Researchers are studying when we feel our best and why—giving new relevance to the question of the ideal age.

,
Researchers are studying when we feel our best and why—giving new relevance to the question of the ideal age.

The ideal age is a question that Jay Olshansky thinks about often. Dr. Olshansky, an epidemiologist, is researching ways to slow down the process of aging, by studying things like the genetics of long-lived individuals.

“If you had a pill that could stop biological aging in its tracks, when would you take it?” asks Dr. Olshansky, a professor at UIC School of Public Health in Chicago.

He asks his university students this question. Many think 30 is old, so they would take the pill in their 20s. He asked his father, then 95 years old. His father said 50 was the best year because the kids were grown and he was in good health. Dr. Olshanky, 63, says life is good for him now, but if he had to pick a perfect year, it would probably be 50, too, because that was before he started having little aches and pains.

What Is the Perfect Age?
ILLUSTRATION: JON KRAUSE

Researchers like Dr. Olshansky are trying to understand the mysteries of longevity and at what ages we feel our best and why. They measure worry and stress levels at different times in our life and peak years for having fun, the hope being that if people reach satisfaction with life at a certain age, they might have advice for the rest of us. Such exploration in the world of science and health is putting a more concrete focus on the seemingly inscrutable question of the perfect age.

Some of their findings might surprise us. Many people in their 50s don’t want to be 30. Seventy-year-olds are among the most satisfied, perhaps because they are also among the group seen as “time affluent.” Less surprising is that no one, regardless of age, wants to look or feel old, which is why anti-aging creams that promise to remove wrinkles and eye bags sell so well.

But is there an age that is better than all the rest?

No, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “There are too many variables,” she says. For some people, the perfect age is when our opportunities are greatest, which would skew younger. For others, it’s when life satisfaction is greatest, which skews older. Others say it’s when they are at their physical peak or have the most friends—in their 20s or 30s.

It’s easier, though also not without pitfalls, to determine the best age for specific things like getting married, for instance, because researchers can look at evidence such as divorce rates. One study says the best age to wed is between 28 and 32. If you want to have children, it’s best to start before the age of 32, according to fertility data from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Apparently, 36 is the age that women want to look, based on the photos they bring in, says New York City-based dermatologist Gervaise Gerstner. The optimum age for marathon performance is 27 for men and 29 for women, according to a study by Spanish researchers Plataforma SINC on ScienceDaily.com.

What Is the Perfect Age?

THE NUMBERS GAME

Looking for the best age to get married, have a child or make a big financial decision? So are a lot of researchers and here’s a sampling of findings.

Getting Married: 28-32

Waiting to wed reduces the odds of divorce—by 11% a year—but waiting too long increases the odds by 5% annually, says Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah, who looked at divorce rates in a 2015 study Those who wait longer may be “congenitally cantankerous” people who put off marriage because they can’t find anyone to marry them, he says.

Having Children: before 32

That’s the age when fertility starts to drop off, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The decline becomes precipitous after 37.

Making financial decisions: peak around 50

To measure financial literacy, researchers at Texas Tech University in a study published in 2016 asked 16 questions about borrowing, investing and insurance. They found the average scores increased within each year up to roughly age 50. After 60, financial literacy begins to fall.

Getting a cell phone: 12

It’s a hot topic that is getting increasing scrutiny. One 2016 survey by American Express found parents judged the average acceptable age for a cell phone was 12, consistent with findings the previous three years.

Mastering Vocabulary:
late 60s, early 70s

Neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital gathered data from nearly 50,000 subjects and found that this age group is tops at mastering vocabulary—all those years of reading paying off.

Processing Information: 18-19

The MIT/Massachusetts General Hospital study cited for mastering vocabulary also found younger people, while not the top wordsmiths, superior at raw speed in processing information.

Bodybuilding: 25

Physical strength peaks at around 25 years of age, about when muscle mass peaks, too, according to an article on the website sportsci.org. Strength plateaus from 35-40, then falls, with a 25% loss of peak force by the age of 65.

The perfect age at which to live is trickier. A 2013 survey by Allure magazineput it at 31, based on responses from 2,000 people, men and women ages 18 to 69, across the U.S. (More recently, Allure decided to stop using the term “anti-aging” in its coverage.) If people could live forever in good health at a particular age, it would be 50, according to a 2013 Harris Poll. Gender and geography play a role: In the poll, men said the perfect age is 47, and women 53. In the Midwest, the perfect age is 50. In the East, it’s 53 and the West it’s 47.

Even the perfect age can age. Blair Welch, a 27-year-old certified public accountant in Washington, D.C., says each year gets better, in part because it’s taking her further away from the unsettling early 20s. “I think your 20s are a very confusing and insecure time,” she says.

