The good news is age doesn’t have to mean forgetful days, heart attacks and brittle bones. As middle aged baby boomers approach the senior years, geriatric research is gaining momentum. We’re learning how preventive health practices–exercise, diet, no smoking, alcohol and stress reduction–increase and enrich life.
Nutritional investigations are also uncovering the vital role vitamins and minerals play in age related illnesses. As you get older, your need for certain nutrients rise–something the current U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances don’t take into account. Add to this the facts that the hydrochloric acid in your stomach, necessary for proper nutrient absorption, and skin capacity to manufacture vitamin D from sunlight both decline with age. In some cases, vitamin and mineral supplementation is the only way to overcome these problems and diminish the ravages of old age.
Slow Aging with Antioxidants
More and more ailments, including chronic diseases of old age, are being blamed on free radicals. Experts theorize that these highly reactive molecules speed up aging and promote cancer. It’s the free radical’s unpaired electron that makes trouble, as it scrounges for a partner–almost any molecule will do–before it will rest. This snatching up of protein and other bystanders by free radicals damages cells and tissues, the basis for aging’s aches, pains and afflictions.
The first and largest source of free radicals is your own body, odd considering the harm they cause. Your body uses oxygen to burn food and create energy, not unlike blowing on a smoldering fire to increase its flame. Free radicals are the sparks that fly off this metabolic blaze. Your body stomps out these free radical sparks with its own stockpile of firefighters called antioxidants, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase. Even melatonin, the hormone released by your pineal gland, has antioxidant capabilities says Ronald Klatz, DO, President of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
However, free radicals are exceedingly helpful in the right amounts. In a sense, they’re part of your immune system. White blood cells harness free radicals to disarm invading germs, and the liver uses them for detoxifying hurtful toxins. It’s ironic then that an aging, faltering immune system is partly due to free radical overload (1).
In today’s world it’s easy to push your burden of free radicals over the top with pollution, too much sun, pesticides, radiation, some drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, rancid fats, and even frequent flying or exercise. These stressors also tend to eat up antioxidants and other nutrients. When free radicals climb too high or antioxidants fall too low, chronic diseases and premature aging are more likely to ignite. Richard Cutler, PhD, investigator at the Gerontology Research Center of the National Institute on Aging, says studies suggest an almost linear relationship between life span and antioxidant levels in some animals (2).
Luckily Mother Nature has given us a shopping cart of foods that experts believe possess antioxidant abilities such as lectins in legumes, indoles in cabbage, and terpenes in citrus fruits. Many antioxidant herbs hold a special affinity for particular body parts. For example, the flavonoids in milk thistle target the liver. Those in ginkgo biloba are attracted to the central nervous system, including the brain. Pycnogenol, derived from pine trees or grape seeds, is actually the registered trademark of a flavonoid called procyanidolic oligomer or PCO. This antioxidant may prevent cancer (3), and treat high blood pressure (4) and poor vision (5).
According to Denham Harman, MD, PhD, the grandfather of the free radical theory and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, antioxidant supplements like vitamin E and C, and beta-carotene help ward off chronic illnesses and some aging effects (6). It’s difficult, he says, to obtain enough antioxidants to slow aging from diet alone (2). Harman recommends you begin antioxidant fortification by age 27 (6).
Coronary heart disease, the term that encompasses all conditions that reduce blood supply to the heart including atherosclerosis, kills more Americans than any other ailment. Half to three-quarters of cardiac patients are reportedly lacking in coenzyme Q10, an enzyme and antioxidant usually found in abundance in the heart (7). It therefore makes sense to give coenzyme Q10 to people with hypertension, angina and similar heart problems. Jack Hall from the University of Texas in Austin did just that. After supplementing his congestive heart failure patients (already taking conventional CHF medication) with coenzyme Q10, 78 percent improved (8). The flavonoids in fruits and vegetables also protect you against heart attacks, reduce blood clot formation and prevent atherosclerosis (9).
Cancer, the second leading reason for death among Americans, is caused in large part by lifestyle habits including eating too few antioxidant-containing foods that protect you against this disease (10). Of the many hundreds of carotenoids found in our food–primarily fruits and vegetables–many are antioxidants (11). Many cancer-causing compounds not only increase your free radical load, but may deplete your antioxidant reserves.
Vegetables and fruits are also rich in the antioxidant vitamins C and E, nutrients that work together to protect you. Fat-soluble vitamin E focuses on your cell’s membranes, a mostly lipid or fatty structure. Vitamin C, on the other hand concentrates on the water-based fluids floating between and inside cells. Vitamin C also spares vitamin E and other antioxidants (12).
