In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, Aladdin Shadyab, PhD, of the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at University of California-San Diego (UCSD) instituted a clinical study into the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise on the biological ageing of older women.

The study’s cohort comprised of a mix of white and African-American women, with an average age of 79, and reviewed clinical signs of cellular ageing patterns, which are assessed by measuring the length of the telomere structures in the cells. Telomeres are repetitive DNA sequences that occur at the end of chromosomes, and help prevent the chromosomes from degenerating, acting much like the plastic tips on shoelaces, which keep the laces from fraying. As cells age, telomere length shortens, until the cell eventually dies, or undergoes what is known as an oncological transformation – a change in cell structure which has been linked with heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

In Shadyab’s study, levels of activity, and time spent in sedentary occupation, were recorded both through an accelerometer worn on the right hip, and via self-reporting, and were adjusted to account for variables such as existing health, demographic, body mass index (BMI), and general lifestyle.

The study found that older women who were sedentary for more than 10 hours a day, and who exercised for less than 40 minutes a day – the recommended minimum is 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day – had, on average, an 8-year cellular age difference to less sedentary women, of the same chronological age, who exercised for at least the recommended daily minimum.

Cellular ageing gives us our “biological age”, which, really, is our true age, and which, as this study shows, can vary markedly from our chronological age. While sedentary lifestyles are a leading cause of accelerated biological ageing, other factors including smoking and alcohol consumption habits, general lifestyle, and levels of stress experienced.

The findings of Shadyab’s study prove that, while it is important for good lifestyle habits to start as early as possible, these habits should be continued well into our twilight years, as the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on health and life expectancy are not restricted to younger professionals in office environments, but can, and do, impact older people, too.

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