ageing and how we can impact on these positively through consuming anti-ageing foods.
What is ageing?
At the biological level, ageing results from the impact of the accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time. This leads to a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity, and a growing risk of disease.1 The World Health Organisation defines healthy ageing as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.1
Hallmarks of ageing
There are many hallmarks of ageing, and each is not usually independent from the next but closely interrelated. These hallmarks are the core underlying processes of how we age and include:1,2
- stem cell exhaustion
- telomere attrition
- cellular senescence
- microbiome disturbance
- mitochondrial dysfunction
Other hallmarks include epigenetic alterations, genomic instability, and loss of proteostasis. Understanding the processes that underpin ageing is critical to ameliorating its impact.
When regulated and under control, inflammation is a key component of our immune system. However, problems start to occur when inflammation is out of control and becomes chronic and systemic. Chronic inflammation causes damage to the body’s cells and tissues and can catalyse the ageing process. It is implicated in a wide-range of age-related diseases.1
From a skin perspective, inflammation can cause damage and destruction to the skin’s structural components, including collagen and elastin, thereby contributing to increased wrinkle formation and loss of firmness.
Drivers of inflammation include:
- central obesity – thought to be a greater risk factor for chronic low-grade inflammation compared to general obesity. It is strongly linked to cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other metabolic and vascular diseases3,4
- oxidative stress
- poor diet/micronutrient deficiency
- lifestyle factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake etc
- microbiome disturbance/gut permeability
- cellular senescence
Oxidative stress is viewed as an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and their elimination by protective mechanisms, which can lead to chronic inflammation.6 It is a harmful process that can cause damage to many cellular structures, such as membranes, lipids, proteins, lipoproteins, and DNA. When ROS levels are not quelled, they can lead to accelerated biological ageing.7 Factors that greatly increase ROS production include:
- environmental stressors (e.g., pollution, pesticides and heavy metals)
- lifestyle habits such as smoking/alcohol/excessive sun exposure
- excessive exercise
- some cooking methods
- psychological stress/lack of sleep
Glycation takes place when sugars form non-enzymatic bonds with proteins, nucleic acids, or lipids. This cross-linking produces glycotoxins called advanced glycation end products, commonly shortened to AGEs. Although the formation of AGEs is a part of normal metabolism, if excessively high, they are highly oxidant harmful compounds that have been shown to cause oxidative stress, inflammation and accelerated ageing.8
The proteins in skin are also prone to glycation. As the AGE molecules damage collagen and elastin, visible effects to the skin include a reduction in suppleness, wrinkles and loss of radiance. Factors that can increase glycation include:
- high sugar consumption
- high temperature processed foods – AGEs can also form in foods. Foods that have been exposed to high temperatures (grilling, frying) tend to be very high in these compounds
- increased blood glucose levels – caused by factors such as stress, poor diet and insulin resistance
Stem cell exhaustion
The ability of our tissues and organs to regenerate and repair damage is critical to maintaining health and our ability to regenerate depends on healthy stem cells, which are the source of new cells. The decline in our ability to do so results in ageing and many associated conditions. Stem cells perform an extensive range of functions such as the replacement of red/white blood cells and solid tissues, for example. Stem cell exhaustion can therefore lead to decreased immune function, muscle loss and the weakening of bones. Factors that may drive stem cell dysfunction/exhaustion include:
- telomere shortening(can lead to stem cells losing function and becoming senescent)
- DNA damage
Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes and are important for keeping the information in our DNA intact. They are often described using the analogy of a shoelace, which prevents the end of the lace from fraying. Our cells are in a cycle of constantly replenishing themselves but each time a cell replicates, telomeres get shorter. Telomere length represents our biological age as opposed to our chronological age and an accelerated rate of telomere attrition is a common feature of premature ageing and disease.9-11 Factors that can increase the rate of telomere shortening include:
- poor antioxidant status
- lifestyle/environmental factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, stress and pollution
