Health & Fitness

A longer lifespan takes more than ‘good’ genes

Longevity runs in families but exercise can make one live longer. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

Qn. “I visited a physiotherapist a while back and he insisted that I enrol for an aerobics class because it would become handy in improving my cognition in future. Is this factual?”

Why did you visit a physiotherapist in the first place? Do you have a back problem or is it perhaps that you are a young footballer who had an injury recently. Also, how old are you and what is the nature of your health today in relation to your chronological age?

A relatively new concept in medical practice relates to a calculation about the difference between your age as from the day you were born, in relation to your current physical health age.

For some people, the “medical” age would be lower than their chronological (birth) age while for others the opposite would be true. Complicated? Let me explain.

To put the same point rather differently, you have two ages. Chronological and biological. Using a calendar, one determines the first age. For the second age, scientists use complex DNA and other scientific methods to determine the rate at which one is ageing. This measurement is referred to as “The telomere length”. Based on a study of 150 of your genes, the scientist is able to tell how rapidly your body is decaying towards death. All this sounds complicated but is the answer to your question.


In reality, you seek to know if indeed it is possible for you to do “anything” to slow down the process of “becoming old”. Is physical exercise one of the things you could do.

Just so that we can put this matter to bed, let us state that doctors believe that there are certain things that one can do to slow down the rate at which DNA loses its tips (also called telomeres). It is the tips of the DNA that protect your DNA from making mistakes during cell division, and hence the increase in the incidence of “mistakes” like cancer as a person grows older and the tips become shorter and less efficient with age.

We know that longevity runs in families. There are people whose parents, and grandparents lived beyond 100 years and we say that such people are expected to live beyond 100 years.

Only because they are well known public figures, and because their approximate age is in the public domain, three people come to mind —Prince Phillip (husband to Queen Elizabeth), Charles Njonjo (former Attorney-General) and former president Daniel arap Moi. All three gentlemen are on course to hit a century. Biology (read inheritance) contributes 25 percent of their long life. The rest is contributed by their lifestyle!

Without knowing what each of them has done in life to benefit from longevity, in the general case, we know that a number of factors play a critical role in prolonging life. The best known and perhaps most discussed is diet. As they say, you are what you eat. Lots of fatty junk foods translate to shorter telomeres! Lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and avoidance of processed sugars mean longer telomeres (and life)

The second and well known activity that keeps telomeres long is physical exercise. So, if your physiotherapist is telling you to exercise on a regular basis, he is absolutely right. He might also be telling you to exercise regularly, so that your body remains at an ideal weight where the biological system is not too stressed by excessive weight. This process is also referred to as stopping the rusting of your cells.

Sleep comes to those who tire their bodies through physical activity. About seven hours of sleep allows the body to restore the parts that wear out during the day as we rush about all the time burning the fuel of the body. Adequate sleep helps slow ageing. Poor sleep patterns shorten life.

Mental health is a critical factor in the length of the telomere and it is also possible that your physiotherapist is aware of this fact. He might be telling you to ensure that those factors that bring you down physically (for example stress) also have a bearing on your cognition and physical health. He is right, yet again. As you can see, the human body has limits beyond which it cannot be pushed. When you punish the body by giving it too much to carry, deny it sleep and exercise, it will punish you by shortening your life.