Big disclaimer: This post is a hypothesis. Please do not go around using anything I say here as evidence that yoga is the key to staying young.
Every day, I receive the ‘Nature Briefing’ newsletter. While it is very interesting and I would definitely recommend it, a lot of the time I mark it as ‘read’ without actually reading it – unread emails are the most anxiety-inducing contribution of technology for me, even when I see them on other people’s phones.
But earlier this week, as I was about to guiltily ‘mark as read’, I actually engaged with the title properly. And I saw something that really piqued my interest.
Inflammation reveals how old you really are
This is the story of an ‘inflammation clock’, a tool that uses machine learning to help reveal a person’s biological age based on the levels of inflammation in their body. The tool is (imaginatively) called iAge, and was developed by analysing blood samples of around 1,000 people to find patterns of age-related inflammation – basically looking for proteins in the blood that are known to be associated with inflammation.
Why would inflammation be linked with ageing? While inflammation is a good thing when we are faced with an infection (it’s basically our immune system fighting the pathogen), continuous and chronic inflammation is not. It’s actually quite bad, as it leads to damage to our tissues and organs. As we get older, our immune system struggles to contain unnecessary inflammation, and this constant, low-grade inflammation contributes to age-related chronic diseases like heart disease, kidney disease and cognitive (brain function) decline.
Cool finding: iAge found that centenarians had a much lower biological age than their actual age (on average 40 years younger in fact, according to the press release), which really highlights how relevant controlling inflammation is to living longer and healthier lives.
The good news is that there are things you can do to tackle this continuous inflammation and potentially slow down the damage that it causes; not quite reversing ageing but at least delaying it.
If yoga dampens inflammation, does it also keep us young?
Putting aside bullshit claims of how yoga detoxifies the body or serves as a natural facelift, I think this is a really interesting prospect.
This is my train of thought:
There is a growing body of evidence that yoga (and other mind–body practices like tai chi and mindfulness meditation) helps to tackle chronic inflammation in the body – the kind of inflammation that leads to organ and tissue damage, and all the not-so-wonderful things that come with it.
The research so far indicates that mind–body interventions are associated with a reduced expression of the genes that make inflammation proteins and an increased expression of those that make proteins that dampen inflammation. This is most likely via activation of the vagus nerve, the long nerve that runs from the brain all the way to the various organs in the body and is the main ‘parasympathetic’ nerve.
In essence, a balanced yoga practice can bring back balance to our immune system, mainly by tackling the stress response.
If we know that chronic inflammation is linked to ageing and everything that comes with it, could it be that by bringing back balance, yoga also keeps us young?
I haven’t been able to find much research on yoga and ageing
I’m really intrigued to research this in much more detail, but here is what I managed to find:
Cognitive health: There are a couple of papers, including two systematic reviews, that have found yoga interventions led to some improvements in attention, cognitive function (things like thinking and reasoning) and memory. This study also mentions the inflammation link in their introduction as rationale for why yoga might help in brain ageing.
Mobility: There are a few studies that have reported positive effects of a yoga practice on mobility and reducing falls (eg here), although I would suspect this is more related to yoga as a physical practice that helps to maintain muscle mass.
Cellular ageing: There are a couple of studies that have looked at the effects of yoga on the length of telomeres (these are cap-like structures at the ends of chromosomes that shorten every time a cell replicates, until they completely disappear and the cell basically dies, so they are linked with how long our cells can live). But I won’t link them here because the journals are far too obscure and I’m biased like that (blame my snobbery on having worked at Nature for 5+ years).
Happening right now! And just as I despair at the lack of research on this (surely I’m not the only one who has thought of this hypothesis!) I come across not one but two study protocols (1, 2) on this topic – researching the effects of yoga on ageing well. I hate seeing study protocols because I get excited when I read the title and then I realise it’s just an intention, no actual results to report. But hey, at least someone is interested, and maybe we’ll see some interesting findings one day.
Perhaps someone will run a research study to look at the effects of yoga on ageing and also connect inflammation in there (maybe that someone is you? If so, drop me a note, I would love to chat!).
So, should I do yoga to stay young?
I’m sure that, like me, you have also seen articles on social media about old ladies who do yoga every day and attribute their health to that (I’m mainly impressed by the fact that they can do the splits, which I can’t. Respect.).
Clearly it’s not the only way – I’m pretty sure my 101-year-old great uncle has never done yoga in his life (I’m hoping for some genetic component here. People do tell me I look young A LOT!).
But maybe practicing yoga (or probably any other mind–body practice) could help. And even if you don’t live forever, maybe it will help you be happier and healthier, and who doesn’t want that?
Do you feel younger or at least healthier because of yoga?
Enjoyed this blog post? You can now buy me a coffee and keep me caffeinated to research and write.