Cellular senescence is the process by which cells age and permanently stop dividing but do not die. Over time, and as the immune system ages, large numbers of senescent cells can build up in tissues and can release harmful substances (pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines etc) that can cause inflammation and damage to healthy cells. These harmful effects can contribute to ageing.13 Cellular senescence occurs in response to endogenous and exogenous stresses, including12
- telomere shortening
- persistent DNA damage
- inflammation and oxidative stress
- obesity – promotes premature induction of the senescent state of cells
Microbiome disturbance/gut permeability
The gut microbiome is a contributory factor in ageing-related health loss and in several non-communicable diseases in all age groups.15 Recent research has allowed the identification of notable changes in the gut microbiome with age, pointing in particular to shifts in microbial populations and loss of species diversity. Together with age-associated loss of structural integrity of the gut and other barriers (blood-brain), this shift in microbial populations can drive inflammation.5 Factors that can negatively affect gut health include:
- gluten and other allergies/intolerances
- poor diet
The mitochondria are often referred to as the powerhouses of our cells as they convert food into usable energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This fuels a vast range of cellular processes. As they age, mitochondria lose their ability to provide cellular energy and meet the energy requirements of the body.
The impact of mitochondrial decay is wide-reaching and old mitochondria generate increased amounts of mutagenic by-products. This decline cascades into DNA and RNA damage and into cells, tissues, and eventually organs.14
Mitochondria have become recognised not merely as being energy suppliers but also as having an essential role in the development of diseases such as neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.14
This association is tightly related to an energy supply and demand imbalance. Oxidative stress, DNA damage, medications and pollution can all contribute to dysfunction. Dr Bruce Ames, a molecular biologist, demonstrated that vitamin and mineral deficiencies directly contribute to mitochondrial decay and acceleration of the ageing process.16,17
Anti-ageing diets: How can we impact ageing processes through diet?
The discussed biological processes are complex but are all influenced by our dietary intake. Understanding the mechanisms of the ageing process allows us to implement steps that can help us to delay the ageing process and increase healthy lifespan. The following dietary guidelines have many overlaps.
Nutrient dense diets
Adequate levels of vitamins and minerals (needed as cofactors in thousands of metabolic reactions) are critical for maintaining a healthy metabolism, and thus longevity and the prevention of chronic disease.1 When one input in the metabolic network is inadequate, repercussions are felt on a large number of systems. This may, for example, result in an increase in DNA damage (and cancer), neuron decay (and cognitive dysfunction) or mitochondrial decay (and accelerated ageing and degenerative diseases).1,2
Processed and refined foods have been stripped of many important nutrients that are needed for healthy ageing and longevity pathways and so adopting a nutrient-dense diet rich in wholefoods, fruits and vegetables is recommended.
Supporting a nutrient dense anti-ageing diet with a good quality multivitamin and mineral to ensure you are bridging the gap between intake and optimal needs is also recommended.
Inflammation is a driver of many of the above processes. Pro-inflammatory foods promote wrinkles, accelerate ageing and the storage of body fat and include:
- refined grains
- trans fats
- processed foods
Incorporating an anti-inflammatory diet is important not only as a preventative strategy but to also help reduce the overall burden of inflammation in the body. An anti-inflammatory diet excludes the above and includes a wide variety of vegetables and fruit, lean protein and healthy fats.
Protein – slows down the release of glucose into the blood so helps to stabilise blood sugar levels, which in turn helps to reduce inflammation and glycation. Opt for wild caught fish, grass-fed beef and organic free-range chicken, if possible.
Healthy fats – omega-3 fats in oily fish are important for reducing inflammation. Avoid sunflower and vegetable oils are these are high in omega 6 and can contribute to inflammation. The ratio of omega-6 to 3 is very important. The majority of people are consuming too much omega-6 relative to omega-3 and are often producing excess amounts of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Omega-3:1
- is anti-inflammatory
- is capable of reducing oxidative stress
- has shown an ability to restore mitochondrial oxidative capacity, improving cellular respiration and ATP production
Abundance of vegetables and fruit – fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are anti-inflammatory and rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which can mitigate oxidative stress in the body. Essential for anti-ageing diets.
