There’s no escaping ageing – and nor should we feel pressure to look like we’ve escaped it. But looking much older or younger than your biological age isn’t all down to genetics.
Lifestyle can really make a difference to how old you feel and look. Dr Noel Young, clinical innovations associate for the at-home blood testing company Thriva (thriva.co), says: “While our life expectancy may be increasing, our healthspans – our time spent in good health – still remains much lower than expected.
“Chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, which are driven in the majority of cases by lifestyle, are very common and are associated with faster ageing.”
Young points out that “these conditions are linked to shorter telomeres” (structures that cap the end of our chromosomes and protect them from damage) but adds: “The good news is adopting certain lifestyle changes can help prevent chronic diseases and the faster ageing that accompanies them.”
Here are the eight lifestyle choices that may make you age faster.
Drinking too much
A new Oxford University study has found new evidence that alcohol accelerates biological ageing, through damaging DNA. Experts examined data from nearly 250,000 people and found those who drank over 17 units of alcohol per week had shorter telomeres.
Study lead Dr Anya Topiwala says: “Shortened telomeres – more advanced biological ageing – increases the risks of later-life disease like Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. Obviously we can’t change our genetics, but potentially we can change our lifestyles by reducing drinking, increasing exercise, and stopping smoking, if we want to reduce the risk of faster biological ageing.
Various studies have shown sunlight can age the skin – one 2013 French study from 2013 found UV exposure was responsible for 80% of visible facial ageing signs.
Watch: Walking faster may help slow down ageing
Sitting down a lot
We are becoming increasingly sedentary, and as we age it’s harder to build muscle. Young says we lose around 1% of our muscle mass every year from around the age of 35, putting us at risk of osteoporosis, frailty, and falls with injuries like hip fractures as we age.
“So keep active in your day-to-day life” he says. “Try things like walking 4,000 to 6,000 steps a day, or taking the stairs. Engage in some type of regular exercise that you enjoy, like swimming, yoga or playing sports. Even simple changes like using a standing desk can help to keep your legs and muscles strong.”
It’s thought smoking affects the production of collagen, the protein that keeps the skin healthy and elastic. As we age, our bodies produce less collagen, which is why skin begins to sag and wrinkle. Smoking can speed up this process, causing premature ageing.
A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, found four factors that can help prevent almost 80% of chronic diseases often associated with ageing. The research cited these as; never smoking, having a body mass index lower than 30, doing 3.5 hours a week or more of physical activity, and sticking to a healthy diet with a high intake of fruit and vegetables, and whole-grain bread and low meat consumption.
A bad diet
Fibre-rich foods like vegetables, beans, grains and fruits are linked with longer telomeres and improved lifespan, explains Young, who says these foods are packed with nutrients like vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, as well as other antioxidants. The fibre they contain is also an important nutrient that helps regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy gut biome.
“Including sources of healthy fats like fish, avocado and nuts is also important,” he says. “These foods feature heavily in eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet, which may be why it’s particularly beneficial for your health.”
Some foods are linked to worse health outcomes and shorter telomeres. These include foods like red and processed meat and sugary drinks. “It’s best to limit these as much as possible,” stresses Young.
Being too stressed
Long-term stress is associated with shorter telomeres, and Young says it’s a good idea to try and manage stress actively. “You can start by noticing what triggers your stress by keeping a journal, and relaxation therapies like deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and exercise like yoga can also help. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or PTSD, it’s important to speak to your GP and seek the appropriate help.”
Vitamin D is an important nutrient in helping to reduce the effects of ageing, says Young, as low levels are tied to shorter lifespans. “It’s recommended to supplement in the UK during the winter months (October – March) as it’s quite hard to obtain through food sources. Sunlight is a good source in the summer – but aim for sensible levels (and of course wear SPF).
According to an Italian 2022 study, taking an omega-3 supplement may increase telomere length. Young suggests the anti-inflammatory compounds have other beneficial effects like helping to manage blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, which is beneficial for your heart health.
Lack of sleep
Shorter telomeres are associated with not getting enough sleep, says Young, who points out that sleep deprivation also increases the chance of unhealthy behaviours like not exercising and eating sugary and fatty food, which increases your disease risk.
“It’s important to get seven to nine hours of good quality sleep per day,” he stresses. “Pay attention to your bedtime routine and environment, avoid caffeinated drinks after lunch, and screens and exercise in the hour or two before bed. And ensure as much as possible that your sleeping environment is dark, quiet and cool.”