David Harry Stewart of The Ageist in his podcast series SuperAge: Live Better interviewed Ronnie S. Stangler, M.D., on November 20, 2020.
- Genetics – the science of heredity.
- Genomics – the study of all of our genes.
- Epigenetics – the unseen biological forces responsible for turning our genes “on” and “off”.
While genes themselves remain a relative constant throughout our lifetime, the system of epigenetics significantly influences how genes are expressed, with major implications for health, well-being and aging.
2020 as an epigenetic risk factor
Thus far, 2020 can be described as a confluence of negative environmental factors (e.g., an horrific global pandemic, exposure of profound racial and social inequities, economic instability, a bitterly contested US election, global warming writ large, etc.). This amalgamation represents a perfect storm of disruption, uncertainty, anxiety and fear – all toxic influences on the expression of our genes, affecting us at the cellular level.
Environmental influences which alter our epigenome include stress, sleep, human connection and social support, nutrition, physical activity, medication, supplements, a sense of meaning and purpose, spiritual well-being.
Chronological age vs biological age
One’s chronological age is the number of years since one’s birth.
By contrast, one’s biological age, also referred to as phenotypic, physiologic or cellular age, refers to how one’s cells are functioning.
There are a number of epigenetic tests available direct-to-consumer that will calculate your biological age within a matter of weeks.
Epigenetic age tests like INDEX by Elysium Health measure biologic age and calculate your cumulative rate of aging (i.e. how quickly or slowly you are aging relative to others with the same chronologic age). One’s rate of aging is changeable, offering individuals a sense of agency at a time when it is so desperately needed.
Epigenetics as a framework
Reframing health decisions as epigenetic interventions may help people commit to healthier lifestyles and serve as a powerful catalyst and motivator for positive change.
The mental health pandemic of 2020
We are experiencing a mental health pandemic concurrent to the viral coronavirus pandemic. Today, 1/3 Americans report symptoms of anxiety compared with 1/12 this same time last year. 1/4 are reporting symptoms of depression, including Michelle Obama, who shared that on her new podcast several weeks ago. Mental health support is a critical epigenetic intervention right now.
Mindfulness is a powerful epigenetic intervention – whether that takes the form of a specific kind of meditation, breathwork or spiritual practice. There is great power in freeing the mind from the trauma of the past and the anxiety of the future and committing to being in the present moment. Equanimity informs an essential foundation necessary for all meaningful change.
Social connectedness is a critical epigenetic intervention as loneliness is connected with extremely poor health outcomes. While we are all currently compromised in terms of our capacity to meet with friends and family in person right now, we have demonstrated great creativity in developing new forms of virtual connections. These must be encouraged and expanded.
Genes are not destiny
We are all epigenetic engineers: with every thought, emotion, and experience, you act as the epigenetic engineer of your cells, your body and your life.
Medications and supplements
Certain medications and supplements may promote longevity: metformin, Basis and Matter by Elysium Health, quercetin, vitamin D3 – to name but a few. Consult your physician to determine safety and suitability.
The future offers us an opportunity for a powerful reset. While the state of applied epigenetics is early and prone to distortion, oversimplification and hype, the hard science is real and exponentially increasing. The value of epigenetics is powerful and will only increase over time.
An epigenetic prescription 2000 years old:
“Live in rooms full of light. Avoid heavy food. Be moderate in drinking of wine. Take massage, baths, exercise and gymnastics. Fight insomnia with gentle rocking or the sound of running water. Change surroundings and take long journeys. Strictly avoid frightening ideas. Indulge in cheerful conversation and amusements. Listen to music.” – Aulus Cornelius Celsus, De Medicina c. 25 B.C. – 50 A.D.