- Age-related inflammation can increase your biological age and damage your health.
- Intermittent fasting, a keto diet, and exercise can help slow down or delay inflammaging
- Some medications can also combat inflammaging
You don’t need a Ph.D. to guess that “inflammaging” is a fusion of “inflammation” and “aging.” And as you also probably guessed, these two things don’t play well together. Aging can bring on inflammation. And inflammation can increase your biological age, which is tied to your health. Your biological age is often a different number than your chronological age, which is how many trips you’ve made around the sun (1).
Although researchers haven’t figured out how to make us immortal yet, they have determined some strategies to help stave off inflammaging, increase cellular functioning, and ward off age-related disease that can degrade your quality of life.
Adopting these strategies may boost longevity and help you feel—and look—your best now and for years to come.
What is Inflammaging?
Inflammaging is the state of chronic low-grade inflammation that tends to manifest or increase as you get up in years. And it may drive a slew of age-related diseases (2) including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Inflammaging may also play a role in metabolic health diseases like Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and musculoskeletal conditions like osteoarthritis (3). Even in the absence of a diagnosed disease, inflammation can also just make you feel like crap as you get older.
Causes of Inflammaging
Researchers haven’t sussed out all of the causes of inflammaging, but they suspect these nine mechanisms may be the biggest culprits:
Cell division is crucial for your body’s growth and development. But as you age, you experience what’s called cellular senescence, where your body accumulates “zombie” or senescent cells; ones that no longer divide, but that don’t die off.
Instead of meeting their cellular maker, zombie cells hang around and secrete pro-inflammatory molecules like inflammatory cytokines that wreak havoc on cells, tissues, and organs, diminishing their functions (3, 4).
Every day you’re exposed to forces that can damage your DNA, including environmental toxins, UV radiation from the sun, and a concerning type of free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Your body has an internal clean-up crew that can remove or repair damaged DNA but as you age, more glitches can happen in the system, causing issues such as mutations that can pile up and lead to age-related diseases (5).
The ends of your chromosomes are capped with protective telomeres, regions of repetitive DNA sequences that protect the ends.
As you age, your telomeres naturally shorten. But if they get critically short, it can lead to DNA damage and cellular senescence (3).
We tend to think of DNA as static; genetic code that never changes. But scientists that study epigenetics have figured out that lifestyle changes can influence how your genes function.
DNA methylation is a biological process inside cells that regulates gene behavior. Flipping certain genetic switches “off” through methylation can help prevent disease. But as you age, DNA methylation is thought to decline, increasing the risk for age-related diseases (3).
Proteins are behind almost every reaction in your body, and having the right balance of healthy proteins—a state called proteostasis—is crucial to good health.
Your cells break down and remove or recycle worn out, damaged, or problematic cellular parts, including proteins, through a process called autophagy (6).
Autophagy has been found to decrease with age, and has been linked to age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s (3).
PRO LONGEVITY HABITS
Mitochondria, central to metabolism and the powerhouses within cells, convert food into a form of energy called ATP that your cells use for energy.
As you age, your mitochondria can become damaged, which is associated with a decline in mitochondria functioning. Lots of factors are linked to mitochondrial dysfunction, but two of the biggest offenders are high glucose levels (blood sugar) and insulin resistance (7, 8), both of which are more likely to crop up as you age.
Impaired nutrient sensing
Your body has nutrient-sensing pathways that sense and manage nutrients to use for energy, regulating your metabolism.
But as you get older, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and other processes that damage cells can lead to the dysregulation of these pathways, impairing metabolic functioning and driving inflammaging (9).
Stem cell loss
Most of the cells in your body have a specific job—heart cells, lung cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, etc. But stem cells are blank slates; they wait for chemical signals to tell them what kind of cells to repair and replace.
As you age, your body produces fewer of them. This stem cell exhaustion may lead to muscle loss, bone weakening, impaired immune response, and vulnerability to age-related diseases (3).
Faulty cell communication
Your cells communicate with each other using chemical and mechanical messengers. Age-related inflammation can disrupt these complex signaling processes (3). Like a bad game of telephone, your cells start to relay faulty messages while ignoring others. This makes your body more susceptible to disease.
Aging is inevitable. But inflammaging doesn’t have to be. You can mitigate some of the inflammation that naturally occurs with aging by adopting these lifestyle changes.
1. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
An anti-inflammatory diet has a heavy focus on unprocessed whole-food sources, including a colorful array of fruits and vegetables (10). Fruits and vegetables contain polyphenols, and other powerful antioxidants that help mitigate oxidative stress (11).
Regular fruit and veggie consumption also ups your micronutrient intake, which can help ensure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals essential for cell signaling, genomic stability, mitochondrial functioning, and overall metabolic health (12). Also, boost your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties (13).
Limit ultra-processed foods and added sugar, which can cause oxidative stress and inflammation and disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiome (14). Also consider reducing your intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Many people in the U.S. eat a diet too high in omega-6s, which some research suggests may be linked to inflammation (15).
2. Try intermittent fasting
3. Or go keto
Animal studies suggest that you may be able to boost autophagy and battle mitochondrial dysfunction via a ketogenic diet (18). A keto diet promotes the production of ketones in the liver. This occurs because the diet’s high-fat, low-carb basis depletes the body’s glycogen stores. So ketones are required for energy (19). This state, called ketosis, can encourage autophagy.
KETO AND IF
4. Keep your blood sugar stable
High glucose variability—meaning blood sugar levels that swing high and low—is linked to systemic inflammation (20). And over time, repeated blood sugar spikes can contribute to insulin resistance (21). Eating for stable blood sugar means preventing those spikes and the blood sugar “crashes” that often follow.
One way to keep tabs on how the foods you eat affect your blood sugar is to wear a continuous glucose monitor. Since their invention, CGMs have typically been worn by people with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. However, a growing body of health professionals and researchers are recognizing the benefits of CGM technology for preventing the development of prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes (21).
Good strategies for eating for stable blood sugar involve focusing on foods low on the glycemic index and pairing carbohydrates with protein, fiber, and healthy fats, all of which help slow the absorption of glucose (22).
Exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on the body, which is why it’s recommended as a therapy for many conditions, including arthritis. Physical activity promotes the release from skeletal muscle proteins called myokines, which can have anti-inflammatory effects (23).
Exercise is also a potent promoter of mitochondrial function (24). It places a stress load on the body that requires an adaptational response. Researchers suspect apoptosis, which is cell death, and autophagy, cell recycling are processes necessary for adaptation to exercise (25).
Physical activity also helps increase insulin sensitivity (26). And research suggests that movement after eating is a good tool for mitigating glucose spikes. Just two minutes of walking shortly after a meal has metabolic health benefits (27).
6. Stress less
Finding ways to tame unchecked tension can slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure, and promote digestion (30). Even a few minutes makes a difference. Try meditation, yoga, breathwork, and more (31).
7. Consider anti-aging medications
Some medications are being studied for their potential to combat inflammaging and promote longevity.
Metformin, used to lower blood sugar, has benefits for metabolic health, but it also appears that it may have potential neuroprotective and anti-cancer benefits.
Rapamycin, an immunosuppressant medication used in transplant patients, is also being studied for its potential in longevity.
Senolytics, medications that help clear senescent cells, have been developed, but robust clinical trials are required (4).
The Bottom Line
Inflammation and aging are unfortunate bedfellows that can lead to disease processes that leave you feeling less than stellar as you grow older. But you can combat the inflammation that comes with aging by focusing on getting plenty of physical activity and eating foods that support cellular functioning. These strategies have a host of benefits that can make you feel—and even look—younger.