Like many other trends in American society, the desire for healthy aging (some might say anti-aging) is being driven by baby boomers, who want nothing to do with the slow mental and physical decline they saw in their parents and grandparents. We want a longer health span.
And, luckily, science is making rapid progress on finding the answers as to why we age, and effective ways to combat it. From supplements to scientific exercise regimes and diet, the assault on aging is in high gear.
WellWise.org will in no way be able to cover all of the developments in this segment, but new research comes out nearly daily, and we will update this space as necessary. We will concentrate mostly on nutrients and their effect on the body and brain.
The cause of aging
Theories emerge, morph and enlarge as research continues as to why we age. For some time now, most scientists have attributed much of aging to the presence of free radicals, which accumulate with age. Free radicals are formed when a molecule in your cells loses an electron, due to the presence of a virus or environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, sunlight, herbicides or smoking. Free radicals are unstable and try to steal their needed electron from another compound, in order to gain stability. The compound from which the electron is stolen becomes another free radical, which can begin a chain reaction, eventually resulting in the disruption of a living cell.
Fighting back against aging
Researchers are examining dozens of nutrients that appear to have a slowing effect on aging. Take for instance a recent study at McMaster University in Ontario in which researchers found that a complex dietary supplement offset the tendency for declining physical activity – a reliable expression of aging – in old mice, and increased the activity of the mices’ mitochondria (the energy furnace of cells), reducing the emission of free radicals.
The study, which was published in Experimental Biology and Medicine, “obtained a truly remarkable extension of physical function in old mice, far greater than the respectable extension of longevity that we previous documented,” according to David Rollo, associate professor of biology at McMaster. “This holds great promise for extending the quality of life of ‘health span’ of humans.”
The scientists used supplement-soaked bagel bits to ensure the proper dosage of the nutrients, which included vitamins B1, C, D, E, beta carotene, aspirin, folic acid, garlic, ginger root, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, green-tea extract, magnesium, melatonin, potassium, cod liver oil, and flax seed oil. The supplemented mice maintained youthful levels of locomotor activity into old age, but the mice that got no supplement fared far worse. Using several measures typical of the aging process, the scientists found that unsupplemented mice had a 50 percent loss in daily movement, declines in brain-signaling chemicals relevant to locomotion, and a dramatic loss in mitochondrial activity.
The important role of omega-3s in aging
Although you may be growing tired of hearing about all the wonderful things that omega-3s do for you, expect to hear more. Omega-3s are among the most heavily researched nutraceuticals today. The more we study them, the more we discover how very essential they are to all aspects of health, including aging.
One of the biological markers of aging that scientists have discovered is in the length of telomeres – strings of repeating DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes. Cell division produces wear and tear on the telomeres, and if telomeres become too short, the cell dies.
More recent research has demonstrated that omega-3s (in the form of fish oil for this study) appear to slow down this process of telomeres growing shorter. The study followed some 600 patients who had stable heart disease for six years. The patients’ blood was tested at the beginning and throughout the study for levels of omega-3s. The telomeres of those who started out with lower levels of omega-3s shortened at a much faster rate – 2.6 times faster – than those with higher levels.
Add to this a study published in 2009 showing that omega-3 deficiencies may contribute to as many as 97,000 deaths a year, and you’re likely to go running for the supplement aisle at the drug store, especially since studies have shown that most everyone who doesn’t eat a quantity of cold-water fish is deficient in omega-3s.
In addition, German scientists recently discovered a marked difference in telomere lengths in subjects who were serious, middle-aged longtime runners and those middle-agers who were sedentary. The telomeres in the cells of the sedentary group were on average 40 percent shorter than those of the athletes.
Aging muscles – sarcopenia
Have you heard of sarcopenia? This is the name for muscle wasting, what typically begins to happen to us when we reach the age of, say, 60. It is why everyone is now recommending that seniors develop a regular regimen of exercise that include weight resistance (lifting weights). But a 2011 study also found that the omega-3s increase the rate of muscle-protein synthesis in seniors.
Researchers gave 16 seniors (average age of 71) 4grams/day of omega-3s for eight weeks and found "compelling evidence of an iteraction of omega-3 fatty acids and protein metabolism in human muscle." They went on to say that dietary omega-3 fatty acide supplementation could potentially provide a simple intervention to combat sarcopenia.
Good sources of omega-3s include fish oil (the researchers in the study above used Lovaza, a highly purified and concentrated fish oil), krill oil (bonded to phospholipids, which make them more readily absorbable than fish oil), flaxseed (vegetarian), cold-water fish such as wild salmon, some algae, and walnuts.
Aging and weight management
Being overweight or obese at midlife can significantly increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, new research has found. Researchers at the the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, studied data of 8,534 twins aged 65 and older. Information over 30 years on the participants’ height and weight, showed that about 30 percent of the twins were overweight or obese during middle-age, and they had an 80 percent higher risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or vascular dementia in later life.
"Currently, 1.6 billion adults are overweight or obese worldwide and over 50% of adults in the United States and Europe fit into this category," said the lead researcher. "Our results contribute to the growing evidence that controlling body weight or losing weight in middle age could reduce your risk of dementia."1
It’s not just about taking a pill, unfortunately. Combating aging ultimately is about changing behavior, including what we eat. It does far less good to take in healthy nutrients, while at the same time continuing to take in trans-fatty acids, sugars and starches, and engaging in destructive behavior such as smoking and taking long sunbaths.
1. WL Xu, et al. Midlife overweight and obesity increase late-life dementia risk. Neurology 2011;76:1568-1574. DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182190d09
Disclaimer: The information provided in this section is a public service of WellWise.org, and should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended to constitute personal medical advice.