An inescapable part of every life is the aging process. It is often viewed as something to be feared as one’s life progresses. It can easily be argued that all things, including people, age differently. Some of us, more quickly than others. We often parallel the aging process to how we have treated ourselves.
Unfortunately, many people view aging as a negative condition. This view may spawn from a belief that as we get older, a physical loss of function and development of disease is eminent. While this can happen, we now live in an age where the knowledge of effective preventative measures are at hand. As technology progresses, doctors are learning more about how we can slow the aging process, and how diet and lifestyle hold the key to “healthy” aging.
What is it that differs between the 70 year old who runs marathons and the 50 year old that suffers from a heart attack? Plenty. We now know that what we eat, how we live, and what we do to our bodies greatly determines the path our health will take as we age. It is also true that genetic predisposition can present unique challenges; however it is known that how we live can directly influence which part of our genetic makeup is expressed. As with all disease, it can be said that genetics ‘loads the gun’ while diet and lifestyle pull the trigger.
Why exactly is diet and lifestyle such an important part of healthy aging? The body is designed to repair and rebuild itself exactly as it was before. This is accomplished as the body’s genes provide the blueprint for repair and regeneration. At the heart of this is our DNA, or the chemical code which our genes dictate. Our individual body types, hair and eye color, and shape of our faces are all attributable to DNA. As we go through life, we encounter many substances through our diet and lifestyle choices that directly contribute to the destruction of our DNA. When our DNA is damaged, it cannot always be perfectly repaired. As DNA continues to become damaged throughout life, this genetic blueprint becomes more and more worn. The continual “stress” makes it more difficult for cellular membranes, which are located throughout our bodies, to repair themselves.
Skin wrinkles are a good visible example of this. As the skin on our faces is exposed to damaging rays from the sun, the DNA inside of the skin cells is repeatedly damaged. Soon, the skin cannot repair and replace itself as it used to, and wrinkles begin forming at points of stress in the skin. People that have had a lot of exposure to the elements and sun tend to have more wrinkles as they age. Similar processes occur in all parts of our bodies, from our arteries to our brain; the aging process occurs slowly, but surely.
A large part of this destructive process is thought to be due to small particles known as ‘free radicals’. Free radicals are parts of molecules that exist in our bodies. On the smallest scale, we are made entirely of atoms. Atoms combine in different arrangements to make everything in our body, and for that matter, the universe. Each atom has an electrical charge to it, and is therefore attracted to other atoms. A charged atom will always seek out other atoms to join with. This is just part of the nature of our physical universe. When a charged atom is not bound to other atoms, it is called a free radical. The problem with free radicals is that they will bombard the tissues looking for other atoms to ‘steal’ or join up with. When this occurs, the existing structure of the body is broken down. The most dangerous situation is when a free radical attacks a DNA molecule, removing crucial atoms from its structure, thus affecting the genetic blueprint. This leaves the DNA impaired, unable to function properly, and unable to make necessary repairs Without reparations, the body is constantly exposed to further damage from free radicals. The body will continue to be damaged at the cellular level and may ultimately prevent individual cells and organs from functioning correctly.
The most efficient method in combating the adverse reactions of free radicals, may be by the consumption of antioxidant-rich foods and by the ingestion of dietary supplements containing antioxidants. Like their name implies, antioxidants are substances that have the ability to ‘quench’ free radicals by joining up with them, thereby rendering them less ‘radical’.
These molecular peacekeepers, substances that donate electrons to halt free radical chain reactions, are also known as “free radical scavengers.” Antioxidants include familiar nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E. The plant world brims with antioxidants, which is one reason why fruits and vegetables are touted as being so healthy.
Although aging is an unstoppable process, we can make choices to help slow the process and to assist in the prevention of the negative health effects often accompanying it.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging:
- Since the year 1900, the percentage of Americans over the age of 65 has tripled, from 4.1% of the population to 12.4% in 2000, which is 1 out of every 8 people.
- Since 1990 alone, the number of American over the age of 65 has increased by 3.7 million people.
- In the year 2000, people aged 65 could expect to live (on average) another 17.9 years. (19.2 years for women and 16.3 for men).
