Aging is inevitable, and as the world’s population gets older, more people are spending their older years in ill-health. Today, many diseases are considered normal once we reach old age, but we have the power to decide whether this becomes our normal.
How we age is up to us, and it’s more than possible to live the last 10 years of your life disease free, and perhaps live 10 years longer than you imagined too (1); aging doesn’t have to be the gloomy picture that society paints for us today. Whilst genetics plays a role, our diet and lifestyle have a bigger influence on the aging process (2). More and more research shows us that plant-based diets have so much potential to help you live longer, and healthier, both physically and mentally.
What is considered ‘healthy aging’
For many of us, aging is a scary thought. Whether that’s due to the worry of losing your independence, mobility, or memory, it doesn’t have to be scary, health really can be maintained as you age. We consider healthy aging to be reaching old age with strength, both in the body and mind, sustained independence, free of disease, and with good cognitive function. This can be your reality when you put diet and lifestyle first.
How do we age?
Aging affects the body in a variety of ways, and one telltale sign is the shortening of our telomeres. Inside each of our cells our DNA is wrapped up into 46 chromosomes. Telomeres are the caps on the end of every chromosome in every cell of the body, think of them like the plastic tip on the end of the shoelace (3). They shorten as we age until the telomere eventually expires and the cell dies. Many factors influence telomere length, including sleep, exercise, diet and genetics.
How can a plant-based diet help me to age well?
When it comes to aging, diet matters. Plant-based diets are good for the heart, brain, gut, and everything that’s in between. They can help us delay the aging process, decrease age-related diseases and mortality, and increase life expectancy (4). For example, consuming a plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can slow the shortening of our telomeres and slow down aging. In fact, one small study found that eating a plant-based diet can actually elongate telomeres in men, reversing the aging process (5).
But it’s not just about living longer, it’s about living healthier too, and people who eat plant-based diets can also reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, cognitive decline, and dementia - all of which are more likely to develop as you age. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and dementia risk can be reduced by up to half with a plant-based diet (6) (4). Who could say no to those odds?! Removing red meat from your diet is partly responsible for these outcomes, as red meat consumption has been associated with an increased risk of dying early from heart disease, cancer and all-cause mortality (7) (8).
If that’s not enough to convince you on the benefits, how does having younger looking skin sound? A whole-food plant-based diet can prevent skin aging due its high content of vitamins such as vitamin A, C, and E and lack of harmful carcinogens and toxins, found in animal and processed foods (3). Count me in!
Diet, lifestyle, and dementia
Dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, is a rising issue of global concern.
Most of us know someone who's been affected by dementia or worry that it’s in our future. We know the toll this can take on families, especially given the lack of effective treatments. Luckily, lifestyle and diet can trump genetics, and we have more control than we know over our fate. Emerging evidence shows that consuming a plant-based diet can reduce our chances of developing dementia and age-related cognitive decline. The MIND diet emphasizes natural plant-foods, especially berries and green leafy vegetables, along with fruits, grains, legumes, other vegetables, nuts, and seeds, whilst limiting animal products and foods with high saturated fat. A study found this diet can cut the risk of Alzheimer's disease by more than half (6).
Berries deserve a special mention. Blueberries and strawberries are related to slower cognitive decline, and can delay cognitive aging by 2 and a half years (9). This is likely due to their high flavonoid content, compounds naturally found in the fruits and vegetables we enjoy everyday. They have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This explains their protective effect on the brain, as oxidative stress and inflammation are key drivers of cognitive decline and dementia.
Other foods, such as processed and red meat have the opposite effects. They are pro-oxidative and proinflammatory and can actually accelerate oxidative stress and inflammation, hence why we limit them on a plant-based diet (7). Anthocyanidins are one fascinating type of flavonoid. They have a useful, unique ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and reach the areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory, such as the hippocampus (9). It’s simply really, eat more berries and keep your brain sharper for longer.
So, plant-based diets may be best for the overall functioning and protection of the brain, especially when emphasizing brain-protecting foods like berries and leafy greens, that are high in anti-inflammatory molecules (10) (11). As always, the overall dietary pattern is most important. A plant-based diet can address the key drivers of dementia: dyslipidemia, glucose dysregulation, oxidative stress, inflammation, and abnormal gut microbiome (12).
There are several other important factors for both reducing your risk of dementia and increasing life expectancy, which we at Mora encourage as part of a WFPB lifestyle. This includes regular exercise, sufficient sleep, socialization, and a sense of community; we can learn about the importance of these from the blue zones:
Increasing life expectancy: what do the Blue Zones know that we don’t?
We can learn a lot about diet and lifestyle for increasing life expectancy from the Blue Zones, areas around the world who have held the secrets to longevity for years (and years and years…).
Within these five blue zones around the world, people have the longest life expectancies of anywhere, where it’s not uncommon to live to 100, largely free of health problems such as heart disease, cancer, and dementia (13) (14). Eating plant-based is the norm within the blue-zones, and though dishes differ based on culture, the diets tend to be rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants.
Physical activity is a big part of life in the blue zones. This doesn’t mean residents are necessarily power-lifting in the gym, or training for marathons, rather natural movement is embedded in their daily lives. The Blue Zone community in Sardinia, Italy walk at least 5 mountainous miles a day, fuelled by their healthy, plant-based diets. In Loma Linda, CA the Blue Zone community are still physically active into their late 90s; people here live up to ten years longer than other Californians. Their plant-based diet contains leafy greens, nuts, and legumes. They also avoid smoking (15).
Stress management and a sense of community also impact longevity. In Okinawa, Japan they build strong social networks at a young age that are maintained for life, providing the members with a way to relieve stress and feel bonded to others. They also get 50% of their daily calories from sweet potatoes, so if you haven’t added sweet potatoes to your diet, perhaps this is your sign! (14).
It's clear that a plant-based diet could have a profound impact on our lives as we age. So if we have the chance to live longer, better, healthier lives by eating more plants, why not take it?
By eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and limiting animal foods, processed foods, and saturated fats, it’s more likely you’ll grow old with your health intact. Focus on a range of plant foods, especially foods like berries and leafy greens, that are packed with antioxidants to keep your brain, skin, and everything in between healthier for longer.
Combine this with a good community, exercise, and other healthy habits, and you can picture a future with a healthy heart, brain, and body.
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