Our bodies undergo many different changes as we age. Some of these changes are noticeable, such as aches and pains, longer recovery from workouts, and stubborn body fat that you just can’t get rid of. Other changes may go unnoticed if you’re not regularly getting the right lab tests done. As you grow older, many blood markers move in the wrong direction, putting you at an increased risk for chronic diseases and mortality. Read on to find out which blood markers are most affected by the aging process and what you can do to slow and possibly prevent some of these changes.

What are Blood Markers?

While researchers don’t know exactly what causes aging, they have observed consistent changes in many blood markers with age. Every system in the body is negatively affected by aging, with the most prominent being the hormone, immune, and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) systems. Changes in specific blood markers clearly reflect this.

While some degree of change is inevitable (currently), there are ways to minimize the impact aging has on your lab markers. Keeping an eye on specific blood markers and taking the appropriate steps to keep them as close to youthful levels as possible will help you live healthier, for longer.

Markers That Decrease With Age

1) DHEA-S

Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S) is a steroid hormone produced primarily by the adrenal glands. It is also produced to a lesser extent by the brain and skin, as well as by the testes (in men) and ovaries (in women) [R].

Together with regular DHEA, DHEA-s is the most abundant steroid hormone circulating in the blood and is the precursor to the more powerful sex hormones testosterone and estradiol (the main estrogen) [R].

DHEA-S is important for:

  • physical and psychological well-being [R]
  • immune system function [R]
  • muscle strength [R]
  • insulin sensitivity [R]
  • cognitive function [R]
  • bone density [R]
  • reducing body fat [R]
  • decreasing inflammation [R]
  • preventing age-related skin damage (by stimulating collagen production) [R]

However, it is unclear if DHEA-S exerts these effects directly or by increasing levels of other important hormones such as testosterone and estradiol [R].

DHEA-S levels peak around 20 years of age and begin to decline rapidly in the mid-’20s, with levels decreasing by as much as 80% at 75 years of age [R].

Low DHEA-S levels are linked to depression and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and increased risk of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart disease, and mortality [R, R, R, R, R, R].

There are a couple options to help counteract this age-related decline.

Cut out the sugar. Sugar spikes insulin and high insulin levels decrease DHEA-S [R].

You can also take DHEA in supplement form to boost your DHEA-S levels. One study (DB crossover) in 19 middle-aged men and women found 100 mg of DHEA for six months increased DHEA-S levels to those seen in young adults [R]. If you have low DHEA-S levels and decide to go this route, make sure to routinely test your levels during supplementation and do so under the guidance of your doctor.

2) Testosterone (Total, Bioavailable, and Free)

Testosterone is a hormone mainly produced by the testes in men and the ovaries in women. Less than 10% is produced by the adrenal glands and brain in both sexes [R].

Testosterone has a wide range of beneficial effects throughout the body. It [R, R]:

  • improves bone health
  • helps to build and maintain muscle mass and strength
  • increases lean body mass and fat loss
  • increases red blood cell production
  • improves libido and sexual function
  • increases sperm production.

Testosterone even plays a role in mood and brain function and memory [R].

After the age of 30, total testosterone levels decrease by 1-2% a year in both men and women [R, R, R].

Free testosterone, the type that is not bound to anything and able to affect your cells and tissues, decreases at an even faster rate than total testosterone [R].

Fortunately, there are ways to optimize your testosterone levels and minimize this decline.

One of the most important factors in testosterone production is sleep. Make sure you are getting enough high-quality sleep. This means avoiding blue light before bed or wearing blue-light blocking glasses, not drinking caffeine too late in the day, and getting regular exercise [R, R, R, R, R].

Zinc is a crucial mineral for testosterone production. You can boost your zinc levels by eating oysters, beef, crab, cashews, and pumpkin seeds [R, R].

Magnesium is another mineral needed for optimal testosterone levels. Almonds, spinach, black beans, and avocado are all rich sources of magnesium [R, R].

A specific extract of the herb ashwagandha called KSM-66 significantly increased testosterone levels and strength in 57 men (DB-RCT) [R].

3) HDL-C

HDL-C, also known as the “good cholesterol”, is cholesterol that is being carried away from the cells and blood vessels back to the liver to be removed from circulation [R].

Higher HDL-C levels are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. As we age, our HDL-C levels decrease gradually and our risk of heart disease increases [R, R, R, R].

You can help slow this decline by exercising (aerobic) regularly and reducing your consumption of carbohydrates [R, R].

