Do-it-yourself genetic modifications might sound like science fiction, but it turns out that we do have considerable control over our genes. We may not be able to rewrite our genetic code, but we can influence whether certain genes are switched on or off—in other words, whether or not they’re producing proteins. In some cases, flipping these switches influences how quickly we age and how likely we are to develop life-altering health problems such as cancer, dementia and heart disease.
What’s the secret to flipping these switches? Not surprisingly, our lifestyle decisions including what we eat and whether we remain fit. Example: When we exercise, it switches on a gene that makes the protein irisin…which induces production of the protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor…which has been linked to decreased risk for dementia.
We all know that it’s healthy to get a good night’s sleep, exercise and cut back on red meat and added sugars, even if we don’t realize that doing these things can affect our genes. But researchers have discovered some less obvious gene-switch steps that are worth taking, including…
Take a sauna. People who sauna regularly outlive those who don’t. A study by researchers at University of Eastern Finland compared middle-age men who took four to seven saunas per week with similar men who rarely or never took a sauna. Results: Those who took saunas were a stunning 40% less likely to die during the 20+ years studied. Other research by the same researchers has found that people who use saunas may be as much as 66% less likely to develop dementia.
Why it works: The sauna’s high temperatures likely turn on genes that release heat shock proteins, a type of protein that envelops other proteins and protects them from degradation. Avoiding protein degradation is among the keys to living a long healthy life. If you don’t have access to a sauna: Taking several hot baths—96°F or higher—a week might deliver similar benefits.
Improve your stress response by strengthening your diaphragm. The saying, “Stress is a killer” isn’t entirely accurate. It is not how much stress you endure but how well you handle it—that’s what affects your genes. Example: Your genes don’t know that you’re facing financial problems, but your fears about those problems trigger hormonal consequences in your body, and those consequences are the single most significant way to switch on genes associated with aging—even more than eating an unhealthy diet or failing to exercise.
Strategies for reducing the stress response and its genetic consequences include such tactics as spending time with friends…finding something that gives your life greater meaning and focusing on that during stressful stretches…and including enjoyable activities in your day.
Also: Taking slow, deep breaths is an effective stress-management strategy—it sends a message to the body that the stress response isn’t needed. We can train ourselves to send this message effectively even when we are stressed. To do this: Practice daily with an “inspiratory muscle trainer,” a small device available for about $20 on Amazon.com that provides resistance when you inhale, strengthening the diaphragm. During these twice-a-day sessions of 10 breaths each, place a finger on your belly button and feel it move outward as you breathe in, confirming that the diaphragm is contributing to your breath. Then when you’re in a stressful situation, place your finger on your belly button and confirm the same outward motion. This is especially helpful for older people—as we age, we tend to breathe increasingly from the chest. Result: A weakened diaphragm muscle that is less able to tolerate lung infections and muscle and rib injuries.
Periodically put yourself on a “fasting-mimicking diet.” We all know that how much we eat can affect our health and longevity. What is surprising, though, is that you might be able to reap significant long-term benefits by occasionally implementing relatively short-term diet restrictions.
Fasting forces the body to burn stores of fat for energy—and that appears to flip the genetic switches that deliver health benefits. A study by researchers at University of Southern California found that participants who dramatically reduced caloric intake for one five-day stretch each month for three consecutive months experienced reduced markers and risk factors for aging and age-related diseases.
You don’t have to stop eating entirely to obtain the benefits of fasting—in the USC study, participants had 1,000 calories on the first fast day and 750 calories per day for the four days that followed. That’s a fraction of the typical American’s caloric intake but a far cry from going completely without food. Any food consumed should be low protein and low simple carb. The study’s authors have speculated that it might not even be necessary to follow this fasting regimen every month—once every three months might be sufficient.
Game your way to decreased dementia risk. Playing mentally challenging games can keep our brains sharp as we age—but not all games provide the same benefit. Research, including a University of Cambridge meta-analysis of 16 earlier studies, suggests that games that force players to analyze situations quickly deliver especially impressive results. People in their early 70s who played games like these regularly were found to be more than 30% less likely to develop dementia during the following decade. Examples: The fast-paced games used in these academic studies include Double Decision and Freeze Frame, available via subscription from BrainHQ.com.
Supplements Worth Taking
Some supplements including multivitamins, vitamin D and omega-3 seem to flip genetic switches in ways that favor long and healthy lives. But there are some less well-known and little-used supplements that seem to influence genes in beneficial ways as well. Reminder: Check with your health-care provider before adding any new supplements to your regimen.
Avocado soybean unsaponifiables (ASU) can slow the progression of arthritis and perhaps prevent it entirely. There’s significant evidence to back this—ASU has been prescribed in Europe since the 1990s, and a study of 399 people by researchers at Saint-Antoine Hospital in Paris showed that ASU significantly slows the progression of hip osteoarthritis. Recommended dosage: 300 mg/day.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) plays a role in the “electron transport chain,” a series of proteins that facilitate energy production. Recent studies, including one by researchers at Spain’s University of Cordoba, have pointed to a wide range of potential benefits from taking CoQ10 supplements, including lower risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and stroke as well as a decline in all-cause mortality. Additional research is needed to confirm the benefits, but there’s already solid evidence that CoQ10 supplements have no dangerous side effects. Recommended dosage: 200 mg/day.
Phospho-creatine is used by bodybuilders hoping to pack on muscle, but it could be even more useful for older adults. It might not only help them add much needed muscle, but several studies have suggested that it also can boost cognitive function. One study by researchers at the UK’s University of Chichester found that elderly people experienced improved recall and memory performance after taking phospho-creatine for a week. Caution: Phospho-creatine can increase blood creatine levels in ways that might mask kidney problems or lead to misinterpretation of blood test results, so check with your doctors before taking it. Recommended dosage: 20 grams/day for the first week, followed by a maintenance dose of 2.25 to 10 grams/day.
Low-dose aspirin. Until recently, taking one or two baby aspirin a day was long recommended for people age 50 and older to reduce the odds of first heart attack, stroke, blood clots and many cancers. But: The US Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended against this because daily low-dose aspirin also increases risk for digestive tract bleeding. Now we know that the bleeding risk can be dramatically reduced if the aspirin is taken with warm water…and that the Task Force relied on flawed research that underestimated aspirin’s benefits. On balance, daily low-dose aspirin is beneficial for most people age 50 and older, but ask your doctor. Recommended dosage: Take one noncoated low-dose (81-mg) aspirin every morning and evening. Drink one-half glass of warm water before each aspirin, and finish the glass after taking the aspirin.