Most Americans don’t realize how much lifestyle choices made starting in their early 20s can speed up or slow down the aging process and impact the onset of chronic illnesses years later.
The average adult loses one percent of every bodily function every year beginning in early adulthood. For many of us, that annual one percent is even higher due to unhealthy lifestyle habits. To put this into perspective, by age 50, many of us have already lost at least 30% of every bodily function.
What does all that loss mean? Earlier onset of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. It also leads to issues including obesity, mobility problems, and osteoporosis. And it means aging faster.
While genetics plays a small role in the development of aging and many diseases, lifestyle choices play the major role. The good news is that avoiding four common mistakes can actually slow the aging process. It won’t stop it—we will all eventually die—but lifestyle modifications can help us live longer and healthier. And this prescription costs nothing.
Here are the most common mistakes Americans are making that could shorten our lives and what we should be doing instead:
Eating the wrong things
The typical American diet is high in sugar, white flour, and ultra-processed foods—such as instant noodles, breakfast cereals, and energy bars—and relatively low in vegetables and healthy fats. The average American eats 77.3 pounds of sweeteners per year, or 22.9 teaspoons per day, according to the Pew Research Center. The center also found that Americans consume the equivalent of 122.1 pounds of grains each year, in the form of breads, pastries, and other baked goods. Most of these are in the form of refined white flour, often with added unhealthy fats.
How it speeds up the aging process: Sugar and white flour (which rapidly digests to sugar) increase blood glucose levels, which increase insulin levels. The insulin helps the glucose enter muscle, brain, and other cells, where it is used for energy. Excess glucose is stored in the liver. However, once the liver is full, any remaining glucose—with the help of insulin—is sent to fat cells, especially in the belly area. That fat then produces inflammatory chemicals on a low but steady basis. Over time, that inflammation contributes to coronary artery disease, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and other conditions.
Ultra-processed foods pose other dangers. A recent JAMA Internal Medicine study found that every 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of death by 14%.
What to do: Eat less sugar and white flour and eat more fruits and vegetables. Try to incorporate dark green, leafy vegetables into most meals and select a variety of types and colors of vegetables. Vegetables have powerful antioxidants that reduce harmful inflammation, bolster the health benefits of intestinal microbiota, and slow the aging process.
Sitting, sitting, and more sitting
Americans spend most of their waking time sitting. We sit while eating breakfast, in the car on the way to work, in front of our computers at work, at our desks while eating lunch, and so on. A survey of about 5,900 adults (with findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) found that nearly 26% of adults sit for more than eight hours a day, and about 11% are also physically inactive.
How it speeds up the aging process: Sitting is the new smoking. It’s terrible for us. Our bodies were built to move, and if they don’t move, they deteriorate. Without movement, the body produces chemicals that fan inflammation, similar to having excess fat. Those same chemicals speed up the aging process. Bone mineral density begins declining one percent every year starting in our 20s. This means that by age 80, most Americans have already lost 60% of their bone mineral density and lost muscle strength and balance. Poorer balance leads to trips and falls, weaker muscles can’t prevent the falls, and the result is broken hips and backs. For many seniors, this may lead to premature death.
What to do: Start doing the work now to keep your bones and muscles as strong and healthy as long as possible. Movement is critical for nearly all body organs and functions. Set a timer to stand and take a short walk every 60 minutes and spend at least another 30 minutes per day exercising. Incorporate weights or resistance exercises two to three times weekly. Do balance exercises, too.
Not sleeping enough
We all know people who brag about how little sleep they need per night, but they are fooling themselves. Sleep deprivation has major health consequences. A 2013 Gallup poll found that the average American slept for only 6.8 hours per night, and many slept 5.5 hours or less.
How it speeds up the aging process: Sleep is essential for staving off the aging process. It ensures your cells have time for repair and restoration after a hard day. When we sleep, our brain cells literally shrink, allowing fluid to wash the cells and pump out harmful toxins. During sleep, our brain organizes our memories, filing them away for later retrieval. Too little sleep leads to reduced mental functioning and impaired learning capacity.
What to do: Get plenty of sleep—about 7.5 hours per night. Avoid stimulating movies and TV before bed, forget about emails and Facebook after early evening, leave about three hours for dinner to digest before bedtime, have a perfectly dark room, turn off cell phones and other devices (the light is enough to impact your brain’s sense of night and day), and keep the bedroom for sleeping, not watching TV.
Letting stress take over
Stress is a major health problem in the United States. A 2018 report from the American Psychological Association found that the average American has a stress level of 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 10. It also found that younger generations now ranging in age from 16 to 54 have the highest stress levels. Top stressors, according to the survey, include work, money, and health concerns.
How it speeds up the aging process: Even continual low levels of stress can shorten our lives. When stressed, we breathe more rapidly, our hearts pump faster, and our blood pressure rises. Stress causes us to produce normal acute stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol in low levels day and night; these have multiple adverse consequences including persistent inflammation that damages various body organs.
What to do: You cannot avoid all stress, so learn to manage it. Take a relaxing walk, meditate, or try yoga, tai chi, or other forms of exercise. Stop and breathe deeply and slowly for a few moments. Also, be aware of what you eat when you are stressed. Don’t reach for sugary foods; instead, fix a cup of tea and grab some nuts or veggies.
It’s never too early—or too late—to think about healthy aging. While you will eventually die, you can slow the process. While you can’t prevent all of the health challenges that head your way, you can avoid most of them and ensure that your body is as prepared as possible to fend off the others. Just as saving and investing money for retirement starting at a young age will compound over the years, so too will attention to living a healthy life.
Stephen C. Schimpff is a quasi-retired internist, professor of medicine and public policy, former CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center, senior adviser to Sage Growth Partners, and author of Fixing the Primary Care Crisis. Readers can learn more about healthy aging by reading his latest book, Longevity Decoded – The 7 Keys to Healthy Aging.