Science

PSA: There Are Actually Two Types of Aging

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Did you know there are two types of aging? We break down the difference between primary and secondary aging—and why it matters.
Did you know there are two types of aging? We break down the difference between primary and secondary aging—and why it matters.

We certainly can’t stop ourselves from getting older—in fact, we (and many members of our 50+ community) would argue that life only gets better as the years go by. That said, there are certain choices we can make to help ourselves feel great for as long as possible, even if there are other elements that are beyond our control. That ultimately comes down to knowing the difference between primary and secondary aging.

To be clear, the distinction between primary and secondary aging is not totally clear-cut—like much of human physiology, it’s… complicated. But understanding the general differences between these two categories also underlines some of the agency we have over our own wellbeing.

What’s Primary Aging?

According to scientists, primary aging describes the biological factors that are largely beyond our control. It’s basically the notion that, like it or not, getting older is an inevitability—even the most fit among us can’t possibly live forever.

Scientists associate age-related changes like vision, graying hair, and wrinkles as key examples of primary aging. (1) But while wrinkles, for example, are an inevitability for most of us, our lifestyle choices (hello, sun exposure) can also have an impact on how and when they appear. And that’s where secondary aging comes in.

What’s Secondary Aging?

If primary aging is purely biological (intrinsic), secondary aging describes the environmental aspect of aging (extrinsic)—the idea that our lifestyle choices can certainly have an impact on our long-term wellbeing and even the aesthetic effects of aging. This can range from our diet and physical activity to stress and even factors like where we choose to live.

Let’s dig into diet as an example. While it’s hard to nail down a universally “correct” way to eat, there are certain consistencies scientists have charted across some of the longest-living populations in the world. These regions, where life expectancy is well above the global average, are known as Blue Zones—and while their residents don’t all eat identically, they do share an emphasis on plant-based foods. The same goes for moving your body—moderate physical activity seems to be something Blue Zone residents have in common. (2)

On the flip side, scientists have also linked choices like smoking, fast food and sugary drinks with poor outcomes for wellbeing and accelerated aging. Research also tells us that a sedentary lifestyle isn’t ideal either. (3,4)

The interesting overlap

Some of the intersection between primary and secondary aging might seem relatively obvious: the idea that sun exposure can accelerate wrinkles, for example, or the correlation between stress and gray hair (yep, it’s actually a thing). (5,6)

This all falls under the school of epigenetics. Basically, while our DNA is set in stone throughout our lives, the way our genes are expressed can change—and certain environmental factors can turn genes “off” or “on.” In other words, our environments and lifestyle choices can impact the biological aspects of how we age—effectively muddying this dichotomy between primary and secondary aging. (7)

The bottom line? While aging is ultimately unavoidable, the choices we make now really can make a difference for the future—whether it’s engaging in moderate physical activity, lathering up with SPF, or complementing a healthy diet with a quality multivitamin.

References:

  1. Primary Aging. APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved from APA.
  2. Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(5), 318–321. doi: 10.1177/1559827616637066
  3. Muller, A. P., Dietrich, M. D. O., Assis, A. M. D., Souza, D. O., & Portela, L. V. (2013). High saturated fat and low carbohydrate diet... in mice. Longevity & Healthspan, 2(1). doi: 10.1186/2046-2395-2-10
  4. Katzmarzyk, P. T., & Lee, I.-M. (2012). Sedentary behaviour...in the USA: a cause-deleted life table analysis. BMJ Open, 2(4). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000828
  5. Flament, F., Bazin, R., Rubert, Simonpietri, Piot, B., & Laquieze. (2013). Effect of the sun...in Caucasian skin. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 221. doi: 10.2147/ccid.s44686
  6. How stress causes gray hair. (2020, February 11). Retrieved from National Institutes of Health

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