Why You Might Not Be as Old as You Think You Are

Why Biological Age Is More Important Than Chronological Age

New perspectives on aging reveal that the number on your birth certificate is less important than you may realize.

There are two ways to calculate your age.

The one you’re probably used to is simple: You count the number of years you’ve been alive, and that’s it. That’s your chronological age. By this measure, you grow one year older for every year that passes.

But then there’s a second measure of age that many researchers believe is a better predictor of your health and lifespan. This version, called biological age, relies on a series of tests to assess the damage to your cells over the course of your life.

Like chronological age, biological age moves steadily forward throughout your life. You can’t stop it. “With age, we accumulate internal damage no matter what,” says Steven N. Austad, Ph.D. He’s the senior scientific director of the American Federation of Aging Research. “It may not be visible, but it’s there.”

But here’s the good news: You can control the speed of biological aging. Diet, exercise, sleep, and stress can speed it up or slow it down, says Austad.

That means that if you’ve been taking care of yourself, you might be “younger” than someone else born in the same year. And if you haven’t been — well, it’s never too late to start slowing down time.

How much can you slow your aging?

According to a recent study from New Zealand, some people “age” less than five months a year, biologically speaking.

The researchers followed a group of more than 1,000 people over two decades. Every few years, the subjects underwent a battery of 19 tests to measure their biological age. The tests included hormone levels, blood cell counts, and snapshots of inflammation. They also included more common tests, such as those that look at heart and lung function.

After the study, the researchers tabulated the results. They found that for every period of 365 days (one chronological year), some people aged an average of 2.4 years, while others aged only 0.4 years, or just under five months.

What explains the difference? Well, some of it has to do with your DNA. “Genetics explains about 25% of longevity,” says Austad. But the rest of it comes down to the decisions you make every day. “The other 75% is everything else: lifestyle, environment, etc.”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to calculate your biological age. It involves many tests, and researchers are still working out the process. But the lesson remains: By changing your lifestyle, you can slow your body’s aging process.

Are you ready to start looking and feeling younger? Here are the fastest ways to slow down your biological clock.

Eat like the Greeks

Following a Mediterranean diet has repeatedly been shown to slow aging. In one study from the British Journal of Nutrition, people age 65 and older who ate the most vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and olive oil were 25% less likely to die during an eight-year study period.

These foods likely reduce the amount of damage your cells incur, says Nicole Hartwick, a registered dietitian based in Naples, Florida. But they may also help by simply crowding out the bad stuff that causes the damage in the first place.

“If your food choices primarily feature bad fats, tons of sugar, and consistent amounts of excess calories, then you could be setting yourself up for premature aging,” she says.

To further slow aging, Hartwick recommends the following:

  • Focus on nutrient-dense foods: Meals made from plants, whole grains, and lean proteins tend to have the most vitamins and minerals per calorie. (And yes, you can buy healthy food on a budget.)
  • Reduce overly processed foods: As a general rule, packaged foods tend to have more added sugar, salt, and refined oil. These are what dietitians call empty calories — and they can speed up aging.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes: If you regularly eat to the point of being stuffed, you’re probably overdoing it. Instead, Hartwick recommends trying to cut yourself off when you’re comfortably full. Using smaller plates and loading up on vegetables can help.
  • Practice meal prep: Once a week, take some time to strategize what you want to eat for the next seven days. Plan your meals, make a list, and go to the grocery store. Then, to keep yourself on track, do whatever meal prep you can ahead of time. That might mean chopping vegetables and portioning nuts out into snack-size baggies.
  • Drink more water: Staying hydrated is essential for overall health, and it can help prevent you from confusing thirst for hunger. You should be sipping regularly throughout the day.

Find a workout you love and do it daily

Daily exercise may be one of the best ways to extend your life, says Austad. “By staying active, you can assume that you will live a life at least as long as your parents lived, and likely considerably longer,” he says.

The science backs him up. In one study from Brigham Young University, researchers looked at telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of DNA. These caps prevent the DNA damage that’s commonly associated with aging. And they were significantly longer in men and women who did 30 to 40 minutes of running or high-intensity interval training five days a week.

The researchers calculated that at a cellular level, the exercise was linked to nine fewer years of biological aging.

Don’t like running? Then find what you do love. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate cardio each week. But how you get it is up to you — swimming, tennis, or even mowing a big lawn with a push mower can do the trick.

Related reading: 6 Ways Your Body Changes When You Walk for 30 Minutes a Day

And as long as you’re hitting your 150 minutes of moderate cardio, you can do some more grounding exercises as well. A study from India found that yoga and meditation were also effective at increasing telomere length.

Take chronic conditions seriously

If you’re living with a condition such as heart disease or arthritis, you’re not alone. More than half of Americans have at least one chronic condition. That means you have special health needs, and you should maintain an open and ongoing conversation with your doctor.

“A disease like diabetes, for instance, can shorten your life by 10 years if not properly controlled,” Austad says. “That’s why it’s important to get regular health checkups to catch problems early on so they can be adequately treated.”

Be sure to take medication as your doctor prescribes and be proactive about going to all your regular appointments. Routine cardiovascular exams alone save tens of thousands of lives each year, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

If you can stay on top of your diet, exercise, and medical care, you may be able to slow your aging considerably. Then you’ll be able to take full advantage of the longer life that’s available to you.

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