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Are We Really Doomed to Ageing in our 20s?

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All of us have either heard someone or whined at some point about the loss of energy, among other physiological problems, in our 20s and 30s.

Does it have a biological reason, and if yes, could it mean that ageing has already begun once we are in our 20s?

Doctors answer it for us.

Ageing, Fatigue And The Pandemic

Dr. Bela Sharma, Additional Director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, New Delhi, says that the short answer is yes, but before you jump to any hasty conclusions, read on.

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There are several signs of ageing that include increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, frequent fractures, being susceptible to fractures, bone pain, problems in body balance, indigestion, constipation, the increased urge of urinating quite frequently, not able to do multitasking, wrinkles and sagging in skin, increase in body weight due to slower metabolism and so on.

These are the symptoms by which we can understand that ageing process has started, and we start feeling lethargic, says Dr Sharma.

They definitely do not belong in your 20s, and yet, here we are with a sizable portion of people in the age bracket battling fatigue, tiredness and exhaustion, among other health problems.

While there may be fixed factors like genes, endocrine-produced hormonal changes, and declining immune response that can lead to ageing, our habits and environmental factors have a significant role to play here, the doctor adds.

We may observe loss of energy even in our early twenties due to them.

These factors include air pollution, tobacco smoke, alcohol consumption, poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, to name only a few.

Dr Monica Mahajan, Director, Internal medicine, Max super speciality hospital, Saket, New Delhi, also cites environmental stress and lifestyle as major contributors.

However, please note that all lack of energy or a constant feeling of fatigue in your twenties is not always an alarm for ageing.

“More and more youth are in a constant state of tiredness and it may be due to chronic fatigue syndrome wherein the environmental stress and lifestyle are major contributors. Whether it is the sedentary habits, faulty eating with a major component of harmful fats in the diet, bad sleep hygiene or sleep deprivation, or the inherent mental stressors in the wake of the Covid-pandemic —each is responsible for a state of low energy.”
Dr Monica Mahajan, Director, Internal medicine, Max super speciality hospital, Saket, New Delhi

However, away from chronic syndromes that might not be the case for all of us, or the general exhaustion in the age of coronavirus, Dr Mahajan says that cellular ageing starts right from youth and is dependent on multiple factors including genetics as well as external triggers.

“The human cells undergo apoptosis wherein the useless cells of the body automatically die and are removed, since they do not serve any purpose. With time, this further increases the speed at which we age.”
Dr Monica Mahajan, Director, Internal medicine, Max super speciality hospital, Saket, New Delhi
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But What Is Really Happening Inside Your Body?

Simply put—lots.

“Over time, blood vessels lose their elasticity, fatty deposits build up against artery walls and the heart has to work harder to circulate the blood through our body. This can lead to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. With age, our bones shrink in size and density. We become more prone to fractures because of bone loss. Muscles, tendons, and joints may lose strength and flexibility. Swallowing and digestive reflexes slow down. Kidneys may become less efficient in removing waste from the bloodstream.”
Dr. Bela Sharma, Additional Director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, New Delhi

In case of an urban existence, these changes are often further coupled with a sedentary lifestyle.

The decreased levels of physical activity thus becomes an added weight on your body which is working a little harder every day to keep you healthy.

At the same time, the slowing metabolism can further contribute to weight gain, points out Dr Sharma, also increasing the effort required to keep yourself healthy.

What eventually ends up happening is that not only has the body’s effort to stay strong increased, but it has additionally been coupled with all of these additional stressors and demands of an inactive, potentially unhealthy lifestyle, which brings us to our next question.

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How Is Ageing Linked With Our Metabolic Rate?

Once again, the lack of exercise and poor dietary choices is directly affecting the rate of aging.

“Muscle mass increases your resting metabolism. However, people lose muscle with age due to being less active, changes in diet and a decrease in hormone production. Research shows that losing muscle and being less active are the biggest reasons why your metabolism slows down with age.”
Dr. Bela Sharma, Additional Director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, New Delhi

This inevitable decline in muscle mass with age slows down your rate of metabolism, accelerating ageing.

However, at the same time, ageing tied with sedentary lifestyles, is further making you inactive and causing the fall in this muscle mass, leading to a vicious cycle of sorts.

All of this is now reflected in our day-to-day lives as well, underlines Dr Mahajan, as more and more people in their twenties and thirties develop metabolic syndrome that includes insulin resistance, lipid disorders, polycystic ovaries, hypothyroidism, diabetes and heart disease, to name a few.

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“Most youth these days have a high waist-hip ratio and a high BMI. In case they undergo a body composition analysis, it is found that there is very little protein or muscle mass and a very high component of fat in the body. The Y-Y Paradox, is a situation where Indians with BMI similar to Europeans are found to be more unhealthy and develop heart related ailments and diabetes at a younger age compared to their counterparts, one we can witness today.”
Dr Monica Mahajan, Director, Internal medicine, Max super speciality hospital, Saket, New Delhi

Effects of Lifestyle Choices

The relationship between your lifestyle and ageing is very simple and direct. If you make unhealthy choices like smoking, excess drinking, lack of exercise, poor diet, you are more prone to illnesses, disorders and low immunity and energy levels, which all together constitute premature ageing and all that it entails.

“Smoking results in heart disease and lung disorders. Alcohol severely damages genes, and inflames our liver. Decreased level of physical activity leads to a slower metabolism rate and a slower metabolism rate causes weight gain. As we age, if we do not follow a balanced and healthy diet, we may make ourselves prone to increased cholesterol and consecutive heart diseases, diabetes, stomach acid, constipation, indigestion and so on.”
Dr. Bela Sharma, Additional Director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, New Delhi
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How Do We Prevent These Issues In Our 20s and 30s?

There’s a need to change our lifestyle and maintain certain healthy habits, says Dr Sharma, it’s truly as simple as that.

She lists down some suggestions, which may seem like common sense, but still remain far from our pursuit of healthy choices.

  • Quit Smoking: Smoking results in heart disease and lung disorders. Quitting smoking is the first step towards controlling ageing.
  • Drink less alcohol: Alcohol badly damages genes and inflames our liver. Drinking less alcohol would be beneficial.
  • Restrict calorie intake and choose a balanced diet: It’s better to consider moderating our total food intake. Focus on reducing calorie intake and increase consumption of complex carbs, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Choose regular exercise and live an active life: In order to maintain our metabolic rate, we have to do regular physical exercises. Following a healthy routine such as rising up early, going to sleep early at night, maintaining a proper sleep cycle, being regular with meals and enjoying more time with family and friends will further help us to de-stress.
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Dr Mahajan further puts it succinctly:

“In order to slow down this process of ageing and let our metabolic age match our physical age we will have to clean our refrigerator, stock healthy foods rich in fibres and pick up our running shoes. Devote at least one hour each day to physical exercise whether to Yoga or other sports. Sleep hygiene has to be improved. Declutter your bedroom of all electronic devices and get back into a proper sleep cycle.”

While ageing is inevitable, it is still premature in your twenties and it's overt, physical manifestations definitely do not belong there.

So grab a bowl of fruit or an exercise mat to kick them right out of the door until at least there is a respectable time for them to come back at a more age-appropriate moment in your life.

(Rosheena Zehra is a published author and media professional. You can find out more about her work here.)

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