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updated: 8/8/2011 7:43 AM

What are the secrets to aging well?

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  • A regular routine of moderate exercise can have a significant impact on health and how a body ages, experts say.

      A regular routine of moderate exercise can have a significant impact on health and how a body ages, experts say.

  • Jim Pressler at age 50, left, and today.

      Jim Pressler at age 50, left, and today.
    Courtesy of Pressler family and Washington Post

  • Jim Pressler at ages 22, left, 38, 50 and today at 62.

      Jim Pressler at ages 22, left, 38, 50 and today at 62.
    Courtesy of Pressler family and Washington Post

 
By Margaret Webb Pressler

How old is the man in the photo?

Hint No. 1: His first full-time salary as a lawyer was $12,000 a year.

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Hint No. 2: He drew a low number in the Vietnam War draft lottery.

That my husband, Jim, looks good for his age has been true throughout our 20 years of marriage, but never more so than now. He is 62.

It's been a fun parlor trick. When the "Guess Your Age" guy at the West Virginia State Fair guessed he was 37, Jim had to whip out his driver's license to prove he was really 55. "Man, you look good," the carny said.

I have always assumed that my husband benefits from especially good genes. But now that Jim is in his 60s, people aren't just shocked to learn his age, they also want to know how he does it. It has made me wonder if the real reason he's aging so well is the nutrition-exercise-supplement-skin-care-lifestyle regimen he has created for himself. Jim has been honing his routine for decades, ever since he was deferred from the draft, at the age of 22, because of high blood pressure. "I knew I could do something about it, and I didn't want to take drugs," he recalls.

If the health and fitness habits he's been developing since then are the reason he looks so young now, that would be really good to know.

I took the question -- and Jim's picture -- to experts in aging, nutrition, cell function, dermatology, genetics and vitamin research. The answer, pretty clearly, is that his efforts have in fact had a big impact on the way he looks, good genes or not.

"The older you get, the more influence you have, so that by the time you're 50, it's about 70 percent choices, about 30 percent genetics," said Michael Roizen, chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Roizen has spent years studying aging and runs a hugely popular website, RealAge.com, that offers health and fitness advice. Luigi Ferrucci, scientific director at the National Institute on Aging, agreed that genes are only a piece of the puzzle, and probably not the biggest.

As director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which has followed about 5,000 people since 1958, Ferrucci has been able to see firsthand what makes a difference in the way people age.

"You don't get the genes for being younger," he said. "You get the gene that allows you (to) do the right things to slow down your aging process."

So let's look at what Jim does.

Avoids the big no-no's

Virtually everyone I spoke with listed one or more of these factors working in my husband's favor right from the start: He doesn't smoke, doesn't have sun damage and drinks only moderately. The vigor with which these researchers voiced these opinions reminded me to scare my kids even more about smoking and drinking -- and about the importance of sunscreen.

Exercises

Ferrucci calls exercise "the strongest beneficial behavior intervention that we know about." Moderate exercise makes the biggest difference, he said.

That would be Jim's style. His exercise routine is limited by a busy law practice, three young kids and a wife who also works. So he squeezes in a 20- to 30-minute aerobic workout on the bike or rowing machine three to four days a week in our basement, followed by 10 to 20 minutes of weight training.

Roizen said he laughed out loud when he read an email from me outlining my husband's exercise program: It was almost the exact same workout plan Roizen promotes as the ideal routine to retard the effects of aging.

Eats moderately

Jim's weight has never fluctuated much, but in the past five to 10 years he has eliminated many unhealthful foods from his diet and reduced his portion sizes, causing him to drop 10 pounds without much effort. The trick, I think, has been making these changes gradually so the adjustment has been easy.

Despite a weakness for chocolate chip cookies, Jim now eats more whole grains, much less fat, more fish and more fruit and vegetables. He also eats virtually no red meat, which Roizen applauds.

"It could be the saturated fat; we're not sure. But something in red meat accelerates inflammation in arteries," he said. "And it turns out that inflammation in arteries ages your skin, ages your heart, ages all the things where your blood vessels go."

Follows diet high in antioxidants

Jim devours dark fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, blackberries, watermelon, dark romaine lettuce and other dark greens. I scour the supermarket ads for BOGO deals: buy one for Jim, get one free for the rest of us.

These foods are good because they are full of antioxidants, which are thought to bind with the unstable molecules that are constantly released as a byproduct of metabolism.

Although the science is still not conclusive for humans, there is strong evidence that these free radicals, knocking around in search of other molecules to bind to, damage healthy cells in the process. This oxidative stress can lead to inflammation and other adverse effects, said Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

"I have become a very strong believer in a diet rich in antioxidants," Briggs said. "These things have a very strong observational correlation with health."

Takes vitamin E

Jim has been taking moderate vitamin E supplements daily for 40 years. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that, in animal testing, has been shown to prolong the life of cells and reduce cell proliferation.

Could it be helping Jim maintain his youthful looks?

"Yes, of course," said Maret Traber, one of the nation's lead researchers on vitamin E. A professor of nutrition at Oregon State University, she is also a principal investigator at the university's Linus Pauling Institute, which investigates the role of vitamins and micronutrients in health and aging. She said vitamin E, working alone or in concert with other vitamins, is doing more for Jim than improving his appearance.

"Your husband's insides, I think, look way better than his outsides, and you can quote me," she said. (This was backed up by my husband's annual checkup a month ago, with ideal or better-than-ideal results on every physical exam and blood test. "He's going to put me out of business with a physical like that," his longtime internist, Elliott Aleskow, told me.)

Traber's position is somewhat controversial: Several major studies in humans have shown little benefit from vitamin E supplements and possible harm from high doses of about 800 milligrams a day. (Jim takes 200 milligrams a day.)

Demetrius Albanes of the National Cancer Institute led one of the few major studies that showed a positive influence for vitamin E in humans. In this study of 29,000 Finnish men, all of them smokers, those with the highest levels of vitamin E in their blood had a "significant" reduction in the incidence of prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality after 12 to 20 years, he said. "Designing a good study is complicated," he said, adding that more research on vitamin E is needed.

Jim does other things that various experts say affect the aging process: He moisturizes his skin daily, he flosses regularly, manages stress well, has a job he often finds rewarding, has a hobby that he enjoys (photography), has a good marriage and healthy kids. Many experts said living a happy life is a key element in aging well, and Jim, even though he works long hours, is pretty happy.

"Yeah, I'd say that's true," he told me. I was only slightly stepping on his small toe when I asked that.

But I was left with one lingering doubt about the role of genetics. Surely it's genetic that he has no gray hair, right?

"I wouldn't count on that," said Ferrucci. "There is some observation that gray hair has a lot to do with oxidative stress."

Like so much in the field of aging, this is a new area of research. It was discovered only a few years ago that the pigment in hair comes from stem cells in the hair follicle. If they stop working, usually later in life, the hair turns gray.

This is a bit perplexing, though, because stem cells have the ability to self-renew, said Mayumi Ito, an assistant professor of cell biology at NYU's Langone Medical Center and one of the few U.S. researchers in this field. No one has demonstrated what factors keep particular stem cells functioning. "I personally assume it is both a genetic process and an environmental process," she said.

The aging process is complicated; it makes sense that if someone is aging especially well, the reasons would be just as complicated. In my husband's case, it is more than good genes; it's everything he's done on top of that, including the right kind of exercise, a beneficial diet and the many other ways he takes care of himself.

The message, at least, is simple: Making an effort can really pay off.

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