Aging Well: Healthy Steps To Feeling Young

Dec 11, 2012

What's the secret to maintaining youthful good looks? Even making small, easy changes to your diet and lifestyle can improve your odds of aging well, says Post reporter Margaret Pressler in Tuesday's Health and Science section on aging.

The "Cheat the Clock" author discussed healthy aging with readers.

Hello everyone. Thanks for your questions on this great (and important!) topic. I'll get right to it.

My kid loves grilled cheese sandwiches. You wrote that American cheese is bad. What cheese do I replace it with that is better from an AGEs perspective? Cheddar? Muenster? Or is it a low-fat thing rather than a type of cheese...

Low fat cheeses have lower AGEs than high-fat cheeses. So your child can keep her/his beloved grilled cheese sandwiches, with a few tweaks. Here are a couple of examples: Dr. Vlassara's research shows that 1 ounce of processed American cheese has 2605 kilo units of AGEs. But one ounce of reduced fat cheddar has 740. Reduced fat mozzerella has 505. SO you get the idea. Another thing she recommends to reduce AGEs is cooking under lower heat. If you are grilling a sandwich, try this: don't grill until it's really really brown -- go lighter. And use a lower-age oil rather than butter, such as olive oil. YOu can also try putting the bread in the toaster on bake for a few minutes first just to heat everything up and melt the cheese so you don't have to grill as long. This is the kind of technique she suggests for cooking your hamburgers and steaks with lower AGEs -- sear the outside, then finish cooking in the oven. It's kind of a mindset -- achievable with many different kinds of cooking. Hope that helps!

In the article, you mentions steps, which do you follow?

Increasingly, I follow many of the steps in the article and in my book. I'm a pretty regular person, though -- I'm not a nut about health and fitness. But when I started doing this research a year and a half ago, I found it very inspiring -- this notion that doing small things that were good for you did more than just make you feel good about yourself; they actually made a difference on the inside. So if you can find something that you can achieve and do it regularly, then it makes a difference. So, to that end, here's my progression. A year and a half ago I was quite stressed frequently (full-time job, three kids, house was always messy, didn't exercise except rarely, etc) and didn't exercise enough and as a consequence had put on five pounds (okay, maybe 8) over the previous few years and got a lot of colds. I also didn't sleep enough -- biggest problem was waking during the night and not going back to sleep. So the first thing I began working on was the sleep, by (honestly) practicing focusing on my breathing only. It was SO hard, but I somehow trained myself to do it and now I almost never wake in the night and stay awake. Then I started going to bed half an hour earlier. Funny thing -- I stopped getting as many colds. I also, when writing the book, was quite focused on eating fruit or vegetables with every meal/snack, and the fridge was always there. That habit has stayed even though I'm not writing all day. I also started baking and stewing more foods to cut down on AGEs. And finally, about 6 months ago I started exercising again regularly. I started with, really, 5 minutes a day, every other day. I thought I would never get past that. I built up very very slowly, and now I exercise for 45 minutes three times a week, pretty strenuously. I feel great. I feel much better. It's been pretty easy, actually, and fun.

I often wonder how much younger people would look and feel if they did not receive constant messages about how old they are beginning as early as 40. How important is attitude or mind? How can we ignore or fight the signals from society saying, "You're done." My family were immigrants from a culture that values older people more than we do here. My mother, grandmother, uncles, aunt have never seemed elderly and I do wonder how much of this has to do with an attitude that it's ok to grow old.

You're definitely onto something. Luici Ferrucci, the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, tells an amazing story about a large epidemiological study on aging in which people, when they were young and entering the study, were asked how they felt about getting old. This was just one piece of data among many physical and psychological measurements. It turned out, many years later, that the people who aged the best were the ones who had indicated, at the start of the study , that they were the least worried or concerned about growing old. Mindset is a very big thing. But once you know that, what can you do about it? Our society is not like the culture your family came from: we value youth and present rewards. But I really think people can change their views individually if they feel like they are  more in control of the way they will age. To that end, understand how aging happens is incredibly powerful. I have found it unbelievably inspiring to learn the detailed science about how my cells respond to this or that outside influence. Once you feel like you're empowered the change the way you age, it doesn't feel as scary and awful.  It's kind of like the reason people are afraid of flying is because someone else is in control. So the message in my book (and I talk about mindset) is really about finding ways, even small ways, to get a handle on the way you age, learn about it, take control of it and feel better about it. That can only lead to doing more to take care of yourself. Right?

My 50th birthday is coming up soon, so I've been thinking a lot about aging. I'm a healthy weight and I'm active, but what really worries me is menopause. I'm afraid the drop in hormones is going to age me dramatically. It feels like the beginning of the end.