- In the year 2000, there were 20.6 million women over the age of 65 and 14.4 million men over age 65; there are roughly 1.5 times more women in this group than men, and this number increases with age.
- Born in 2000, a child can expect to live 76.9 years, which is 29 years longer than a child born in 1900.
- In 2000, 2 million people celebrated their 65th birthday (at a rate of 5,574 a day); that same year, roughly 1.8 million people aged 65 or older died. This results in a net annual increase of 238,000 people, or 650 per day.
- In 2000, there were 50,545 people aged 100 or more living, which is 0.02% of the population. In 1900, there were 37,306 people aged 100 or older
There are many signs of aging, some obvious and some more insidious. Most people pay attention to the outward manifestations of aging, such as skin quality and physical appearance of the body. Other signs of aging may be related to specific disease. Decreased immunological functioning can go hand in hand with aging. It is important to consult with your physician to determine if a certain external or internal abnormality (including sickness) is being caused by specific condition. These may include, and are not limited to:
Breakdown of connective tissue-wrinkling of skin
- Color change of hair
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Pain in joints and muscles
- Change in skin pigmentation
- Change in sleep patterns
- Changes in vision
Common diseases that occur later in life:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
Conventional anti aging treatments are aimed at the management of disease symptoms, rather than prevention of onset of disease. Medications, surgery and other invasive techniques are often important and required to palliate and manage the illnesses associated with aging. Unfortunately, modern medicine is not focused on preventing age-associated diseases, or the aging process for that matter. Oftentimes the treatments for chronic, life threatening diseases are highly invasive, cost a lot of money, and can lead to a serious decline in quality of life after treatment.
Antioxidants are extremely important in slowing down the aging process. This is because they act as free radical scavengers, counteracting the effects of the oxidative process. The use of antioxidants are becoming better incorporated into the typical dietary regimen. The integration of fruits and vegetables (both high in antioxidants), although still largely neglected in the common diet, are becoming more common place in the daily nutritional intake of many Americans.
Vitamin C wears many hats. It is an extremely important water-soluble antioxidant with a lot of research to support its role as preventative agent against disease, natural treatment of immune related conditions, and its overall anti-aging effects. Since it is water soluble, vitamin C is in a unique position to “scavenge” aqueous peroxyl radicals before these destructive substances have a chance to damage fats. It also potentiates the effect of vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant, and the enzyme glutathione peroxidase to stop free radical chain reactions.
The balance of our immune system greatly influences our long-term health. If we are in a state of imbalance, over time, it can lead to chronic disease. Vitamin C strengthens the immune system by stimulating the activity of antibodies, and other immune cells. Greater immunological activity enhances the body’s defense system against a variety of diseases. Our serum Vitamin C levels diminish with age, making the levels in our blood a strong predictor of mortality.
The beauty industry has started to incorporate the benefits of vitamin C as a way of enhancing one’s outer appearance. Adding vitamin C to lotions, and facial serums speaks to vitamin C’s role in collagen production. The very structure of the body depends on collagen. Everything from our skin to our tendons and ligaments is related to the function of vitamin C. This vitamin is also needed to encourage the best configuration of collagen, and to combat the degradation of collagen rich tissues.
The most biologically active form of this fat-soluble vitamin in humans is Alpha-tocopherol (Î±-tocopherol). Vitamin E's antioxidant capacity lends itself to assist in roles associated with many metabolic processes, DNA repair, and immune function. In addition, Vitamin E has been shown to be helpful in reducing high blood pressure, a condition commonly associated with other chronic diseases. Vitamin E has been shown to protect low-density lipid (LDL) oxidation and clogging of arteries by its precise molecular interaction with certain enzymes and proteins.
Vitamin A/Beta Carotene
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. Retinol, often called preformed vitamin A, is its most bioavailable form. Pre-vitamin A, or beta carotene, is found in large amounts in darkly pigmented fruits. It is instrumental in many physiologically essential roles and is an important nutrient in the fight against aging. Due to its involvement with the immune system and role in cell division, vitamin A plays a role in many anti-aging therapies and cancer prevention programs. It is equally essential for cell differentiation (repair processes), bone growth, skin health, vision acuity, and immune function. As we age, these natural process are important factors that contribute to our diminshing vitality.
