‘First of its kind’ study: Restricting calories slows pace of aging

From the outward signs of aging to the inward ones that can affect everything from quality of life to the length of our lives — aging is just no fun.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could stop this from happening? While we can’t halt the inevitable march of time, research has revealed a few ways to at least slow the aging process…

Exercise can definitely help, as can getting enough sleep, quitting smoking and managing your stress load. So can the right diet.

But by far the most convincing evidence for slowing aging has come from calorie restriction.

For years, studies involving fruit flies, worms and even mice have shown calorie restriction — with proper nutrition — seems to extend lifespan and delay the onset of age-related disorders by reducing what is called reactive oxygen species in the body.

And now, drum roll please, they’ve finally gone a done it…

An international team of researchers led by Columbia University conducted the CALERIE study — which stands for Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy — the first-ever investigation into the effects of long-term calorie restriction… in humans.

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Slowing the pace of human aging

They chose 220 healthy and non-obese clinical trial participants who were randomly assigned to a 25 percent calorie-restricted diet or a normal diet for two years.

To measure their biological aging, researchers analyzed the participants’ blood samples at the start of the trial, then again at 12 months and 24 months. Specifically, they looked at chemical tags on each participant’s DNA sequence that are known to change with aging, measurements that are sometimes referred to as “epigenetic clocks.”

The researchers focused on three such measurements. The first two are the PhenoAge and GrimAge epigenetic clocks, which estimate the chronological age at which a person’s biology would appear normal. The third, DunedinPACE, estimates the pace at which biological deterioration, or aging, occurs over time.

The researchers say to think of the first two measurements as “odometers” that give a static measure of how much “aging mileage” a person has experienced. The third measurement is more like a “speedometer” that shows how fast the aging process is going — and this is the measurement that related most to slowing aging.

In fact, the effect of the calorie restriction intervention on DunedinPACE represented a 2 to 3 percent slowing in the pace of aging. This translates to a 10 to 15 percent reduction in mortality risk, which is similar to the impact of quitting smoking.

“In contrast to the results for DunedinPace, there were no effects of intervention on other epigenetic clocks,” notes Dr. Calen Ryan, a research scientist at Columbia’s Butler Aging Center and co-lead author of the study. “The difference in results suggests that dynamic ‘pace of aging’ measures like DunedinPACE may be more sensitive to the effects of intervention than measures of static biological age.”

There is an ongoing follow-up of trial participants to determine if the calorie restriction intervention had long-term effects on healthy aging. In other studies, a slower DunedinPACE has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, disability and dementia.

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Simplifying calorie restriction

Ryan cautions that calorie restriction may not be for everyone.

Most of the CALERIE participants couldn’t attain the full 25 percent restriction goal but still saw considerable weight loss, changes in body composition and age-associated physiological alterations.

“Our findings are important because they provide evidence from a randomized trial that slowing human aging may be possible,” he says. “They also give us a sense of the kinds of effects we might look for in trials of interventions that could appeal to more people, like intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating.”

But if you want to give calorie restriction a try but are feeling intimidated, it’s probably best to start slow. Pick one day a week and cut back your calorie intake just by 500 calories. If you can handle that two days a week, give it a go for a couple of weeks and decide if you want to try it for 3 days.

Then if you want to take your calorie-restricting efforts up a notch, try a fast-mimicking diet. This eating plan specifically reduces your calorie intake while proportioning your protein, fat and carbohydrate consumption in a very specific way that mimics the effects of a 5-day water fast.

Obviously, there’s nothing easy about slowing aging this way. You may also want to consider supplements that have been studied for their effects on aging processes…

  •  Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), is an antioxidant naturally occurring in the body that’s important to mitochondrial function. According to research, CoQ10 can revive ailing mitochondria, restore lost function and slow the aging process. Since CoQ10 levels decline with age, taking a CoQ10 supplement can help.
  • Researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Brighton have delved into the aging process and found that the antioxidant resveratrol can make old cells act like younger cells.
  • And lastly, another powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin gives the body’s aging processes quite a challenge, in part because of its powerful impacts on the body’s most vital systems and organs.

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Calorie Restriction Slows Pace of Aging in Healthy Adults — Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

Effect of Long-Term Caloric Restriction on DNA Methylation Measures of Biological Aging in Healthy Adults: CALERIE™ Trial Analysis — Nature Aging

Aging: What to expect — Mayo Clinic

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.