It's not just women who define aging by what they see in the mirror. LeBron James has lamented his receding hairline on Twitter. Simon Cowell admits to being a regular guest in the Botox chair. And Donald Trump's comb-over is a daily source of media derision. But really, it's what's on the inside--your heart, your lungs, your brain--that matters, at least when it comes to dominating on the basketball court, belting it out like an X Factor winner, or ruling the business world.
Unfortunately, while we're living longer than ever, our "health span"--the stretch of time when we're healthy enough to actually enjoy life, not just hang onto it--isn't gaining much ground. "Much of the decline that we experience as we age is not a necessary function of aging. It's a result of our expectations and mindset," says Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Harvard, who studies aging. "We expect to fall apart, so we allow ourselves to fall apart."
But what if you decided to stay 35 forever? New science suggests that you can turn back the clock on the ravages of time. Read on for our tips--they're like Botox for your brain and hair dye for your DNA.
Only your fittest brain cells survive your 20s--and the Jell-O shots and Jagermeister aren't entirely to blame. A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted that around age 25, the human brain starts to slowly decrease in size. And your mental capacity may be shrinking right along with it. As your brain starts to shrivel, its white matter becomes less efficient at nerve signaling, says Deborah Little, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Texas A&M University. The effect: Your working memory--your short-term ability to reason, comprehend, and retain information--may gradually begin to slip. Hmmm... now where did I leave that Jell-O?
Playing with balls may help your brain bounce back. In a 2009 British study, people who practiced juggling for 6 weeks strengthened the structural integrity of their white matter. It didn't even matter if they dropped the balls; the benefit was linked to time spent training, not proficiency. The reason? Practicing a new skill may encourage the formation of myelin, the white matter that helps conduct nerve impulses, the scientists say. Start with the three-ball cascade--this was the basic juggling skill the study participants practiced. (Watch "Learn How to Juggle 3 Balls," by master juggler Jason Garfield, on YouTube.) Work on it at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Or try another pursuit that combines learning with physical activity, such as archery, surfing, or bowling, says study author Jan Scholz, D.Phil. (Click here to learn Tips to Boost Brainpower.)
Even if you've never touched a cigarette and you always avoid secondhand smoke, your lung function may have declined by the time you blow out the candles on your 40th birthday. Although your lungs hit their peak around age 25, it's not until your mid-30s that aging kicks into high gear. Your alveoli--the tiny air sacs in your lungs that allow oxygen to cross into your bloodstream and carbon dioxide to exit--begin to lose surface area, say scientists at Georgetown University. This makes your lungs less efficient at transporting oxygen. The result: You may find it harder to breathe during exercise.
Don't wipe away that milk mustache--it's a sign of youth. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that people who consistently downed two daily servings of low-fat dairy, such as reduced-fat milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese, showed fewer signs of disease-related lung damage. Credit the vitamin D in fortified dairy products: This nutrient may help improve lung function, the scientists say. In addition, milk is loaded with vitamin A, which is thought to switch on genes involved in the production of new lung tissue, says Matthew Hind, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher and physician at London's Royal Brompton Hospital, who has studied the effects of vitamin A in animals. Aim to eat two or three servings of fortified dairy a day, and you'll be taking in up to 10 micrograms of vitamin D and up to 455 micrograms of vitamin A.
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Remember W's "axis of evil"? Well, never mind Iran, Iraq, and North Korea--the "axis of aging" in your cells poses a clear and present danger, says Ronald DePinho, M.D., who heads the University of Texas's MD Anderson Cancer Center. The axis starts with special strands of DNA called telomeres that cap off each of your chromosomes, protecting them from mutation when your cells divide. The problem is that your telomeres begin to shorten and fray as you grow older; once they a drop below a critical length, your cells are no longer able to divide, so they start deteriorating. At the same time, your mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of your cells, start losing steam.
Think of this as Extreme Makeover: Telomere Edition. In a recent study, Dr. DePinho and his team managed to shift the aging process of rodents into reverse by restoring their truncated telomeres. The little guys suddenly had fewer signs of DNA damage, more-efficient mitochondria, and healthier organs! And while more study is needed, humans may reap the same benefits, says Dr. DePinho.
Luckily, you may be able to revitalize your own telomeres. In a recent University of California study, people who regularly meditated over a 3-month period had more active telomerase, an enzyme that helps preserve telomeres. Start with a 10-minute session before breakfast, says Alfred W. Kaszniak, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, neurology, and psychiatry at the University of Arizona. "Find a comfortable seated position in which you can stay upright, relaxed, and alert," he says. "Then, focusing on either the sensation of your breath at your nostrils or the rising and falling of your abdomen just below your navel, count each exhalation, from 1 to 10, and then start at 1 again."
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The clock may be ticking on your ticker. Starting around age 40, elastin, a flexible protein in your heart's aorta, is gradually replaced with collagen, a stiffer, more fibrous protein. As a result, your heart no longer pumps blood as efficiently, says Joao Lima, M.D., director of cardiovascular imaging at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "In your 40s, your body also begins to replace myocytes--muscle cells--with scar tissue, so your heart becomes smaller," says Dr. Lima. This forces it to work harder, potentially raising your risk of a chest clutcher.
Every minute you log on the treadmill helps turn back time. By keeping your heart muscles and arteries flexible and by slowing your resting heart rate, exercise interrupts the cardiovascular aging process, Dr. Lima says. Interval training is ideal for fitness gains, but a steady pace may be best for heart health. In a recent study in the International Journal of Cardiology, men who hit the treadmill 3 days a week for a solid 30 minutes per session showed renewed arterial flexibility, improved bloodflow, and increased levels of progenitor cells, a type of bone marrow cell that repairs artery walls. Running intervals, on the other hand, boosts arterial flexibility but won't impact progenitor cell circulation, a new British study reports.
Related: What's Your REAL Heart Disease Risk?
Your skin may be smooth with youth, but inside your body your bones are already wasting away. A recent Mayo Clinic study found that the thickness of the trabeculae--the spongy, supportive material inside bones--shrank in men by almost 30 percent from age 24 to 48. Then, around age 65, your bones begin shedding more of the mineral building blocks that make them strong, a process that causes even faster degeneration, says Bahram Arjmandi, Ph.D., R.D., chairman of the department of nutrition, food, and exercise sciences at Florida State University.
The go-to fruit of grandparents may be the secret to younger bones. "Prunes are one of the most effective fruits for reversing bone loss and preserving bone mass," says Arjmandi. His research has shown that men who add prunes to their diet can boost their bone density by 11 percent. "Prunes have unique polyphenols with antioxidant properties that help fight osteoporosis. Plus, prunes may increase the magnesium content in bone," he says. And higher magnesium translates to stronger, denser bones. Shoot for three prunes a day, with a glass of water to keep the fiber and sugar alcohol from dehydrating you. (Try adding diced prunes to trail mix or oatmeal.) For extra insurance, eat two medium apples or 2 ounces of fresh blueberries--both promote bone growth by reducing the amount of calcium lost in your urine, says Arjmandi.