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Kathy Whelan

Posted on March 22, 2019

My birthday was earlier this month, and with it came a range of emotions. I felt grateful to be alive and well, which is not to be taken for granted at any age. But another, less welcome thought crept in, too: if only I could turn back the hands of time. This got me thinking about what my age really represents – and what it doesn’t.

We use chronological age to determine when we are old enough to enter school, drive a car, drink alcohol, retire, receive Social Security and get into the movies at a reduced price. That makes sense when it’s impractical to make individual assessments. But what about when we try to visualize and plan for our futures? Should we expect to feel a particular way when we reach a certain age? Should we plan to do what other people do at that age? Is this how we should think about the time we have left on this planet?

“Biological age” is the subject of much current research. The concept basically refers to how your body is aging compared with others of the same chronological age. It’s important because study after study has shown that biological age is a better predictor of disease and mortality than chronological age. This takes on extra meaning as people live longer due to our ability to treat specific diseases but often spend their later years suffering from multiple conditions and disabilities. Being able to lengthen life, we need more than ever to focus on healthy longevity.

Various methods are used to measure biological age; while each has its merits, it seems there is not yet a single, agreed-upon method. I expect it will be some time before primary care physicians scribble a number on a prescription pad that tells us how old we really are.

Although we lack that precision, we can still use the concept of biological age in our everyday lives because biological age, unlike chronological age, is modifiable. Habits and conditions such as smoking, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol are known to influence biological age. Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and environmental exposures can likewise affect biological age and shorten or lengthen lifespan. Less obviously, getting enough sleep, having a sense of life purpose, being engaged in a community, experiencing joy, meditating and even laughing have all been shown to have benefits when it comes to aging. While our chronological age increases no matter what we do, the way we live impacts our biological age.

This is good news, but it comes with a challenge. It shines a different light on the mindset that we are doomed to an early death because a parent died young. Or that the longevity of a nonagenarian ancestor guarantees us a long lifespan. While genetic predispositions definitely play a role, we can make a difference. If we truly care about healthy aging, it’s up to us to do something about it.

Learning about biological age feels empowering to me. It has bolstered my commitment to a healthy lifestyle and given me optimism about my future. I’ve noticed I’m no longer having thoughts like “I hope I can still hike this hill next year.” I laughed when I realized that if I lie about my age, I might actually be telling the truth!

This new learning matters to me on a professional level, too. I believe strongly that everyone can improve their health if they go about it the right way. And as a health coach, what could be more rewarding than helping people turn back the hands of time?

I hope you find this information encouraging and that you will use it to think of your age as something much more than how many trips you have made around the sun.

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