What is Aging?
Julian Whitaker, MD
Average life expectancy has increased dramatically in this country over the past century, from 47 years in 1900 to almost 80 years today. But this doesn’t mean that people are living longer, or at least not substantially longer.
A hundred years ago, many children died at birth, and before the discovery of antibiotics, infections claimed the lives of many more. Childhood deaths dramatically bring down the average life expectancy. In the developed countries, we have made giant strides in reducing infant mortality and infectious disease as a cause of early death. This is the real reason for our large gains in life expectancy. Improvements in water quality and basic sanitation have probably saved more lives than all doctors combined.
Life expectancy is not the average age of death. For instance, if in a population of 100, 50 people die at age 1 and 50 die at age 70, the life expectancy is 35 years. Yet it is obvious that the average age of death is not 35. Believe it or not, if you are 40 years old today, your chances of reaching 70 aren’t much greater than they were for a 40-year-old living in George Washington’s time.
Why Do We Start to Fall Apart?
If we survive the slings and arrows of the first four decades of life, why do things start falling apart at an ever increasing pace afterwards? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some experts feel that aging is programmed, either by a biological clock controlled by hormones or by the switching on or off of certain genes that regulate aging.
Others feel that natural selection ensures survival only through our reproductive years. It doesn’t prepare us for things that go awry after that. Genetic mishaps that show up late in life are passed on through the generations, so aging is in a sense inherited.
In the future, we may be able to manipulate these genetic influences and postpone aging. Until then, we’ll have to be content with working on the four known and modifiable mechanisms associated with aging and disease.
1. Shield Cells From Oxidative Damage
Oxidative or free-radical damage is the dominant theory of why we age. Free radicals, which are byproducts of normal cellular metabolism, are highly reactive atoms or molecules that bind to and destroy healthy cells. Breathing, extracting energy from food, and just living creates free radicals.
Years of accumulated free-radical damage, accelerated by environmental sources of oxidative stress such as pollution, smoking, radiation, and poor diet, take a tremendous toll on our bodies. Free-radical damage is a well-recognized player in heart disease, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and other age-associated diseases. And because the mitochondria, your cells’ energy-producing factories, are bombarded by free radicals, it also leads to a loss of cellular energy.
Mother Nature has devised an elaborate system of antioxidants to neutralize free radicals, and you can give her a hand by eating lots of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits and supplementing with vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, beta-carotene, and selenium. This is the first step you should take, regardless of your age, to retard degenerative changes.
2. Maximize Methylation With B Vitamins
Frequent cleaning is necessary to make your home a pleasant, comfortable, and healthy environment. If you never washed the dishes, vacuumed the carpets, dusted, or took out the garbage, your house would eventually deteriorate beyond repair.
The internal processes that keep you alive also produce a lot of “garbage,” waste products that must regularly be detoxified and cleared out. One of your body’s chief mechanisms for cellular housekeeping is methylation, a crucial chemical reaction that occurs billions of times every second.
When methylation becomes inefficient and sluggish, toxic compounds build up like dust balls under the sofa. Most significant among them is homocysteine, a byproduct of normal amino acid metabolism. Elevated homocysteine harms the arteries and impairs circulation. It also damages your cells’ DNA and contributes to atherosclerosis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases of aging.
Methylation defects become more common as we age. In order for this process to run smoothly, adequate amounts of vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid must be present. Making sure your cells have enough of these “housecleaning tools” is one of the simplest steps you can take to slow down the aging process.
3. Protect Yourself Against AGEs
Crack an egg into a hot skillet and the clear part turns opaque as the proteins in the egg white undergo chemical changes. Likewise, the proteins in your body are chemically altered by sugars, a process called glycosylation. It’s what happens when the protein-dense lens of the eye clouds over with cataracts. It occurs in the skin as collagen breaks down, causing wrinkling and sagging. It manifests in the joints, which stiffen as cartilage undergoes changes.
Glycosylation results in the appropriately named AGEs (advanced glycosylation end products), which gather in the tissues and interfere with normal function. AGEs also damage your immune system and kidneys, and are believed to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. Glycosylation is particularly problematic for people with diabetes or insulin resistance, conditions affecting at least a quarter of the population that are increasingly common with advancing age.
Keeping blood sugar levels in the normal range may retard glycosylation. The easiest way to maintain these levels is to watch what you eat. Steer clear of refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, sodas, cold cereals, and most breads and snack foods, as they blast into the system and drive up blood sugar. In contrast, fiber-rich plant foods cause a slow, sustained release of glucose. Making these slow burners the basis of your diet will ward off some of the degenerative changes of aging.
4. Reduce Inflammation
Everyone has experienced inflammation: a swollen ankle resulting from a sprain or strain, or the redness and swelling around a wound. But you may not realize that inflammation is your body’s response to any injury or insult, external or internal. It is an integral part of the immune response, and once the healing process begins, inflammation subsides.
However, as you get older, your body’s ability to remove the byproducts of inflammation is impaired. Furthermore, the signaling mechanisms of the immune system become less efficient, and even healthy tissues may be misidentified as foreign and attacked. The result is chronic inflammation. Recent research has uncovered strong links between chronic inflammation and cardiovascular disease (it is now considered to be the number-one risk factor for heart attack), autoimmune disorders, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
One thing you can do to help control chronic inflammation is to get rid of the bad fats in your diet and bring in the good ones. Fats are precursors to prostaglandins, powerful chemical messengers with either anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory effects. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a fatty acid found in fish oils, is very effective in controlling inflammation, so I suggest you make fatty fish a regular part of your diet. At the same time, avoid excess saturated fat found in meat and dairy, which promotes inflammation.
- Nutrition should be the foundation of your anti-aging program. Eat lots of nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Include omega-3-rich fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) several times a week, and moderate amounts of poultry, soy, and other lean protein. Olive oil and expeller-pressed vegetable oils are fine, but stay away from animal fats and processed fats. And don’t overeat. Cutting back on calories has been shown to retard aging.
- To counter free radicals, take vitamin C (1,500 mg), vitamin E (400-800 IU), vitamin A (5,000 IU), and beta-carotene (15,000 IU). To facilitate methylation, take folic acid (800 mcg), vitamin B12 (150 mcg), and vitamin B6 (75 mg). And to curb inflammation, take two fish oil capsules a day. You’ll find all these nutrients in my daily multivitamin supplement. Call (800) 810-6655 to order.
- To schedule an appointment with a physician at Whitaker Wellness who will help you put together a personalized anti-aging regimen, call (866) 944-8253 or click here.
- My book, Shed 10 Years in 10 Weeks, is a comprehensive program for turning back the clock. To order it, call (800) 810-6655.
- Lawmakers mull supplement rules. 2001 Sept. 10. http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/
- Klatz R and Goldman R. Stopping the Clock. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Inc, 1996.
- Kirkwood T. Time of Our Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Bland JS. Improving genetic expression in the prevention of the diseases of aging. Gig Harbor, WA: HealthComm International, Inc., 1998.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.