As anyone who has ever attended a reunion knows, we all age at different rates.

Some people start to become feeble and look old in their sixties while others continue to live vigorous, productive lives well into their nineties – and even beyond.

Heredity plays a part in this, of course. Some people seem to be born with a greater resistance to stress and debilitating illness than others. Thus anyone with a lot of long-lived ancestors has a better-than-average chance of living to a ripe old age.

But the latest research by gerontologists indicates that heredity is not nearly so significant as a lifestyle in determining who will remain youthful – in appearance as well as ability.

The first step toward staying youthful is to understand the factors that affect the aging process – as well as those that do not. Here, to help you, are answers to the most common questions on aging.

Do women age differently from men?

Yes. As a rule, women seem to age more slowly up until menopause; their skins are firmer, their health is better and they’re more resistant to disease and death than men of the same age.

But after menopause, their health declines and their mortality rate begins to approach that of men. Some authorities believe that the high level of estrogen in premenopausal women is responsible for this difference.

The longevity gap between men and women may begin to close still more as women smoke cigarettes become supervisors and managers and generally share the stresses traditionally reserved for men. But in truth, very little is known about female aging.

Why don’t we know more about female aging?

Most of the long-term studies of aging populations have been limited to men. Several began on predominantly male military personnel during World War II. Other studies rejected women because the check-ups were performed in hospital wards that didn’t allow much privacy.

More significant, however, is the fact that the female menstrual cycle makes the physiology of women harder to chart than that of men. Chalk it up to scientific laziness, but it’s easier to put smooth curves on a man’s chart than on a woman’s.

Does childbearing affect aging?

Yes. Women who’ve borne three children have the lowest mortality rates, while those who’ve borne seven or more have the highest. Childless women and those with only one child generally don’t live as long as mothers of two or three children.

Is it possible to prevent skin from wrinkling and sagging with age?

Some wrinkling is inevitable, but it can be postponed almost indefinitely with proper care begun early in life. (Skin doesn’t age all at once; it’s a cumulative process that begins in childhood even if it doesn’t show up until 20 or 30 years later.)

Here are the six most important steps for keeping skin looking youthful:

  1. Stay out of the sun. All the authorities agree that the sun is the number one culprit in the aging of the skin. If you must be out in the sun, protect yourself with wide-brimmed hats, beach umbrellas and sunscreen lotions. Also be sure to wear sunglasses that are dark enough to prevent squinting, which only encourages more wrinkles.
  2. Eat a well-balanced diet. Vitamin C (which helps protect skin against stress), vitamin E (which aids skin metabolism) and vitamin A (which balances hormones and helps beautify the outer skin layers) are especially important.
  3. Keep your skin lubricated. Use a moisturizer during the day to protect your skin against cold, wind, sun, heat and other drying agents. Heavier creams used at night also help prevent skin from drying out and looking weathered.
  4. Stimulate your circulation. Anything that improves circulation – such as exercise, massage, head and shoulder stands – benefits the skin because it brings more nourishment to it and speeds up the elimination of wastes.
  5. Give up smoking. One California study of some 750 women indicated that smokers tend to have significantly more wrinkling than nonsmokers. Smoking not only interferes with circulation and skin metabolism, but it also increases squinting.
  6. Avoid frowning. Try to eliminate the stresses and strains of your life that cause you to frown and grimace. Anything that disturbs the placidity of your face tends to make it age faster.

Does marital status affect the aging process?

Yes. As a rule single men and women have shorter lives than married men and women. Several studies show that those who’ve been widowed – especially men – live longer if they remarry soon.

One study of aging found that the happiest marriages for older people were those in which there was frequent sexual activity, a wife several years younger than her husband and a husband at least as bright as his wife.

Does sexual activity keep you youthful?

You had better believe it does. So much of staying young is mental. Long-lived people tend to live for today and tomorrow. They continue their sexual enjoyment as long as they can. The old claim that sex is dangerous in old age is thoroughly disproved. In fact, sex researchers have found that many people remain sexually active in old age.

Do sleeping habits make a difference?

Yes, but it’s impossible to say how much sleep is ideal. There are tremendous variations among healthy people; some thrive on as little as five hours a night.

Scientists who’ve studied this question generally agree that consistency in sleeping patterns is more significant than the amount of sleep a person gets. In other words, it’s better to get the same amount of sleep every night.