I'm not too far behind you. But I will tell you that in my extensive research on aging, the "drop in hormones" you refer to as a result of menopause did not come at or near the top of anyone's list of the things that will age you dramatically. This is a change that you are going to go through like every other woman before you and after you; what makes a difference is how many pieces of the puzzle are already in the right place. The fact that you eat right and are a healthy weight is very important -- more than you know, probably! But I would say the next single biggest factor that will counteract the effects of menopause is regular exercise. It's true that after menopause the female body can decline faster; exercise counteracts age-related decline in almost every system in your body, hormonal, cellular, muscular, skeletal, you name it. Your body has incredible capacity to get through big changes and problems, if supported correctly. So really, don't worry about it (see above answer about mindset!) and make a plan, instead, to develop and stick to an exercise program you can do without fail for the rst of your life. Start SMALL if you don't exercise already. If you do, think about what kind of exercise you do and tweak it to be more targeted. Older women need weight-bearing and resistance exercise to build bone density. Hope that helps!

Several leading MD researchers of the American Academy of Bariatric Physicians (who focus on treating obesity) are concluding that the low-carb, high-fat diet is the most healthful and effective way to lose weight. And they advocate consuming more saturated fats than is conventionally recommended. What of this low-carb, high-fat diet?

Thanks for this question, because this is the kind of thing that a lot of people wonder about when a diet like this makes headlines, wins endorsements and captures people's hopes. I am not a doctor, so I can't speak to the position of the American Academy of Bariatric Physicians. But I can tell you that not a single scientist I spoke with or whose research I used presented a low-carb high-fat diet as a solution to lengthening one's healthspan (that is, the number of years you are healthy, vs. the number of years you are alive, which is lifespan. They are related, but not the same thing). There are also many studies that show people who go on such diets are prone to gaining the weight back. And long-term, there are sound biological reasons why you need to eat a diet that is balanced, with whole grains (yes, carbs!), other plant-based foods (fruits and veggies) and some protein. You need fat, but you don't need a lot of it, and too much of it has been widely shown to be bad for you in many studies. However, the general consenus among aging scientists is also that it's important to be at a healthy weight so if you re obese, and you  find a program that your doctor approves that helps you lose weight, you should seriously consider it. But the long-term strategies for living a healthier life for more years remains the same: you need exercise, lots of plant-based foods, lean protein, whole grains, sleep, less stress and plenty of social interaction and interestes. Do you need all this right away? No, you don't. But even someone who opts for a low-carb diet can take on some of these other proven methods for limiting the effect of aging on your body. I hope that helps!

Hello. Is there a special program for aging diabetics?

One of the things I suggest in my article is to eat a diet that is lower AGEs, or advanced glycation endproducts, the toxic compounds that develop in foods cooked at high temperatures. What's incredibly striking about the research on this topic is that Dr. Vlassara has shown such amazing results if people with a variety of health problems, including diabetics. In her book, Dr. Vlassara gives many examples of the healthy effects on real people from going on a low-AGE diet, but one might be of particular interest to you. She put a 36 year old woman with Type 1 diabetes on a low-age diet for 2 months (no fewer calories -- 1,500 a day in both cases), and the woman had many measurable changes to her health profile, including losing seven pounds, normal blood glucose, no protein in her urine and greatly decreased bad cholestrol and inflammatory markers. The patient said it was the first time in her life she didn't find it hard to control her blood sugar levels. It's definitely something to consider!

Where do you fall on the role of cholesterol? I am a very healthy, fit 44-yr-old with no medical issues except that my cholesterol is high. I refuse to take statins, as I am not convinced that a random number should guide my choices, nor that high cholesterol is the demon it's made out to be (to sell more statins).

This is interesting, in part because I've spoken to a lot of scientists in the past year who are big believers that the drug industry is controlling our health more than we think. And honestly, no topic induced more ire among the scientists I spoke to than the statin industry. Of course, I must say that I am loathe to answer your question specifically because I am not a doctor. But there is a lot of interest evidence that getting sufficient vitamin K can help, although it's a vitamin that needs to be managed carefully. Go to the website of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University and look up their research on Vitamin K. You will find it very, very interesting. Good luck!

Thank you so much. I am ordering your book today!

Can you clarify this? Is sitting reading a book considered a hobby? Cooking?

Sure. Reading is good -- especially compared to watching TV--when it comes to aging. Reading keeps your brain working and your neurons firing, all of which feeds into lowering your long-term risk of dementia. But a hobby is something a little different for most people: it's often something social, in that you may do it with others who have the same hobby or share it with them; it's something you are always learning more about (and learning new things is SO important); and a hobby keeps you motivated. It matters to you and brings you enjoyment and a sense of wellbeing. These seem like nebulous factors in aging, but the research clearly indicates they are not -- they matter. So cooking, yes, I would say definitely can fall into that category. And maybe reading, too, but do it with a book group. Talk about your books with others, go to book readings and interact with other readers and authors. That's when it's risen to the level of a hobby as scientists suggest. Enjoy!

Thanks everyone for your wonderful questions. I hope my long answers (!) helped clarify some very important topics. I encourage you to learn more about aging, whether it's from my book or anywhere else, because the more you know, the more you realize it's very much in your power to do it better!

In This Chat
Margaret Webb Pressler
As a reporter for The Washington Post, Margaret Webb Pressler covered business, consumer and family issues for 20 years. She now contributes to the Health & Science section. Cheat the Clock is her first book. You can learn more at
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