Gut health – due to being nutrient dense and the removal of sugar, refined foods and potential allergens such as gluten, an anti-inflammatory diet can also help to support gut health. Conversely, the consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugar triggers the growth of harmful gut bacteria and promotes an inflammatory gut microbiota.
Organic – choosing organic can reduce the toxic burden of pesticides and other chemicals that can contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation.
Cook with anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric and ginger.
Why low glycaemic load foods play an important part in anti-ageing diets
A low glycaemic load (Low-GL) diet is an eating plan based on how foods affect blood sugar levels. It is a measure of the type and quantity of the carbohydrates you eat. Lowering the glycaemic load of the diet reduces the insulin response required. Aim to:
- include carbohydrates that release their sugar content slowly (green vegetables, fruits such as berries, legumes). Those vegetables that grow above the ground will have significantly lower carbohydrate (and higher healthful nutrients) than those that are grown below the ground
- avoid eating sugary or refined carbohydrates
- starchy carbohydrates such as wholegrains should only be eaten in small amounts and should not cover more than a ¼ of the plate at any meal
- combine with protein and healthy fats to further slow blood sugar release
Following a low-GL diet can help to maintain a healthy weight, lower glycation and inflammation and minimise the risk of diabetes and heart and blood vessel diseases.
Supplementing nutrients or herbs which aid glucose uptake and improve insulin sensitivity such as chromium, magnesium, zinc, alpha lipoic acid and cinnamon may also be of benefit.
Although AGEs were thought to form only endogenously, primarily as the result of hyperglycaemia, it is now clear that exogenous AGEs in foods are also an important contributor. AGEs are produced when foods are cooked under high heat and are common in processed foods. Adopting an anti-AGE diet is beneficial for halting protein glycation and damage of vascular cells. Ways to reduce AGEs in the diet:
- Include wholefoods and remove highly processed ones
- Minimise sugar
- Include an abundance of antioxidants
- Prepare with moist heat (poaching, steaming, boiling)
- Avoid dry heat processed foods such as crisps, crackers and biscuits
Several clinical trials have demonstrated that the application of an AGE-restricted diet reduces not only the systemic levels of AGEs but also the levels of markers of oxidative stress and inflammation.1
Anti-ageing diets: make them antioxidant rich
Although an anti-inflammatory diet is rich in antioxidants they are worth a separate mention. Antioxidants are compounds that neutralise or remove free radicals by donating an electron. By doing so they help to prevent and repair damage to cells, DNA, and mitochondria, for example.
- Consume 6-8 portions of vegetables and 1-2 portions of fruit per day which are high in antioxidants and phytonutrients – choose a wide range of colours
- Increase antioxidants such as vitamin A, vitamin C, selenium, zinc, N-acetyl-cysteine, alpha-lipoic acid and polyphenols
Intermittent fasting (IF) can help promote beneficial changes in metabolic pathways and cellular processes and thus impact on healthy ageing. IF may help:1-6
- reduce body mass
- promote fat burning
- improve glucose and lipid metabolism
- increase cellular repair
- decrease inflammation
- protect against oxidative stress
- increase stem cell proliferation
This can be achieved by:
- ensuring caloric intake is below 500Kcal for 2 days out of 7, or
- ensuring food is only consumed in a maximum of a 12-hour window, or
- even more effective is an 8-hour window (e.g. 10am-6pm)
- avoid eating 3 hours before bedtime
Eat a Mediterranean diet rich in anti-ageing foods
The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterised by:
- high consumption of extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts
- moderate intake of fish
- low intake of dairy products, meat and sugar
- low in sodium, trans fat, sugar and additives
This model of eating has been extensively researched for its positive effects on the hallmarks of ageing, through multiple mechanisms.1 For example, studies have linked to longer telomere length2, reduced levels of inflammation and oxidative stress and increased mitochondrial function.1
Other nutrients important for anti-ageing
NAC – a precursor of glutathione and a direct ROS scavenger, has been used as a therapeutic agent to ameliorate the damaging effects of ROS.