Does the consumption of alcoholic beverages affect the longevity?

Yes and no. Moderate amounts of alcohol have no significant effect on longevity.

Excessive drinking, on the other hand, erodes both body and mind. It lowers resistance to infection (especially respiratory illnesses), produces digestive disorders, destroys brain cells, weakens the heart muscle and is conducive to violence and suicide.

Do thin people live longer than fat people?

Not necessarily. While it’s true that very few old people are fat, this does not mean that every kilogram you gain is going to shorten your life.

In fact, a continuing study of a large aging population in Framingham, Massachusetts, showed that during at least 30 years of middle life leanness was a higher risk factor than obesity.

Scientists have not yet deciphered all the data, but they may indicate that our on-again, off-again dieting endeavors are life-shortening stress. In other words, it may be healthier to keep your weight steady rather than fluctuate.

Does what you eat affect the longevity?

Yes, but there is great disagreement among the experts as to what kind of diet is most apt to prolong life.

It is, of course, important to be properly nourished – to keep your body supplied with all the essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Some doctors believe that a high-bulk diet is healthiest, while others consider low-fat content the most important factor. Still other experts stress the importance of keeping intake of salt or refined sugar to a minimum.

Will strenuous exercise keep you youthful?

It can. A study of 6351 waterside workers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that repeated bursts of high energy output established a plateau of protection against coronary mortality.

In other words, men engaged in hard physical labor have fewer heart attacks – probably because the exercise reduces such heart disease factors as hypertension, obesity and unnatural heart rhythms.

The benefits of regular exercise for good physiological functioning – particularly of the arteries and the heart – are indisputable, but many researchers believe that exercise need not be strenuous to keep you in shape.

The walking done by mail carriers, for example, is not considered strenuous, yet a study of British postal employees found that those in sedentary desk jobs had more heart attacks and died younger than mail carriers.

Do social and economic factors affect the longevity?

Successful people generally live longer than failures. In fact, the greater the success, the longer the lifespan. So-called captains of industry live remarkably longer than the general population and significantly longer than other business executives.

Why? Some gerontologists theorize that successful people have a knack for converting tensions and stresses into life-enriching challenges, while failures are overcome by stress. Other experts point out that success need not be financial; an optimistic attitude and satisfaction with life are more important.

What do long-lived people have in common?

While only one in every 35,000 Americans reaches the age of 100, one in 90 people reaches that exalted age in at least three other parts of the world. The places with the greatest proportion of centenarians are Vilcabamba in Ecuador, the Soviet Caucasus and Hunza, Pakistan.

All three areas have been studied by Dr. Leaf and others in an effort to find an explanation for this unusual longevity.

While the investigators do not discount the possibility of a genetic explanation, they have found other common factors. All three areas are mountainous agricultural regions in which hard work and vigorous daily walking are necessary for survival.

The people eat a low-fat, low-protein natural diet. They tend to have long, relatively happy marriages with frequent sexual activity in the later years.

Is there anything to those expensive European youth treatments?

That remains to be seen. Europe has some 3000 medical practitioners using some form of cell therapy – usually involving the injection of sheep fetus cells into humans – but according to gerontologist Alex Comfort, MD, all that cell therapy has rejuvenated is a lot of doctors’ bank accounts.

Takashi Makinodan, MD, an immunologist at the Gerontological Research Centre in Baltimore, has successfully rejuvenated the immune systems of old rats by injecting them with corresponding cells from young rats.

And David Sharp, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, has restored diabetic monkeys to normalcy by implanting pancreatic tissue into them. But it is still not known whether such techniques would be beneficial to humans.

What is the future of research on aging?

The US government has launched a National Institute on Aging that could, with adequate funding, make great strides in determining why we deteriorate with age and how to prevent it. More and more gerontologists believe that with proper care and treatment there’s no reason why we can’t live healthy, productive lives for 90 or 100 years.

As scientists continue to seek the answers, keep in mind that the first principle of any life-extension program is to savor every moment of life. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, put it well when he said: “Teach him to live rather than to avoid death: Life is not breath, but action, the use of our senses, our mind, our faculties, every part of ourselves which makes us conscious of our being.”

Rejuvenation means living longer and better. It means adding life to your years as well as years to your life. You can have your cake and eat it too – enjoying life is one of the best ways to extend it.

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