The mountain of youth?
As we age our bodies deteriorate – it’s a fact of life and there’s nothing we can do about it… right? Not so, according to research published in the Journal of Physiology.
Quantifying exactly how our bodies change as we age is a challenge. We all know there’s a general decline towards frailty as we get older, but physiologists lack a set of reliable markers they can track to follow the aging process.
To shed some light on the situation, a team from King’s College London measured a whole host of physiological characteristics in a group of 55 to 79-year-olds to find out which attributes best correlated with age.
Of course, physically inactive people tend to be in worse shape than their active counterparts. So, to avoid confusion between the physiological declines of aging and inactivity, the researchers chose a group of older adults who were known to be keen exercisers. Specifically they were highly active regular cyclists; males who could cycle 100 km in 6.5 h or females who could cover 60 km in 5.5 h.
Potential markers measured included cardiovascular characteristics such as heart rate, blood pressure and aerobic capacity; and muscular attributes like skeletal muscle mass, strength, balance, explosive power and mobility. On top of these, hormone levels, nerve signalling speed and cognitive function were also assessed.
The researchers found that the characteristics that declined in line with age were… well actually none of them. Remarkably enough, none of the many traits recorded showed a significant enough correlation to reliably predict age.
In fact, this cohort of cycling enthusiasts were in such good shape that their statistics were no different to those of young, healthy people.
It goes to show that aging is a complex process dependent on environmental and lifestyle factors rather than a simple linear decline. While we may be no closer to defining typical markers to track aging, the encouraging news is that by staying active we can keep our bodies in youthful good shape as we head towards old age.
Pollock RD et al. An investigation into the relationship between age and physiological function in highly active older adults. J Physiol 2015; 593: 657-80.