A decade ago, experts in the field of anti-aging medicine gathered near the western tip of Sicily. Their goal: Reach a consensus about promising opportunities for drugs to slow or reverse aging. The paper that resulted from that gathering identified 11 “essential pathways” through which this might be achieved. Since then, pharmaceutical companies have been pouring money into developing anti-aging drugs that exploit these pathways.
Good news: We don’t have to wait for the drugs. We can disrupt every one of the 11 essential aging pathways—and likely live longer—by making diet and lifestyle choices. Of course, we can disrupt these pathways by doing the things that we know are good for us—exercising and eating less are conducive to slower aging. But there are more specific things we can do to disrupt each of the essential pathways—and potentially lengthen our lives.
Pathway #1: AMPK is an enzyme that flips the switch from storing fat to burning it. Dubbed the body’s “master energy sensor” and “fat controller,” AMPK also plays a role in controlling aging. It induces autophagy, a biological housecleaning process that recycles defective cellular components. The buildup of cellular debris contributes to aging—as we grow older, our AMPK levels decline, and the AMPK that we still have becomes harder to activate. Boosting AMPK levels likely can slow the aging process. Researchers at Salk Institute for Biological Studies found that doing this in worms extends their life spans by as much as 38%.
How to do it: We can boost our AMPK levels by adding certain foods to our diet and removing others, specifically…
Consume: AMPK-boosting foods including barberries (tart, red berries of the Berberis vulgaris plant), which you can buy dried at Middle Eastern markets and sprinkle on dishes…ground black cumin…hibiscus tea (mix with lemon verbena tea, as was done in a recent study)…any type of vinegar (used in recipes—don’t drink straight vinegar)…and/or fiber-rich foods such as legumes and whole grains.
Avoid: Saturated fats, found in butter, cheese and red meats.
Pathway #2: Autophagy, the body’s process of recycling defective cellular components, is central to AMPK’s anti-aging capabilities—but it also has been deemed an essential anti-aging pathway in its own right. In addition to the foods mentioned above, the following enhance or inhibit autophagy…
Consume: Coffee—regular or decaf, but not dark roast (dark roasting destroys chlorogenic acid, the chief antioxidant in coffee that boosts autophagy)…and foods rich in the longevity compound spermidine, including mushrooms, peas, wheat germ and the Indonesian fermented-soybean product tempeh. Spermidine consumption could potentially roll back the aging clock by 5.7 years, according to a study by researchers at Austria’s Medical University of Innsbruck and other institutions.
Avoid: French fries, potato chips and crispy carbs, which contain acrylamide, a substance that forms when foods are cooked at high temperatures.
Pathway #3: Cellular senescence is the point at which cells stop replicating themselves. These “zombie cells” damage surrounding tissue, and as we age, our immune systems do an increasingly poor job of clearing them away. These cells have been linked with numerous age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and osteoarthritis. Exercise can increase the rate at which zombie cells are eliminated, as can certain foods.
Consume: Strawberries…the Indian spice pippali…and/or foods rich in the flavonol quercetin, such as onions, apples, kale, tea and salt-free capers.
Pathway #4: Epigenetics refers to switching genes on and off. We may be stuck with the genes we are born with, but we have control over whether some of those genes are turned on, and that can make a difference in aging. In fact, there’s reason to suspect that our “epigenetic age” is a better predictor of our remaining life expectancy than is our calendar age. Certain foods and dietary decisions flip genetic switches in a way that slow—or speed—epigenetic aging.
Consume: Folate-rich foods, such as lentils, edamame, spinach and asparagus.
Avoid: Overeating—restricting caloric intake by just 12% (that means, skipping one fast food burger or doughnut per day)—dramatically slows epigenetic aging, according to researchers at Duke University School of Medicine.
Pathway #5: Glycation, the process where proteins in the body bond irreversibly with sugar, is likely a key contributor to the aging process. The slower a species accumulates advanced glycation end products (AGEs), the longer that species tends to live, according to researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Numerous recent studies have linked the accumulation of AGEs in humans with a wide range of aging-related health issues, including osteoporosis, arthritis, age-related muscle mass loss and memory decline. Diet is crucial here because the AGEs in food are absorbed into our bodies when we eat—and some foods have many more AGEs than others.
Consume: Fruits and vegetables.