CoenzymeQ10 also known as ubiquinone. It is an essential part in the metabolic process of energy production in cells. As we age, this process is challenged and becomes less productive; the end result being a battle between oxidative stress and antioxidant capacity of tissue. The heart is an organ which has a very high demand for energy production. CoQ10 is key in protecting heart tissue from oxidative stress. Research suggests that administration of CoQ10 bolsters the heart’s content of CoQ10, thereby protecting it from age associated heart damage and heart disease. Congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart), and heart disease all benefit from supplementing with CoQ10, as it works to increase heart muscle contraction and improves the output of the heart.
Selenium is an antioxidant that also bolsters the immune system and helps the function of the thyroid gland. Its antioxidant role is associated with the enzyme glutathione peroxidase, another powerful scavenger of free radicals. Selenium is actually a cofactor of this enzyme, making it critical to its function. Adequate intake of selenium is required not only for the body to use this antioxidant, but also for the production of glutathione peroxidase.
As stated, selenium is a mineral important to the conversion of the inactive thyroid hormone to its active form. The thyroid gland is in charge of maintaining the metabolism in our body. As we age, this process is challenged and slows down. When the thyroid gland becomes less efficient, the body as a whole is less efficient and this metabolic deficiency becomes readily apparent. Supplementation with selenium can contribute to the process of maintaining its appropriate level of activity.
This trace mineral affects all components of the immune system and even has antiviral properties. A deficiency in this mineral can lead to a depressed immune function. In fact, studies show that supplementation of selenium can stimulate white blood cell formation and thymus function.
N-acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
As we age, our amino acid content in our body declines. One such amino acid is N-acetyl cysteine, a sulphur-containing compound that is also a precursor to the previously mentioned, and very powerful antioxidant, glutathione. Glutathione is one of the body’s most important cellular antioxidants. Oral supplementation with NAC is preferred, as only minimal amounts of glutathione can be absorbed through its oral ingestion. NAC is helpful in immune function enhancement, detoxification, combating exercise fatigue, and also with lung afflictions such as bronchitis and smokers cough. It is an amino acid that has many functions in aiding the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. A study conducted with smokers showed that through NAC’s free radical scavenging ability, it works to counteract the carcinogenic activity of cigarettes.
Ginkgo Biloba has been shown to be effective in many conditions associated with aging. Specifically, in conditions where there is decreased blood circulation to the brain. Gingko has a positive effect on blood flow and may help to improve such conditions. Depression, dementia, memory loss, and ringing in the ears may be conditions which benefit from supplementation of Gingko biloba extract. Gingko may be a very helpful nutritional supplement for improving one’s quality of life as age increases, as many conditions are associated with lack of oxygen and blood flow to the brain. At the society of neuroscience annual meeting in 2003, a presentation by the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute found that a six-month administration of gingko biloba extract helped those with age related memory loss.
Green tea has been used in Asia as a healing agent for centuries. The unfermented leaves of Camellia sinensis provide greater healing properties than fermented leaves of black and oolong teas. The longer the tea leaves are steeped, the more it draws the healing properties of the plant. Green tea’s antioxidant properties are mainly attributed to a group of chemicals found in the plant known as catechins. One such catechin that has a lot of research associated with it is epigallocatechin-gallate (EGCG ). Like other antioxidants, it acts as a free radical scavenger and prevents cellular damage. EGCG may help in the lowering of blood pressure, regulation of bowel habits, and protect against cavities. EGCG may also protect against respiratory infections, tumor growth, and may also yield certain anti-inflammatory properties.
Research shows a beneficial effect in consuming green tea as a way of preventing and treating cancer. Upon the consumption of one of more cups of green tea a day, women with post ovarian cancer enhanced their survival rate in clinical study. Another study in china showed that those drinking a cup of green tea a day for six months had a decreased risk in developing other types of cancers in both male and females. 
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