Vitamin D – crucial for a wide range of cellular processes including cellular differentiation, proliferation and apoptosis. There is also evidence that it has an ability to reduce telomere shortening possibly through anti-inflammatory and anti-cell proliferation mechanisms.1
Folate – is an important methyl donor and therefore highly needed for DNA methylation (and consequently for avoiding genomic instability).2
B12 – getting enough B12 may a challenge for older people
Lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine are useful for optimising mitochondrial function.
CoQ10 acts as a powerful antioxidant in the membrane of the mitochondria
- There are many dietary approaches that can help to support healthy ageing and longevity pathways
- Hallmarks of ageing include inflammation, glycation, telomere attrition, cellular senescent, mitochondrial dysfunction and stem cell exhaustion
- Nutrient dense – adequate levels of vitamins and minerals (needed as cofactors in thousands of metabolic reactions) are critical for maintaining a healthy metabolism, and thus longevity
- Anti-inflammatory – excludes pro-inflammatory foods (sugar, refined grains, processed) and includes a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, lean protein and healthy fats
- Low-glycaemic load – is an eating plan based on how foods affect blood sugar levels. It is a measure of the type and quantity of the carbohydrates you eat. Lowering the GL of the diet reduces the insulin response required
- Anti-AGE (advanced glycation end products) – is beneficial for halting protein glycation and damage of vascular cells
- Antioxidant-rich – helps to prevent and repair damage to cells, DNA and mitochondria
- Intermittent fasting – can help promote beneficial changes in metabolic pathways and cellular processes
- Mediterranean – extensively researched for its positive effects on the hallmarks of ageing
- Nutrients – include NAC, vitamin D, antioxidants A, C, selenium and zinc, and CoQ10
Anti-ageing diets references:
- Rudnicka, E. et al. (2020) ‘The World Health Organization (WHO) approach to healthy ageing’, Maturitas, 139, p. 6.
Hallmarks of ageing
- Schmauck-Medina, T. et al. (2022) ‘New hallmarks of ageing: a 2022 Copenhagen ageing meeting summary’, Aging (Albany NY), 14(16), p. 6829.
- López-Otín, C. et al. (2013) ‘The Hallmarks of Aging’, Cell, 153(6), p. 1194.
- Razay, G., Vreugdenhil, A. and Wilcock, G. (2006) ‘Obesity, Abdominal Obesity and Alzheimer Disease’, Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, 22(2), pp. 173–176.
- Yusuf, S., Hawken, S. INTERHEART Study Investigators (2004). Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. Lancet (London, England), 364(9438), 937–952.
- Wilmanski, T. et al. (2021) ‘Gut microbiome pattern reflects healthy ageing and predicts survival in humans’, Nature metabolism, 3(2), pp. 274–286.
- Hussain, T., Tan, B., Yin, Y., Blachier, F., Tossou, M. C., & Rahu, N. (2016). Oxidative Stress and Inflammation: What Polyphenols Can Do for Us?. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2016, 7432797.
- Pizzino, G et al. (2017) Oxidative Stress: Harms and Benefits for Human Health, Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Biology
- Uribarri, J., & Vlassara, H. (2007). Circulating glycotoxins and dietary advanced glycation endproducts: two links to inflammatory response, oxidative stress, and aging. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 62(4), 427–433.
- Vaiserman, A., & Krasnienkov, D. (2021). Telomere Length as a Marker of Biological Age: State-of-the-Art, Open Issues, and Future Perspectives. Frontiers in genetics, 11, 630186.
- Blackburn EH, Epel ES. Comment: Too toxic to ignore. Nature. 2012;490:169–171.