Antioxidants are proving to not only prevent cancer, but cure it too. When Hans Stich of the BC Cancer Research Center in Vancouver, Canada gave vitamin A to fishermen with precancerous mouth tumors caused by chewing tobacco, he witnessed complete remission in half of his subjects after only six months (13).
Other aging diseases, like senile cataracts and glaucoma (14), are cultivated by free radicals and helped by antioxidants. Cigarette smoking, a free radical promoter, certainly contributes to lens opacity in cataract patients (15). Irwin Rosenberg, MD, professor and director of the USDA’s Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, says antioxidants like vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene delay cataract development (16).
A Clear Mind
There’s no one reason for senility. A distinct mental or physical condition may be responsible or it could be the side effects of medication. Maintaining an active interest in life, staying in touch with friends and family and remaining physically fit help older folks–and younger ones–remain sharp. Not surprising, free radicals have a hand in declining mental abilities also, in particular Alzheimer’s disease.
Also consider how nutrient deficiencies affect your brain. Dr. Rosenberg says: “It is possible that some of the decline in cognitive function associated with aging is preventable or reversible with improved vitamin nutriture…” (17). The B vitamins seem especially important.
According to a Columbia University study of 548 men and women, ages 67 to 96, over 40 percent were less disoriented and confused when they took vitamin B12 supplements (18). Michael Gold, MD from the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa found thiamine blood levels in patients with senile dementia of the Alzheimer’s type were significantly lower than senile patients without Alzheimer’s (19).
Phosphatidylserine, the one form of the amino acid serine, also holds promise for memory loss (20) and senility (21). This potent antioxidant (29), with an affinity for brain tissue, increases your brain’s ability to grab glucose, it’s main food, and allows brain cells to communicate and metabolize better. Alan Miller, ND, a private practitioner from Sandpoint, Idaho, tells of how a woman with Alzheimer’s was more alert and involved in daily living after one month on phophatidlyserine.
A Strong Body
Fractured hips and crumbling bones seem to go hand-in-hand with old age. While declining bone mass is an inevitable part of aging, as many as half of all postmenopausal women suffer from osteoporosis or excessive bone loss (22); men are much less vulnerable. We’re not sure why people get osteoporosis, though many factors like age, low estrogen, a sedentary life, certain foods, race (Caucasians are more prone than African Americans) and genetic predisposition seem to influence it. Frequent fractures or dull achy backs are one indication you might be osteoporotic. On the other hand, many people have no symptoms whatsoever.
Like so many afflictions of old age, prevention is key. Bone is a living tissue and, like other body systems, needs adequate nutrition to keep it well. Calcium supplementation is important to ensure strong bones, but that’s not enough. You also need to minimize those foods that rob your body of calcium such as caffeine, alcohol, smoking, sugar, sodium, phosphates and excessive animal protein (23,24,25,26). Weight bearing exercises will also help you keep the calcium you have.
Other nutrients, in particular vitamin D, increases calcium’s efficiency in your body (27). F. Michael Gloth III, MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine points out that although Americans tend to have very high vitamin D levels, many elderly folks are deficient. If an older person doesn’t get much sunlight, a main source of vitamin D, or takes medications like phenytoin that accelerates vitamin D breakdown then their levels drop. When Dr. Gloth supplemented frail elderly individuals over 65 with low blood levels of vitamin D, they functioned better as their vitamin D status increased. Besides bone health, inadequate vitamin D is also associated with limb pain, muscle weakness and diminished physical function (28).
Old age is inevitable; poor health in old age is not. The more you pay attention to all those factors that wear on your health now–the foods you eat, the environment you live, the nutrients you consume–the less you’ll have to worry about Father Time’s impact on you in the years to come.
The Latest on Anti-Aging Research
According to Ronald Klatz, DO, President of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, hormones are the key to aging. All hormones diminish with age, says Klatz. Armed with that knowledge, aging–which he calls a disease process–is now treatable using hormones. Our current life spans, claims Klatz, are now approaching 120 years and beyond. Here are a few examples of how various hormones might help you stay younger longer.
Melatonin When old rats are fed melatonin, they can reproduce again–one indication that age has been turned around. This major antioxidant is one of the few substances than can penetrate every cell in your body. Because melatonin is involved in resetting your biological clock, it helps relieve jet lag and insomnia too.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) This adrenal hormone is a precursor to all sex hormones. Perhaps because of this, its affects are far reaching including as an anti-cancer agent and aiding Alzheimer’s patients.