Many people say it’s not a number but a certain feeling or stage of life. When the children were little, say some. When the children were gone, say others.

Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, a non-profit economic development group, says the perfect age is the “exact time that you realize how absolutely short life is” and “how completely lucky you are.” He realized that this year at the age of 47 after two dear friends died, one a father of seven who died in a car accident and the other, a mentor, who died from cancer.

Jennifer Barker of Pittsburgh, who has four children, turned 40 in September and thinks that is perfect. “You are old enough to realize what is important,” she says, and young enough to look forward to future years and discoveries. At the same time, her 20-month-old is full of curiosity and joy and seems at a perfect age, and her grandfather seemed the perfect age at 85 when he was in good health and told inspiring stories. “So the perfect age?” I don’t believe there is one,” she says. “For me, my perfect age is my age now.”

Seventy is good when it comes to psychological well-being and life satisfaction, according to Arthur Stone, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. In a 2015 study, Dr. Stone, along with researchers from Stony Brook University, Princeton University and University College London, found that worry follows us from ages 20 to 50. That is likely due to the expected anxieties during those years about money, job, and children.

Those worries, along with stress, begin to diminish starting at about age 50, and well-being climbs to about age 70, when people are less anxious but still healthy, he says. “People settle into who they are and accept and make the best of it,” he says.

Dr. Stone says he often asks people in their late 50s and 60s if they would prefer to be in their 30s. Except for one person, a radio talk-show host, no one wanted to be younger again. “That was fascinating to me,” he says. “People didn’t want it. There was too much confusion and stuff going on.”

Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave, a California-based consulting firm specializing in aging-related issues, says he would love to have his body “in my 30s for 100 years but I don’t want to be 30 again.” At 30, he had not yet fallen in love, had his children, or established his career. Nor did he have as much self-knowledge, resilience or compassion. “I’m so much wiser at 60 than I was at 40,” says the 63-year-old.

He’s also enjoying himself. People at 65 to 74, the so-called time affluent, reported having more fun than any other age group, according to a 2016 study of 3,712 adults 25 and older released by Age Wave and Merrill Lynch.

The ones having the least fun were those ages 35 to 54.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

Facial exercises may significantly reduce some of the signs of aging

Facial exercises may significantly reduce some of the signs of aging

Facial exercises may significantly reduce some of the signs of aging, according to an interesting new study of the effects of repeating specific, expressive movements on people’s appearance.

The study, published in JAMA Dermatology, found that middle-aged women looked about three years younger after a few months of exercising, perhaps providing a reasonable, new rationale for making faces behind our spouses’ backs.

As all of us regrettably know, the human face changes with age. It begins to accumulate the grooves and wrinkles that connote either lengthening years or deepening character, depending on your viewpoint, and also starts, almost invariably, to sag.

This sagging occurs in large part because the fat pads that underlie the skin on our faces thin with age. When we are young, these pads snuggle together like Lego pieces, providing much of the structure of the contours of our faces. But as the pads change with age, their connections loosen and gravity draws them downward, leaving cheeks hollowed and visages generally droopier.

In recent years, a number of facial exercise programs have become available that claim to be able to reverse many of these visual effects of aging. The programs, often advertised as “nonsurgical face-lifts,” generally have been developed by self-taught men and women, with only anecdotal evidence showing any beneficial effects.

But they have become popular enough that they recently drew the attention of a group of dermatologists at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“We became aware that there were all of these commercial programs — DVDs, instructional videos, even personal trainers — that purported to be able to help people exercise their faces in ways that would make them be happier, healthier, and maybe look younger,” says Dr. Murad Alam, the vice chairman of dermatology at Northwestern University, who led the new study.

“But we were not aware of any scientific proof that these programs could be effective,” he adds.

So he and his colleagues decided to test the usefulness of facial exercises.

They began by getting in touch with Gary Sikorski of Providence, R.I., who had developed Happy Face Yoga, one of the longest-established facial- exercise programs. Mr. Sikorski suggested using a program of 32 facial exercises that would target most of the muscles in the face and neck.

The basic premise of facial exercising, Mr. Sikorski says, is that it provides a kind of resistance training for the facial muscles and, as with any type of strength training, should make those muscles stronger and larger, theoretically filling in spaces hollowed out with age, reducing wrinkling and rounding facial contours.

With that lure, the Northwestern scientists had little difficulty in recruiting 27 women between the ages of 40 and 65 who wanted to try facial exercising. They used only women because this was meant to be a small, pilot study, Dr. Alam says, and the fewer additional variables the better.

The women all were photographed and then met with Mr. Sikorski for two 90-minute, in-person sessions, during which he taught them the 32 exercises. Some are elaborate, involving using fingers to provide light resistance while someone smirks, puckers or otherwise manipulates muscles in the cheeks, forehead or neck.

