Do you look your age?

Are you married or single, contented or depressed, a parent or childless? All these factors can take years off your face - or add them on. But there are changes you can make to roll back time, says Annalisa Barbieri
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's such a dirty word, is ageing. Very few of us embrace the process, many deny it and most - save for Brigitte Bardot - try to cheat it in some way.

For years I looked much younger than I was, but up until my early twenties I'd led a fairly cosseted life: no mortgage, no cigarettes, no late nights. I had time to massage creams into my face and sleep was mine, whenever I wanted it. How smug I felt. "Everyone can look young if they really, really try," I thought. Then the responsibilities of real life smacked me hard in the face, the marks started to show, and there were no more half fares for me.

Yet it can be hard to guess someone's exact age. A range of factors may leave marks on our appearance: how happy we feel, how much sleep we've had - even the way we dress and our view of ourselves. The good news is that just as these factors can add years on to your appearance, it follows that they can also take years off.

We don't always have control over some of those social factors that can make us look younger, but there are other steps we can take to try to stop the ravages of age.

SOCIAL FACTORS

Last month the University of Southern Denmark published a report, The Influence of Environmental Factors on Facial Ageing, which showed that how we live can affect how old we look. In it, 1,826 twins were photographed and then ten female nurses aged between 25-46 years were asked to guess how old the "models" were.

The results were intriguing. They showed that belonging to a high social class can make us look up to four years younger and many other lifestyle factors were shown to affect the way we look. Having children was found to make men look a full year younger, though it had no effect on women, and having four or more children cancelled out the benefit.

Depression and sun exposure were the biggest factors in making you look old before your time. Depression added up to three and a half years to a woman's perceived age (and 2.4 years for men). Sun exposure piled on at least an extra year. Smoking put on six months for a woman and a year for a man.

Meanwhile, having a high BMI (body mass index) was found to take a whole year off for both men and women.

"If you are not depressed, not a smoker and not too skinny, you are basically doing well," says Professor Kaare Christensen (married, three children, non-smoker), one of the report's authors. Professor Christensen's report concluded that it was more dangerous for our health to look a year older, than to actually be a year older.

NUTRITION

This is possibly the biggest change we can make fairly easily. Vicki Edgson, nutrition consultant and co-author of The Diet Doctors Inside and Out says there are four main factors that prematurely age us: smoking, too much alcohol, lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and insufficient protein intake. "I can immediately tell a smoker," says Edgson. "It's not just the lines around the mouth and eyes, but smoking is dehydrating to the body. Every time you inhale on a cigarette you're taking toxins into the body which have to be diffused and detoxified by the liver and kidneys and they're dependent on plenty of fresh water to carry toxins away. Most smokers don't drink anywhere near enough water."

Alcohol can make us all think we look great, while we're drunk, but if you want to look younger, it's best to avoid it. Even moderate but regular drinking can make you look older than you are. One ageing effect that drinking has is to dull the whites of your eyes. This is because alcohol can raise the blood pressure and burst tiny capillaries in the eyes, making them appear bloodshot. The same goes for the complexion, although this is more of a long-term effect.

The really big, quick-fix, though, is eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. "You can see if someone doesn't eat enough, or any, fresh fruit and veg in a minute," warns Edgson. "The skin lacks a freshness and translucency. This is because the skin is the last organ to benefit from the nutrients you eat - the likes of the brain, heart and lungs all get first share. If someone's diet is lacking in fruit and veg, the skin will become dehydrated. This is a sign that sufficient nutrients aren't being delivered, so from an anti-ageing point of view, it's important to have live, fresh food and raw food is vital. If you have to cook, steaming will retain at least some of the vitamins and minerals."

Sufficient protein is vital to stay looking younger because protein provides the building blocks, in the form of amino acids, that are essential for our body to repair and heal itself; a process it undertakes when we're asleep. Without adequate protein intake you lose muscle tone. "It's important to have a well-balanced, medium - not high - protein diet including all lean animal protein and a variety of vegetarian proteins," says Edgson. "What is important for vegetarians is that they have a good variety of different protein sources because, apart from soya, no vegetarian sources of protein contain all eight essential amino acids."

The other really important thing and one we tend to miss out on in our diet-obsessed culture, is adequate intake of essential fatty acids, from oily fish, nuts and seeds. EFAs are vital for prolonging life expectancy because every cell in body has a phospholipid bilayer that protects it, but they also give the skin a dewy, "bouncy", youthful feel. One of the worst things you can do in terms of looking old is to go on a low-fat diet.

Stress is another big one for adding years. We can help support the adrenal and thyroid glands, which take a hammering when we're stressed, by eating plenty of fresh vitamin C and magnesium for the adrenal glands; and iodine, selenium zinc and B vitamins to support the thyroid.

EXERCISE

We've come to think of exercise as a pure slimming pursuit and women tend to be rather scared of lifting weights, but building lean tissue through weight-bearing exercise is key to keeping the years at bay. Personal trainer Donovan Blake explains: "Exercise can help reduce the effects of ageing by slowing down the decline of type II muscle fibres. Generally type I muscle fibres deal with aerobic activities and type II with anaerobic ones. The type IIs respond to resistance work to improve muscle tone. With ageing there's a reduction in frequency, duration and intensity of habitual activity: we generally move less. So these type II fibres deteriorate because they simply don't get enough stimuli."

SKINCARE

Almost every skin cream promises to make you look younger. It's a promise many are seduced by, but many end up disappointed. The problem is not that products don't work, according to independent skincare and makeup advisor John Gustafson, but starting too late, and then not spending enough money. "A lot of people skip good skincare until they think they need it, and by then it's actually too late," he says. "In women the skin around the eyes is the first to go, in men it's the hands."

Gustafson - who independently tests every range on the market himself - advises a good routine should start early because maintenance is much easier than repair.

Your skin also becomes more transparent as you get older, so you need to adapt your make-up and hair colour accordingly. Foundation should be lighter than you'd imagine, and sheerer, and if you want to cover grey, don't be tempted to go for a too-dark hair colour or block colour - highlights are kind.

Gustafson recommends applying moisturiser to the neck, down to the bust, but also around the back of the neck: "It's the only bit of skin attached to a bone so it's important you look after it to avoid sagging."

Finally, whatever you do, don't worry too much about any of this. Remember: being depressed can add up to four years to your perceived age.

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