Dr. Sandra El Hajj - MSc, N-MD, DHSc
Your gut microbiome is the population of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living in your gut. What makes these microorganisms remarkable is their role in regulating digestion, boosting immune health, and promoting general well-being. It's also astonishing to learn just how connected your gut is to your brain and mind.
In the United States, more than 70 million people live with some digestive condition, accounting for millions of hospital visits each year. This has prompted physicians and researchers to take a closer look into the intricate world of gut health for a chance to better understand its impacts on human health and longevity.
While you may only think of your gut in terms of digestion, the microbiome also produces hundreds of neurochemicals used by the brain. A healthy gut microflora helps with learning, memory, and mood. This relationship becomes increasingly important with old age, at a time when cognition tends to trend downward.
In this article, we'll examine the link between gut microbiome patterns and healthy aging to shed light on current research and what it could mean for your health.
In February 2021, a research team brought together more than 9,000 healthy individuals between 18-101 years old. The team categorized their findings across three cohorts and concentrated their observations on 900 individuals between 78-98 years old. Results revealed that as participants aged, an increasingly unique gut microbiome was a marker of health and well-being.
Among this cohort, researchers observed that healthier individuals maintained a unique microbial composition compared with less healthy individuals. In those with declining health, researchers observed a steady decrease in the number of essential bacteria typically found in the human gut.
A study published in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility further explained how diet might influence this microbiome diversity. Both diet and gut health play significant roles in the development of inflammatory conditions, so it makes sense that they're connected.
When considering what to eat for gut health, scientists agree that diversity and fiber are two key factors. Eating a variety of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is recommended not only for general health but also for the enrichment of your microbiome.
The human gut microbiome begins its development sooner than you think. The first exposure occurs in the womb when a fetus is introduced to microorganisms from its mother. From this early exposure, the diversity of bacteria in the gut begins to evolve.
Throughout the different stages of life, your unique community of microorganisms fluctuates according to various factors. What you eat, where you live, and what you interact with can all impact this makeup. Such fluctuations are inevitable and natural, but recent studies reveal how some changes may result in either health or disease.
Identifying the aging dynamics of the gut microbiome and its relation to long-term health maintenance is essential for continued well-being. A study observing 5,994 older men recruited between 2000-2002 helps elucidate this connection.
When the study began, participants were 65 years of age or older and deemed fully capable of physical activity. In 2014, nearly 15 years later, these men completed their fourth clinical assessment along with a health questionnaire.
In 2015, those same participants provided stool samples that researchers then analyzed. The average age of participants at the time was 85 years. Among the participants still in excellent health, their stool samples revealed robust and diverse gut bacteria populations. Such a powerful finding demonstrates the link between gut health, quality of life, and longevity.
When studying the human lifespan, researchers attempt to understand how humans may prevent or overcome health conditions caused by the aging process. Longevity is a complex topic that involves genetics, the environment, and lifestyle choices (of which there are many). Combined, these factors can help researchers predict how long an individual may live.
Studies clearly indicate the link between longevity, metabolism, and immunology. The two latter variables are impacted tremendously by the gut microbiome and have become a determinant in healthy aging.
One study published by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases explained that gut microbes help regulate daily metabolic rhythms, impacting weight fluctuations and metabolic health. These factors are critical for maintaining a healthy weight as we age.
Another study published in the Journal of Current Biology compared the gut microbiomes of adults, the elderly, and supercentenarians (105-109 years old). The study focused on the presence of a core microbiota of the most common bacterial species, like those belonging to the Ruminococcaceae, Lachnospiraceae, and Bacteroidaceae families.
While researchers found this core microbiota to decrease with age, the enrichment of sub-dominant bacteria species was associated with longevity. These findings add to the argument that properly caring for the microbiome can do wonders for extending one's quality and span of life.
We live in a world that exposes our bodies to change on a daily basis. Air pollution, toxins, junk food, and several other factors come together to threaten our well-being. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to navigate around these threats and promote lasting well-being.
One of the body's most efficient defense systems is the gut. A key to maintaining a healthy gut is supporting a diverse and flourishing microbiome, which you can improve through healthy lifestyle habits. Numerous studies, like those reviewed in this article, have demonstrated a link between an abundant microbial composition and healthy aging.
While researchers are just scratching the surface of what we know about the microbiome, further discoveries in the coming years may have a tangible impact on the human lifespan.