The best medicine for ageing is to reduce the rate of biological decline. The processes of biological ageing can be measured, but so far have been only applied to the elderly. Ageing is a multi faceted feature of human biology. No single change can adequately define the speed or extent of ageing and the associated health risks.
The health of the US population, tracked in the NHANES study ‘Biological Age’, was analysed using 10 different measures. These biological age measures included some well-known predictors of disease risk including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Others were more complex measures of health from a blood sample, including white blood cell counts, c-reactive protein (an inflammatory measure) and apolipoprotein(a) (a factor associated with heart disease).
Over a 20 year period these measures of biological age were far better than birth age in predicting risk of early death. The measuring, however, often started in people well over the age of 50, leaving the question of whether biological ageing can be measured at a younger age.
A group of healthy adults first surveyed when they were 26 years old have provides some of the answers. This group was analysed again when they were 32 and then most recently at 38 years of age. The results are a mixture of good and bad news. The bad news was that age 26 there was already a wide variation in the biological measures of ageing. Biologically some of this group were well over a decade ‘older’ than their contemporaries. Those people who were ‘older’ at 26 also tended to continue to biologically age at a faster rate than their ‘biological’ younger buddies. Furthermore, the 10 blood measures are also predictive of muscle strength and skin ageing. Skin ageing was ranked by an independent panel who reviewed face photographs and assigned an age score. Older signs of metabolism and health from blood measures correlated with less muscle strength and an older looking face.
The pace of biological ageing can be altered by lifestyle change. Weight loss, greater physical activity and quitting smoking can reverse the trend of many of the biological factors in the blood. The benefits to muscle function are obvious with exercise, but less well publicised is the improvements in skin tone and lustre.
Sadly biological ageing starts early in life. The biological age of people can be predicted and with each passing decade of life the rate of biological ageing spreads, so the older are getting older faster than the biologically young. Lifestyle is the biggest determinant of the rate of biological ageing and lifestyle has the greatest effect.