Everyone knows a sprightly 80-something who can dance the night away and remember the punch line of every joke. But sadly, there are also plenty of 50-somethings who move and act considerably older than their years.
It’s a conundrum that scientists never tire of studying.
Now, new research further explores how different folks seem to age at significantly different rates. And it turns out, the fast-agers and the slow-agers are already on radically different roads from the time they’re young.
“Aging isn’t something that happens suddenly when people reach their 60s, it’s a lifelong process,” said Maxwell Elliott, a doctoral student at Duke University and author of the new study.
Drawing from a unique database called the Dunedin cohort from New Zealand, researchers followed the lives of over 1,000 men and women in the 1970s from age 26 to age 45.1
The researchers tracked the pace of biological aging starting at age 26. They analyzed a variety of measures, including heart fitness, lung capacity, biomarkers of inflammation in the blood, and even cavities.
Armed with this comprehensive health information, some trends emerged.
Fast vs. Slow Agers
Some people started to display key signs of biological aging at the tender age of 45, which equated to a greater risk of dementia and other frailties associated with older age.
Mr. Elliott and his team observed that this group actually looked physically older, had poorer cardiovascular health, diminished sensory-motor functions, and generally reported feeling less healthy.
He said “fast-agers” typically reported feeling older than they were. And some said they doubted they’d see 75.
According to the study, the fastest agers added nearly 2.5 biological years for every chronological year. Compared to their peers, these folks moved slower, had weaker grip strength, and more issues with balance, vision and hearing.
On the flip side, some people at age 45 appeared to be on a completely different aging path. These “slow-agers” looked younger, had fewer wrinkles, remained mentally sharp, and had better cardiovascular health.
The slowest ager gained just 0.4 biological years for each chronological year in age.
Mr. Elliot wrote that he was surprised by how these aging differences emerged at the relatively young age of 45.
What does this tell us?
Aging is a continuum, and it likely starts earlier than we suspect.
What Causes “Fast Aging”?
The research team cites environmental variables, from lifestyle habits to exposure to chronic stress and poverty that may influence one’s rate of aging.
Researchers also point out that certain longevity genes can help defend against environmental stressors.
Senior author of the study, Terri Moffitt, offered additional insight, saying, “These findings demonstrate that meaningful variations in biological aging can be measured and quantified in midlife, providing a window of opportunity for the mitigation of age-related diseases.”
In other words, you can slow down the aging process.
Take Steps to Slow Down the Rate You’re Aging
In fact, Mr. Elliot emphasized that those who feel “old” in their 40s can take proactive steps to feel better and younger.
You can start by adopting the elements of a healthy lifestyle that we write about regularly in this publication. A healthy lifestyle includes regular exercise, a nutritionally sound diet that limits processed food and sugar as well as includes regular sleep and no smoking.
“Midlife is a great time to address these things,” Mr. Elliott said. “We can’t change the past, but there’s still a lot of time to intervene.”
He noted that the earlier intervention could potentially save lives from death caused by chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and improve quality of life, too.
It’s important to point out that this study did have its limitations. For one thing, it’s unclear what the ratio is between the designated fast-agers and slow-agers. Additionally, the researchers admit that this study is only examining one cohort from New Zealand, which might not reflect aging in the wider world.
The study was published in the journal Nature Aging.2
- Elliott, M.L., Caspi, A., Houts, R.M. et al. Disparities in the pace of biological aging among midlife adults of the same chronological age have implications for future frailty risk and policy. Nat Aging 1, 295–308 (2021).