- Boonekamp, J. J., Simons, M. J., Hemerik, L., & Verhulst, S. (2013). Telomere length behaves as biomarker of somatic redundancy rather than biological age. Aging cell, 12(2), 330–332.
- Di Micco, R., Krizhanovsky, V., Baker, D. et al.Cellular senescence in ageing: from mechanisms to therapeutic opportunities. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 22, 75–95 (2021).
- McHugh, D., & Gil, J. (2018). Senescence and aging: Causes, consequences, and therapeutic avenues. The Journal of cell biology, 217(1), 65–77.
- Amorim, J.A. et al. (2022) ‘Mitochondrial and metabolic dysfunction in ageing and age-related diseases’, Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 18(4), p. 243.
- Ghosh, T.S., Shanahan, F. and O’Toole, P.W. (2022) ‘The gut microbiome as a modulator of healthy ageing’, Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology 2022 19:9, 19(9), pp. 565–584.
- Ames, B.N. (2022) ‘Musings in the twilight of my career’, Free radical biology & medicine, 178, pp. 219–225.
- Ames, B.N. (2006) ‘Low micronutrient intake may accelerate the degenerative diseases of aging through allocation of scarce micronutrients by triage’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(47), p. 17589.
- Kim, Y.S. and Kim, N. (2018) ‘Sex-Gender Differences in Irritable Bowel Syndrome’, Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 24(4), p. 544.
- Hemarajata, P. and Versalovic, J. (2013) ‘Effects of probiotics on gut microbiota: mechanisms of intestinal immunomodulation and neuromodulation’, Therapeutic advances in gastroenterology, 6(1), pp. 39–51.
- Giudici, K.V. Nutrition and the Hallmarks of Aging. J Nutr Health Aging 25, 1039–1041 (2021).
- Uribarri, J. and He, J.C. (2015) ‘The low AGE diet: a neglected aspect of clinical nephrology practice?’, Nephron, 130(1), pp. 48–53.
- Zhang, Q. et al. (2022) ‘Intermittent Fasting versus Continuous Calorie Restriction: Which Is Better for Weight Loss?’, Nutrients, 14(9).
- Borgundvaag, E., Mak, J. and Kramer, C.K. (2021) ‘Metabolic Impact of Intermittent Fasting in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Interventional Studies’, The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 106(3), pp. 902–911.
- Keenan, S., Cooke, M.B. and Belski, R. (2020) ‘The Effects of Intermittent Fasting Combined with Resistance Training on Lean Body Mass: A Systematic Review of Human Studies’, Nutrients, 12(8), pp. 1–17.
- Sandoval, C., Santibañez, S. and Villagrán, F. (2021) ‘Effectiveness of intermittent fasting to potentiate weight loss or muscle gains in humans younger than 60 years old: a systematic review’, International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 72(6), pp. 734–745.
- Wang, X. et al. (2020) ‘Effects of intermittent fasting diets on plasma concentrations of inflammatory biomarkers: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials’, Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 79–80.
- Moon, S. et al. (2020) ‘Beneficial Effects of Time-Restricted Eating on Metabolic Diseases: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis’, Nutrients, 12(5).
- Shannon, O.M., Ashor, A.W., Scialo, F. et al. Mediterranean diet and the hallmarks of ageing. Eur J Clin Nutr 75, 1176–1192 (2021).
- Canudas, S. et al. (2020) ‘Mediterranean Diet and Telomere Length: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’, Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 11(6), pp. 1544–1554.
- Zarei M, Zarezadeh M, Hamedi Kalajahi F, Javanbakht MH. The Relationship Between Vitamin D and Telomere/Telomerase: A Comprehensive Review. J Frailty Aging. 2021;10(1):2–9.
- Giudici, K.V. Nutrition and the Hallmarks of Aging. J Nutr Health Aging 25, 1039–1041 (2021).
If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact our team of Nutritional Therapists.
Last updated on 4th January 2023 by cytoffice