Amla berry, a bitter fruit widely used in Ayurvedic medicine, has been found to consistently increase HDL levels while being an amazing source of antioxidants (pilot study, DB-RCT, and comparative trial involving a total of 172 subjects) [R, R, R].

Markers That Increase With Age

4) C-reactive Protein

As we age, the number of inflammatory markers increase, a phenomenon known as “inflammaging”.

One of the most important inflammatory markers that increase with age is C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a protein that rises in response to inflammation and infection in the body. High levels are linked to increased mortality from heart disease and cancer [R, R, R].

Besides aging, many things can increase CRP levels — including smoking, heavy alcohol use, poor sleep, obesity, and infections [R, R, R, R, R].

To reduce your CRP, keep your stress in check [R, R]. Stress-reducing activities such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation all reduce CRP levels [R, R, R, R, R, R].

Exercising regularly also reduces CRP levels [R].

Supplements that can help include fish oil (a pilot study of 49 women), curcumin, and aged garlic extract [R, R, R].

5) HbA1c

Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) is a measure of your average blood sugar (glucose) levels over the past three months.

As we grow older the cells that release insulin (beta cells) don’t work as well and our ability to control our blood sugar levels gets worse. This means that sugar hangs around in our bloodstream longer than it should and starts to stick to proteins on our red blood cells (hemoglobin). This causes a gradual increase in HbA1c as we age [R, R, R].

High HbA1c increases the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and mortality [R, R, R, R, R, R, R].

Moderate to vigorous exercise will help keep your HbA1c from rising. Exercise improves the way our body uses glucose and lowers HbA1c levels [R, R].

Interestingly, gum issues such as inflammation can increase HbA1c, so make sure you are brushing and flossing regularly and visiting your dentist [R, R].

Curcumin (DB-RCT of 240 subjects) and alpha-lipoic acid (DB-RCT of 38 subjects and CT of 8 subjects) are two powerful supplements to help keep your HbA1c levels in check [R, R, R].

6) Triglycerides

Triglycerides are fats that circulate in the blood and are used as an alternative fuel source to glucose. High levels are linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease [R].

For whatever reason, our triglyceride levels increase as we age. In men, levels peak between 40 and 50 years of age, and then decline slightly after, while in women, triglycerides increase throughout their lifetime [R, R, R, R].

Aerobic exercise such as running, swimming, or cycling can help lower your triglyceride levels [R]. Avoid low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets, as they result in elevated triglyceride levels [R].

Ginger is a powerful spice that can help you keep your triglycerides levels lower (DB-RCT of 95 subjects) [R].

7) Sex Hormone Binding Globulin

As the name implies, sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) is a protein that binds to the various sex hormones (testosterone and estradiol) and helps transport them around the bloodstream [R].

Levels tend to increase with age in men, while in women research is conflicting with some studies showing a decrease until middle age (after which it increases) and others showing a steady increase with age [R, R].

Higher SHBG levels are problematic because they bind up sex hormones and prevent them from having effects on cells and tissues. And since sex hormones naturally decline with age, increasing SHBG levels make a bad situation worse.

Given the importance of testosterone and estradiol in bone health, it’s unsurprising that high SHBG levels are linked to an increased risk of bone fractures [R, R, R, R].

You can help keep your SHBG levels low by limiting your alcohol intake [R, R].

Supplementing with the mineral boron may decrease SHBG and increase free testosterone levels (a pilot study of eight subjects) [R].

8) Homocysteine

Homocysteine is an amino acid your body produces from another amino acid called methionine. It is usually found in very small amounts in your body. That’s because your body converts it efficiently into other products with the help of vitamins B6, B12, and folate (B9) [R].

Homocysteine increases with age, possibly due to deficiencies in one or more of these vitamins [R, R, R, R].

This is concerning because high levels of homocysteine contribute to the narrowing and hardening of the arteries, and may increase the risk of heart disease and cognitive decline [R, R].

If your homocysteine is high, you should check your vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate levels. Correcting deficiencies in these will bring your homocysteine levels down.

Although exercise increases homocysteine short-term, in the long term, it is associated with lower homocysteine levels. Resistance exercise seems to be the most beneficial [R, R].

If your levels are high and you don’t have any of these vitamin deficiencies, supplementing with N-acetylcysteine (NAC) can help reduce homocysteine (two DB-RCTs of 82 subjects and one RCT of 171 subjects) [R, R].

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