The full session took 30 minutes.

The women were asked to practice the exercises every day at home for eight weeks. Then they were photographed again and told to continue with the full routine every other day for another 12 weeks.

Over the course of the 20 weeks, 11 of the participants dropped out, leaving 16 who finished the full program.

The researchers showed the photographs of these women to dermatologists who did not know them and asked the doctors to rate the appearance of various facial features on a standard numerical scale and also to estimate the women’s ages.

They also asked the women how satisfied they felt at the end of the study with the appearance of a number of their facial features.

The women were enthusiastic, finding improvements in almost all of their facial features.

The dermatologists were more circumspect. They noted significant improvements in the fullness of the women’s cheeks after 20 weeks but little noticeable change elsewhere on their faces or necks.

But they also estimated the women to be younger after the exercise program. They ranked the women as, on average, about 51 years old in the photographs at the start of the study, but closer to 48 years old after 20 weeks of facial workouts.

“The improvement was actually greater than I had expected,” Dr. Alam says.

But this study was obviously small, he says, as well as short-term and without a control group. Perhaps most concerning, more than a third of participants quit, suggesting that the exercise program was onerous.

“It would be good to do follow-up studies to determine which exercises are the most beneficial,” Dr. Alam says, and then suggest that people concentrate only on those facial gymnastics. (He and his colleagues have no financial or other relationship with Happy Face Yoga, which is owned and operated by Mr. Sikorski.)

 

But for now, it is reasonable to consider contorting and pinching up your face if you wish to try to look younger, he says.

“It’s a nontoxic, inexpensive and self-administered” therapy, he says, “and I suspect it would be hard to hurt yourself,” he says, unless your ego takes a pounding from any onlookers’ snickering.

This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Exercise Alters Our Microbiome. Is That One Reason It’s So Good for Us?

Exercise Alters Our Microbiome. Is That One Reason It’s So Good for Us?

Exercise may change the composition and activity of the trillions of microbes in our guts in ways that could improve our health and metabolisms over time, a new study finds.

The results provide novel insights into how exercise can affect even those portions of our bodies that seem uninvolved in workouts, perhaps providing another nudge to stick with our exercise resolutions this year.

I think we all have heard by now that each of us contains a pulsating little universe of bacteria within our guts. This microbiome includes countless different species of microbes in varying proportions that interact, compete and busily release various substances that are implicated in weight control, inflammation, immune responses and many other aspects of health throughout our bodies.

In broad terms, our microbiomes tend to be relatively stable, most studies show. But our microbiomes can change as our lifestyles do. Diet clearly affects the makeup of a person’s microbiome, as do illness, certain drugs, how much we weigh and other factors.

Exercise also has been associated with variations in the microbiome. Past studies have shown that endurance athletes tend to have a somewhat different collection of microbes within their intestines than sedentary people do, especially if the athletes are lean and the sedentary people are not.

But those studies have been associational and could not show whether exercise actually altered microbes or how any microbial changes might later affect health.

So for the new study, which was published in November in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign decided to track the guts of people who undertook an unfamiliar exercise routine.

The study was designed, in fact, as a follow-up to an earlier, interesting animal study by the same scientists. In that work, the researchers had allowed some lab mice to run and others to sit around for most of their adult lives. Gut material from the mice was then transplanted into animals that had been bred to be germ-free, so that their guts would easily incorporate these new tribes of bacteria. After the animals’ microbiomes were established, the scientists exposed the mice to a substance that can cause tissue irritation and inflammation in the colon.

The scientists found that the animals with gut bugs from the runners were better able to resist and heal tissue damage and tamp down inflammation than those whose microbes had come from sedentary mice.

Now the scientists wished to see if exercise would likewise affect the functioning of microbes in people.

They began by recruiting 32 men and women who did not exercise. About half were obese and the rest of normal weight.

The scientists took blood and fecal samples and tested everyone’s aerobic fitness. Then they had the men and women begin supervised workouts, during which their efforts increased over time from about 30 minutes of easy walking or cycling to about an hour of vigorous jogging or pedaling three times per week.

The volunteers were asked not to change their normal diets.

After six weeks, the scientists collected more samples and retested everyone, and then asked the volunteers to stop exercising altogether.

Six weeks later, the tests were once again repeated.

The subsequent analysis showed that the volunteers’ gut bugs had changed throughout the experiment, with some increasing in numbers and others declining. The researchers also found changes in the operations of many microbes’ genes. Some of those genes were working harder now, while others had grown silent.

Most of these changes were not shared from one person to the next. Everyone’s gut responded uniquely to exercise.

