The Biology of Aging

What is aging? To some extent the answer to this question is a subjective one reflecting belief system as much as fact. Here we shall briefly consider some ideas about the nature of biological aging.

The more extreme proponents of the ‘immortality’ movement suggest that aging is simply an artifact of bad nutrition and cramped vision. As some herbs are touted as part of their approach to life extension, attention must be put upon ideas of aging. However, I must start this section by acknowledging my personal bias on these issues. The very expensive products and approach proposed by some prominent exponents of `life-extension’ strike me as a clever money making plan that is based upon some unsavory elitist tendencies. I don’t feel it is stating it too strongly to call it `new age fascism’. There is a tendency in these circles to see illness as something the patient creates or attracts into their lives. On some level this may well be true, as illness can be a profound gift of a learning opportunity, but this insight has become an unfortunately powerful tool for brow-beating and a source of guilt and judgment.

There is much that appropriate nutrition can do to improve quality of life, health in general and improve specific illness. Similarly, as should be clear at this stage of the course, I have a deep respect for the role of vision and spirituality in human life. As the Bible says Without vision the people die, not that with vision the people live forever. The fundamental importance of vision and spirituality is qualitative not quantitative, and by bringing such qualities into our lives we heal and transform ourselves and the world. Living for a longer chronological span is not the point.

The material that follows is a very brief overview of the scientific views on aging, which in turn will be used to lead to some herbal insights. For more information on this perspective please refer to:

Cape, Coe & Rossman. Fundamentals of Geriatric Medicine. Raven Press, New York (1983)

Genetic Theories of Aging

One group of ideas are based upon the plethora of insights molecular biology has provided about DNA and RNA functioning and structure. Theories have been proposed that suggest problems with stability of DNA over time, problems with the transcription of information from the chromosomal DNA to RNA, in fact a different theory for each phase of the process. For anyone interested the most relevant ideas are known as the error theory, the redundant message theory, the transcription theory and the programmed theory.

Non-Genetic Theories of Aging

It is in terms of these non-DNA based theories that herbalism may have something to contribute. In each case it should be clear to the reader (by now!) what herbal possibilities arise.

  • The immunological theory proposes that alterations in the immune system contribute to the changes associated with old age. With increasing age, the immune system is thought to become less efficient, with reduced capacity to deal with infection and a greater likelihood of auto-immune reactions.

  • The connective tissue theory relates aging to changes in the collagen, elastin and ground substance of this ubiquitous tissue. As collagen makes comprises 25% of body protein, any changes in it will have marked effects.

  • The free-radical theory is the one most often cited by the longevity movement as the key insight. Free-radicals are chemicals whose outer orbits contain unpaired electron causing them to be highly reactive. They are a normal but short lived aspect of metabolism. The suggestion is that aging is due to these free-radicals combining with essential molecules. The damage caused by free-radicals can be extensive, even though the body has a range of mechanisms to cope with it. The core problem is a peroxidation of fats that damages membranes in the body. The question is whether free-radical production is the fundamental cause of aging or simply an ancillary phenomena that exacerbates age-related changes due to some other cause.

As with most scientific theorizing, the truth may well lie in some combination of all of the above! So where does all of this theory leave the phytotherapist? A first step is to identify any therapeutic insights to be gained by differentiating between what might be largely unalterable and alterable manifestations of aging.

Largely Unalterable Aging Manifestations

Fibrosis and stiffening of arteries

Graying of hair

High-tone of hearing loss

Loss of skin elasticity

The degree and timing of such changes will, of course vary from person to person depending upon genetics, life-style, environmental conditions etc. Their may be approaches to slowing down these changes but they are not avoidable.

Alterable Aging Manifestations (Treatment Strategies)
Agility (Stretching exercises, appropriate herbs)

Arthritis (Diet, exercise, weight control, appropriate herbs)

Blood pressure (Exercise, salt intake, obesity, appropriate herbs)

Cancer (Diet, exercise, weight control, no-smoking, herbs)

Heart disease (Diet, exercise, weight control, no-smoking, herbs)

Heart reserve (Aerobic exercise, appropriate herbs)

Intelligence (Practice, appropriate herbs)

Isolation (Practice, socialization)

Memory (Practice, appropriate herbs)

Mobility (Stretching exercises, appropriate herbs)

Physical fitness (Exercise, weight control, no-smoking, herbs)

Reaction time (Exercise, appropriate herbs)

These are aging changes that can be altered or avoided with the approaches that have most to offer. In most cases the best way to use any applicable remedies is within a broader treatment context, as listed.

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Written by David L. Hoffmann BSc Hons MNIMH

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