Why is it that some older people seem so much younger than their years and some people in their fifties or sixties seem surprisingly old? There are many folks in their eighth and ninth decades who continue to work, drive, exercise, volunteer, and do many of the things that they have always done. At the same time, I know people 30 years younger who have a hard time just getting down and up off the floor. What gives? Why is there such a discrepancy in the way people age? Is aging well just a matter of good luck?
Clearly, there have been thousands of research studies into how and why we age. One interesting explanation comes from a new line of study into something called epigenetics. This theory suggests that genetic expression isn’t quite as set in stone as we once thought. Instead, it’s suggested that our genes are affected by other factors beyond just DNA sequencing, and that our genetic predisposition may change very quickly. For example, environmental and lifestyle factors, such as how you live and what you think, may also impact how your genes affect your health.
In Chinese medicine, your health and how you age is determined by something we practitioners call Essence. Considered to be a vital substance, Essence is a bit like your body constitution (or even DNA), and determines your overall health, how you will grow and mature, fertility, and how healthfully you will age. As you live through the traumas of life and become older, Essence gets used up, and when it is completely depleted, you die.
The good news is that there is another kind of Essence that supplements the first, and its strength is built on how well you live your life and care for yourself. This second Essence protects and conserves the original DNA-like Essence, which means you have some control over your body constitution and general health. This is very similar to the cutting-edge theory of epigenetics—only coming from this ancient Chinese medicine!
Whether you call it epigenetics or protecting your Essence, Chinese medicine offers up some strategies on not only how to live as healthfully as possible, but how to age well, too. Here are some ideas on how to be as healthy as possible as you move into your later years:
Protect your Kidney system. In Chinese medicine, your Kidney is an organ system that not only regulates water, but is the home to your vital substances, such as Essence, Yin, and Yang. It guards your health on the deepest level, and is the organ system most related to aging. Taking care of your Kidneys involves living moderately; getting proper nourishment through good food, breath, and rest; and avoiding stress as much as possible. Foods that are particularly nourishing to your Kidney system include very dark or black foods, beans, nuts (especially walnuts), and salty foods from the ocean (fish, shellfish, sea vegetables, sushi)
Eat for the long run. Beyond Kidney-nourishing foods, eat like you are going to live to be 100. That means less fast food and drive-through meals and more meals that contain ingredients that your grandmother would recognize as food. For a simple rule of thumb, think like a Chinese restaurant minus the white rice: a large variety of vegetables, a little protein, and whole grains.
Balance work with rest. This means not only getting enough restorative sleep each night, but also avoiding overwork. Long hours at the office, studying, or caring for others can be especially depleting. Your body regenerates itself when you rest, so all work and no play can really speed up the clock when it comes to aging.
Use it or lose it. When it comes to training for the long run, keeping your body active and functional is key. If there were such a thing as a magic bullet for aging well, exercise would be it. It keeps your blood circulating, your heart and lungs healthy, your joints moving, and is a factor in retaining your memory.
Use the power of your mind, because what you think can make a difference in your health. The Chinese believe that negative emotions are the source of a thousand diseases. While we all have ups and downs, chronic depression, anxiety, worry, and even a negative outlook can harm your health. Researchers have found that a negative emotional outlook can mess with your sleep, digestion, blood pressure, and hormones. In addition, people who are chronically pessimistic tend to live a shorter expected lifespan than those people who are more positive.
Check your medications. Many side effects of prescription drugs go unchecked or are attributed to the aging process, when in fact a change in medication or dosage may alleviate the problem. In addition, new research has uncovered that many drugs for depression, allergies, and asthma are responsible for memory loss and dementia in people who take them long term.
The bottom line is that while you may have been dealt a bad hand genetically, how you play that hand makes a big difference in your health and how you age. Heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, or memory loss may run in your family, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a foregone conclusion that you will also develop these same conditions. Conversely, someone who had healthy ancestors and good genes can increase their risk for these same diseases through overwork, stress, a funky diet, lack of exercise, and poor self-care. Aging well is not just a matter of luck—it’s a combination of small but healthy habits that make a big difference.