Our real age may be just a number, but our biological age may say a lot more about our longevity.
Last year, the American Heart Association released its updated list of Life’s Essential 8, which the organization defines as “key measures for improving and maintaining cardiovascular health.” This year, the nonprofit went a step further, releasing a report based on the analysis of over 6,500 adults concluding that following the guidelines may actually reduce a person’s “biological age” ― also known as phenotypical age ― by up to five years. That’s a lot.
“A person’s chronological age can be assessed in years, months and days, but biological age is a reflection of chronological age and things like genetics, lifestyle and environment,” Dr. Satyajit Reddy, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Arizona, told HuffPost.
A 27-year-old who smokes, doesn’t exercise and eats poorly may, for example, have a biological age of 32. The opposite is also true: A 49-year-old who sleeps properly and has a healthy diet may have a biological age of 44.
Generally speaking, Reddy explained, there are a set of factors that contribute to one’s biological age that cannot be changed ― think genetics and, in some cases, a person’s environment.
But there are also a slew of modifiable lifestyle aspects that can help minimize one’s biological age. A lot of these are part of the American Heart Association’s checklist.
“Having high cardiovascular health may slow the pace of biological aging, which may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular and other age-related diseases while extending life,” reads an official statement by the American Heart Association.
What Are The Essential 8 Habits?
So, what behaviors should you prioritize? Here’s what the American Heart Association includes on its checklist:
Eat foods that fuel you.
Try to consume mostly whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts and seeds.
“I advise people to moderate the intake of processed foods, especially processed carbs and sugars,” Reddy said. “Processed foods are often designed for overindulgence and cravings. Sugar is found in so many processed food products in our grocery stores and even in foods at restaurants, that we often need to be mindful and vigilant to avoid excessive consumption.”
More specifically, the cardiologist suggested paying attention to how you feel after you consume a meal. “If, within one to two hours, you feel hungry again or tired, then it probably was not an optimal [meal],” he said.
Move your body.
The American Heart Association differentiates between adults and children when it comes to exercise. Adults should opt for 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity per day. Kids, on the other hand, should move around for about 60 minutes a day, including structured activities and regular play.
According to Reddy, scheduled exercise like going to the gym is “an excellent way to maintain health,” but a lot of people do feel anxiety surrounding the practice, especially if they lack the time to partake regularly.
His advice? Do what you can.
“Finding a physical activity that you enjoy and look forward to is so important for sustainability,” he said. “Things like dance exercise and yoga, as free videos are easily found on YouTube, walking while listening to a podcast, and more.”
Overall, Reddy suggested, you should try not to be sedentary on a day-to-day basis, “whether that means parking further from the store entrance, or avoiding the elevator and taking stairs, or going for walks with your kids instead of watching a TV show, or setting an hourly timer at work to move from your workstation.”
Quit tobacco if you use it.
Smoking is known to contribute to poor cardiovascular health, but according to the American Heart Association, secondhand smoke and vaping can be incredibly dangerous as well. “Traditional” cigarettes aren’t the only issue.
“In modern America, we’ve been led to believe that vaping is better than smoking, and that’s actually not true,” Dr. Leslie Cho, the section head of preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, told HuffPost last year, listing vaping-related health issues that include lung problems, cancer and addiction to nicotine.
Get healthy sleep.
Conversations about how many hours of sleep people should get nightly have been going on for decades now.
The American Heart Association claims that adults should aim for an average of between seven to nine hours of sleep a night because “too little or too much sleep is associated with heart disease, studies show.”
“Our bodies adapt to what we repeatedly do and are exposed to every day. Improving habits and health parameters lead to healthier bodies over a lifetime.”
– Dr. Satyajit Reddy, cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Arizona
Experts and the American Heart Association also note that maintaining a proper weight for your specific body type can help you increase your longevity and improve your biological age. This doesn’t mean extreme dieting and fixating on how your body looks ― this approach is often the opposite of good health. Instead, focus on eating nourishing foods and moving your body in a way that feels good. Every body is different.
High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, also known as bad cholesterol) have been linked with heart disease, strokes and more, which is why it’s important to monitor your numbers at least once a year (a history of high cholesterol and genetics play a role in how often you should be getting a blood test).
Dr. David Samadi explained to HuffPost that the American Heart Association checklist’s suggestions will also help you keep your cholesterol in check — remaining physically active, maintaining a healthy body weight and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker.
“Foods that are high in soluble fiber and phytosterols have been found to be helpful in lowering LDL cholesterol,” Samadi explained, listing foods like nuts, avocado, olive oil, beans, soy, apples, grapes, strawberries and citrus fruits. Fiber supplements containing psyllium, such as Metamucil and other bulk-forming laxatives, may also help.
Manage blood sugar.
On a biological level, just about anything we eat is turned into glucose or blood sugar, which is what our bodies use as energy.
“Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage your heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves,” the American Heart Association states in its guidelines. “As part of testing, monitoring hemoglobin A1C can better reflect long-term control in people with diabetes or prediabetes.” The main way to manage your blood sugar is to monitor your levels and follow a healthy diet.
Manage blood pressure.
According to the American Heart Association, optimal blood pressure levels are lower than 120 over 80 (120/80 mmHG). The more you stay within an acceptable range, the healthier you’ll be.
In addition to eating healthy foods and regularly exercising, the Mayo Clinic suggests lowering the amount of sodium in your diet, limiting alcohol intake and reducing stress.
Make sure to also monitor your blood pressure at home (you can buy a monitor without a prescription) and get regular check-ups.
What Else You Should Know
If you haven’t been practicing these habits, don’t panic: Reddy said that there’s always time to make a switch.
“It is our exposure to things like smoking, sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, excess blood sugar, excess weight, etc. over many years that leads to accumulated harm to our health,” Reddy said. “Following as many of these eight guidelines [as possible] helps reduce that exposure over time. I believe in the concept that our bodies adapt to what we repeatedly do and are exposed to every day. Improving habits and health parameters lead to healthier bodies over a lifetime.”
That being said, genetics obviously play a big role ― in everything from how our body holds weight to our disease risk ― which is why it’s also important to regularly visit your doctor.
“An analogy that is often used is that ‘genetics load the gun but behaviors pull the trigger,’” Reddy said. “Aside from particular cardiac disorders, we know that lifestyle and behavior [play] a vitally important role in whether a particular cardiac predisposition will manifest.”
Follow as many healthy lifestyle guidelines as you can for as long as you can ― they will all make a difference.