But there were some similarities, the researchers found. In particular, they noted widespread increases in certain microbes that can help to produce substances called short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are believed to aid in reducing inflammation in the gut and the rest of the body. They also work to fight insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, and otherwise bolster our metabolisms.

Most of the volunteers had larger concentrations of these short-chain fatty acids in their intestines after exercise, along with the microbes that produce them.

These increases were greatest, though, among the volunteers who had begun the experiment lean compared to those who were obese, the scientists found.

And perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of the changes in people’s guts dissipated after six weeks of not exercising. By and large, their microbiomes reverted to what they had been at the study’s start.

Still, the study’s overall results suggest that even a few weeks of exercise can alter the makeup and function of people’s microbiomes, says Jeffrey Woods, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois who conducted the study, along with his doctoral student Jacob Allen (now a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University) and others.

In theory, Dr. Woods continues, these changes could contribute to some of the broader health benefits of exercise, such as its ability to reduce inflammation throughout the body.

“But more studies need to be done to prove this,” he says.

He also hopes that future research can explain why the obese volunteers showed smaller gains in their fatty-acid producing microbes than the leaner men and women. Additional study could also help to determine whether and how people’s microbiomes might continue to change if they exercise for longer than six weeks — a goal that all of us, of course, have resolved to do in the coming year, right?

This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Long a key part of meditation and some kinds of yoga, breathwork is now becoming a discipline in its own right,

Long a key part of meditation and some kinds of yoga, breathwork is now becoming a discipline in its own right,

Long a key part of meditation and some kinds of yoga, breathwork is now becoming a discipline in its own right, with proponents offering classes, one-on-one sessions and apps dedicated to the practice. And whereas the focus has predominantly been on the mental and psychological benefits of breathwork, fitness industry professionals are increasingly saying that it can also enhance athletic performance or speed muscular recovery after a workout.

Mindbodygreen, a wellness-focused media company that has published articles on breathwork, has noted an uptick in interest in the subject from its audience — in particular from “people who are thinking meditation is too woo-woo,” said a company co-founder, Colleen Wachob. “It’s a slightly different cohort that’s looking for a shortcut or hack and that’s more performance- or science-driven,” she said.

Photo

Amanda Baker, a meditation student at Inscape. CreditKholood Eid for The New York Times

It has been long recognized that deep, controlled breathing can calm someone having an anxiety attack or help anyone in need of a little more stress-relief and mental clarity. Hillary Clinton, for example, has talked about using alternate side nostril breathing to help her relax while on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. But what’s new is that scientists have found a physical link between breathing and what they call “emotionality.”

A study published last March in Science showed a direct anatomical link between the parts of the brain that control voluntary breathing and the parts that control emotionality. Altering the activity of this connection changed how aroused, alert or calm mice were. “Its an important finding because it shows that there is a causality between the two,” said Andrew D. Huberman, a professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University.

In his lab at Stanford, Dr. Huberman is doing research on breathing and how it impacts emotional states. He’s also developing an app with Brian MacKenzie, a strength and conditioning coach in San Mateo Hills, Calif. The goal of the app will be to customize breathwork for people by giving them a simple inhale-and-exhale test and incorporating other data provided by those who sign up for it.

“Breathwork can be thought of as exercise in that, if done correctly, has immediate benefits — physical, emotional and cognitive — but breathwork also has longer-term benefits if you do it regularly,” Dr. Huberman said. “The idea is that people can alter and strengthen the neural pathways that link breathing with emotion regulation centers in the brain, which can help them feel calmer and more alert, or and sleep better, depending on the protocols they use.”

It can also make you a better athlete. Mr. MacKenzie, who is the co-author of three sports-related books including “Unbreakable Runner,” teaches his clients how to use nasal breathing to optimize their athletic performance and be more “metabolically efficient.” Breathing through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps people remain calm and alert, improves their peripheral vision and encourages them to maintain better posture and mechanics, which results in fewer injuries, Mr. Mackenzie said.

All of these findings are not lost on Equinox, the chain of high-end gyms. Instructors started getting basic training in breathwork about two years ago when the company introduced a class called HeadStrong, which blends a high-intensity workout with so-called mindful movement and concludes with breathing. “I do see breathwork becoming as ubiquitous for recovery as foam rolling or stretching,” said Michael Gervais, Equinox’s senior manager of group fitness talent. He mentioned one study that shows a link between parasympathetic nervous activity, which is activated by breathwork, and recovery status after an intense workout.

Khajak Keledjian, former C.E.O. of Intermix and the founder of Inscape, credits meditation, which he does twice daily, for reducing stress and improving his sleep and energy levels. He’s also noticed that he has an easier time breathing when he goes on challenging hikes. “According to heart-rate standards,” he said, “my endurance and stamina is at the level of an athlete.”

 

This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.