Growth Hormone This hormone declines rapidly after age 40. However, when supplemented it dramatically reverses aging by 20 years by encouraging regrowth of organ tissue and muscles, and stimulating your body’s repair mechanisms.
- Harman D. Aging: prospects for further increases in the functional life span. Age 1994;17:119-146.
- Longevity: can science extend the human lifespan? The Unviersity of Texas Lifetime Health Letter 1993, Sept;5(9):1 & 6.
- Liviero L. et al. Antimutagenic activity of procyanidins from Vitis vinifera. Fitother 1994;65:203-09.
- Lagrua G. et al. A study of the effects of procyanidol oligomers on capillary resistance in hypertension and in certain nephropathies. Sem Hop 1981;57:1399-1401.
- Corbe C. et al. Light vision and chorioretinal circulation. Study of the effect of procyanidolic oligers (Endotelon). J Fr Optalmol 1988;11:453-460.
- Challem J. Some good things to say about free radicals (editorial). Townsend letter for Doctors & Patients, October 1995:104-105.
- Zhu B & WW Parmley. Hemodynamic and vascular effects of active and passive smoking. American Heart Journal 1995;130:1270-75.
- Hall JH, Judy WV, Folkers K. Long-term survival in coenzyme Q10 treated congestive heart failure patients. Circulation 1990;82(4) (suppl III): 675.
- Hertog, MGL, Feskens EJM, Hollman PCH, Katan MB, Kromhout D. Dietary antioxidant flavonoids and risk of coronary heart disease: the Zutphen Elderly Study. The Lancet 1993;342:1007-1011.
- Tubiana M. Human carcinogenesis–introductory remarks. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991; 53: 223S-5S.
- Ziegler R. Vegetables, fruits, and carotenoids and the risk of cancer. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991; 53: 251S-9S.
- Block G. Vitamin C and cancer prevention: the epidmiologic evidence. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991; 53: 270S-82S.
- Stich HF, Mathew B, Sankaranarayanan R, Nair MK. Remission of precancerous lesions in the oral cavity of tobacco chewers and maintenance of the protective effect of beta-carotene or vitamin A. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991; 53: 298S-304S.
- Sardi B. Glaucoma. Anti-glaucoma regimen. Emphasizing non-pharmacologic therapy and lifestyle changes. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients 1996, January;issue #150:52-54, 56-65.
- West S. et al. Cigarette smoking and risk for progession of nuclear opacities. Archives of Opthamology 1995;113:1377-80.
- News release (ADA). Many issues explored–from antioxidants to world hunger–at ADA’s annual meeting. ADA, Chicago, ILL., October 26, 1993.
- Rosenberg IH and JW Miller. Nutritional factors in physical and cognitive functions of elderly people. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1992;55:127S-43S.
- July 1994, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study cited in: B12 deficiency in the elderly (News you can use). Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Jan/Feb 1995, pg 118.
- Gold M et al. Plasma and red blood cell thiamine deficiency in patients with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Archives of Neurology 1995;52:1081-86.
- Crook TH et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine in age-associated memory impairment. Neurology 1991;41:644-49.
- Delwaide PJ et al. Double-blind randomized controlled study of phosphatidylserine in senile demented patients. Acta Neurologica Scandinavia (Denmark) 1986;73:136-140.
- Licata, A. A., “Therapies for Symptomatic Primary Osteoporosis,” Geriatrics 46 (1991): 62-67.
- Hernandez-Avila, M., Colditz, G.A., Stampfer, M.J., Rosner, B., Speizer, F.E., and Willett, W.C., “Caffeine, Moderate Alcohol Intake, and Risk of Fractures of the Hip and Forearm in Middle-aged Women,” Am J Clin Nutr 54 (1991): 157-63.
- Mazess, R.B., and Barden, H.S., “Bone Density in Premenopausal Women: Effects of Age, Dietary Intake, Physical Activity, Smoking, and Birth-Control Pills,” Am J Clin Nutr 53 (1991): 132-42.
- Wisneski, L.A., “Clinical Management of Postmenopausal Osteoporosis,” S Med J 85 (1992): 832-39.
- Werbach, M.R., Nutritional Influences on Illness. Tarzana: Third Line Press, 1988.
- Guillemant J. et al. Age-related effect of a single oral dose of calcium on parathyroid function: relationship with vitamin D status. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1994;60:403-7.
- Gloth FM III, MD. Functional improvement with vitamin D replenishment in a cohort of frail, vitamin D-deficient older people. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 1995;43(11):1269-71.
- Amaducci L. et al. Use of phsphatidylserine in Alzheimer’s disease. Annals of NY Academy Sciences 1991;640:245-249.