Avoid: Meats prepared using high-heat dry cooking methods—oven-frying, deep-frying and broiling. Boiling, poaching, stewing or steaming the same piece of meat will deliver far fewer AGEs. Avoid roasted peanuts and toasted sesame seeds, too—high-protein plants cooked in high heat also can be high in AGEs.
Pathway #6: Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) is called “the Grim Reaper gene” because of its strong link to aging. Mice live 42% to 70% longer when IGF-1 is disrupted, according to a team of researchers at Italy’s University of Milan and other institutions—and the mice look and act younger, too.
Consume: A largely plant-based diet. Seaweed could be particularly beneficial.
Avoid: Excessive animal protein—high-protein diets boost IGF-1. Removing dairy from a diet is especially helpful.
Pathway #7: Inflammation plays a role in many chronic age-related diseases—our immune system produces more pro-inflammatory signals as we grow older, resulting in chronic low-grade inflammation dubbed inflammaging. That makes it important to choose anti-inflammatory foods and avoid those that promote inflammation as we age.
Consume: Anti-inflammatory foods including turmeric, ginger, garlic, dark-colored berries, cinnamon, green and chamomile tea…as well as fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and flaxseeds.
Avoid: Saturated and trans fats, found in baked goods and fried foods. If you eat foods that contain a significant amount of these, it might be possible to limit the resulting inflammation by consuming fiber-rich foods along with them.
Pathway #8: Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) is an enzyme that has several age-related effects, including the suppression of autophagy. Believed to be central to the aging process, it is sometimes called a master determinant of life span and aging. Numerous studies have shown that when a compound called rapamycin is used to slow mTOR, it can significantly extend the life spans of lab animals. One of these studies, by a team of researchers at Maine’s Jackson Laboratory, found that mice lived 12% longer even if they already were well into old age when they began receiving rapamycin. Certain foods are natural mTOR activators or suppressors.
Consume: Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale, which contain two compounds—indole-3-carbinal and sulforaphane, which dampen mTOR.
Avoid: Foods rich in the amino acids methionine, isoleucine, leucine and/or valine—eating less meat and dairy is the best way to reduce intake of these.
Pathway #9: Oxidative stress results from an imbalance between excess cell-damaging free radicals, which are believed to accelerate aging, and insufficient antioxidants, which protect against free radicals. Exercise can reduce this imbalance, as can dietary choices.
Consume: Foods rich in antioxidants, including berries, cruciferous vegetables and many herbs and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, garlic and ginger.
Avoid: Foods with added salt, sugar and/or lots of saturated fat or cholesterol. Reduce meat consumption, too—meat is high in methionine, and high methionine levels appear to foster oxidative stress, according to researchers at Spain’s Complutense University.
Pathway #10: Sirtuins are enzymes that keep DNA tightly wrapped and silence certain genes. Boosting sirtuin activity dramatically increases life span…or at least it does for yeast, according to researchers at MIT. Studies involving mammals have been less definitive—increasing sirtuin activity appears to make mice healthier in their old age but not necessarily live longer. More research is needed before boosting sirtuin levels can be conclusively called a longevity strategy—but it’s worth selecting foods that increase sirtuin activity even if it turns out that doing so fosters good health late in life rather than longer life.
Consume: Apples and/or cardamom, which seem to have sirtuin-activating capabilities. Activating AMPK (see page 11) also increases sirtuin activity.
Avoid: Foods high in AGEs (see page 12)—dietary AGE intake has been linked to lower sirtuin expression.
Pathway #11: Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of each chromosome. These erode as we grow older—but at different speeds for different people. Accelerated telomere shortening is a key biomarker for reduced longevity and age-related diseases. Example: Among twins, the twin with the shorter telomeres usually dies first, according to researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet. The link between accelerated telomere shortening and mortality is so pronounced that telomeres are sometimes called a “life clock.” About 30% of the differences in telomere length and erosion rate are determined by genetics, but much of the rest comes down to lifestyle factors such as diet.
Consume: A plant-based diet featuring lots of dark-green leafy vegetables. Older people not only can slow telomere shrinkage with such a diet but actually increase their telomere length, according to a study by a team of researchers at institutions including University of California, San Francisco. Coffee and green tea consumption also have been linked with slower telomere shortening.
Avoid: French fries and other foods rich in saturated fat. Reduce consumption of sugary foods, too.