Healthy Aging Primer, Part 1: How to Increase Health Span & Longevity
the Western diet as the key factor in virtually every chronic
disease . . . During the 20th century, food consumption patterns
changed dramatically. . . . The largest change was the switch from
a diet with a high level of complex carbohydrates, which naturally
occur in grains and vegetables, to a . . . dramatic increase in the
number of calories consumed from simple sugars. . . . High
consumption of refined sugars is linked to many chronic diseases,
including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
~ Michael T. Murray, ND & Joseph Pizzorno, ND – The Encyclopedia of Natural
Medicine (Third Edition 2012)
Are you over 40 and starting to think about your golden years and mortality? Are you somewhat confused by the massive amount of sometimes conflicting advice available about exactly what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, which foods to avoid or eat, and which supplements are most critical? While healthy aging is an enormous topic, the information below and in Part 2 of this article serves as a primer to help you start moving in the right direction.
Some Scientific Theories Behind Aging
Scientists offer various theories to explain aging. So-called programmed theories derive from the idea that a genetic clock determines when old age will set in. Equally valid damage theories are based on the concept that aging results from cumulative damage to cells and genes (DNA). Both types of aging processes lead to the development of various degenerative diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and immune deficiency/dysfunction. These theories include:
1. Telomere Theory: Scientists view these end-cap segments of chromosomes (DNA molecules with part or all of the genetic material of an organism), as aging clocks. Each time a cell replicates, the telomere shortens, thereby affecting gene expression and causing cellular aging and degenerative disease. The key to increasing health and life span depends on preserving or restoring telomere length.
2. Free Radical Theory: Free radicals are unstable molecules that can bind to and damage cells. Sources of free radicals include essential metabolic bodily processes, the environment (x-rays, radiation, cigarette smoke, certain drugs, air/water pollution, industrial chemicals), and unhealthy food. Free radicals primarily target fats, proteins, and DNA. Their overwhelming the body’s ability to regulate them thus results in oxidative stress, which can trigger various age-related diseases. Cumulative free radical damage is also viewed as a key cause of the shortening of telomeres.
3. Glycosylation Theory: Proteins do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of all tissues and organs. Glycosylation, the attachment of glucose to cellular proteins that prevents those proteins from functioning properly, results in advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs inactivate enzymes critical to many metabolic processes, impair immune function, and increase risk of autoimmune disease. Diets that promote glycosylation (high in heat-processed, high-fat, animal-derived foods) and poor glucose control are linked to telomere shortening.
More than anything, healthy aging depends on maintenance of health-promoting habits on a day-to-day basis. In addition to avoiding smoking, second-hand smoke, and illicit drugs, incorporating these habits into daily life can go a long way to ensuring longer health and life spans:
Detoxing/Fasting: Regularly clearing harmful toxins, especially through enhanced liver and kidney function, directly supports the body’s normal metabolic functions. Some of the thousands of toxic chemicals found in the body that can cause poor health/disease (chronic headaches, inflammation, liver disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, thyroiditis, allergies, psoriasis and other autoimmune conditions) include: 1. toxic metals: aluminum, mercury, arsenic, lead 2. persistent organic pollutants (POPs): drugs, alcohol, solvents, food dyes/additives, pesticides, formaldehyde 3. microbes produced by yeast and bacteria in the gut 4. ammonia and urea produced from the breakdown of protein.
Diet Modification: Though nutrition experts do not all agree on what constitutes an ideal diet, these guidelines are a good place to start: 1. avoid/greatly minimize inflammation-inducing hydrogenated, trans,and animal-based saturated fats (beef, pork, lamb, duck), gluten, dairy, GMOs, caffeine, MSG, processed foods, the toxins noted above, and especially sugar/simple carbohydrates; 2. barring allergies/food sensitivities or a health condition that calls for a different approach, include high-omega3 wild fish, organic chicken/turkey/eggs, protein powder to supplement inadequate protein intake, whole organic grains, and as many organic colorful raw foods as possible. The ideal dietary regimen also minimizes salt intake, maintains high potassium intake, and includes ample amounts of high-pH, non-tap water.
Environmental Clean-Up: We ingest what we breathe, and much of what we place on our skin can enter our blood stream and organs through our epidermis, hair follicles, or glands. While health risks vary based on multiple factors, including extent of chemical exposure, age, immune/health status, and genes, it is ideal to avoid these toxins commonly found in mainstream products (see EWG.org): 1. Household Cleaners: chlorine bleach; ammonia; hydrochloric/phosphoric acid; sodium/potassium hydroxide; ethanolamines; synthetic fragrance; and quaternary ammonium compounds; 2. Body Care Products: aluminum; sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (SLSs); BHA/BHT; triclosan/triclocarban; coal tar dyes; parabens; polyethylene/PEGs; phthalates; diethanolamine (DEA); synthetic fragrance; petrolatum/petroleum distillates; and siloxanes. Instead, many online resources provide innovative, simple DIY formulas for every type of cleaning project, and numerous ready-made cleaners and reliable skin care/cosmetic products are readily available in local health food stores.
Exercise/Maintaining Muscle Mass: Ample scientific evidence supports regular exercise as being critical to good health. While exercise does initially stress the body, its long-term positive effects include 1. greater muscle strength/flexibility, 2. enhanced transport of oxygen and nutrients into, and waste out of, cells, 3. greater body function, efficiency and energy, 4. improved mood, and (5) enhanced fat metabolism.
When exercising, aim to lose fat, but also gain muscle. Muscle weighs more, but the body burns more calories to maintain a pound of muscle than it does to maintain a pound of fat. Loss of 1-2 pounds/week, or no more than 1% of total body weight, is a safe, sustainable, long-term goal. Although not for everyone, some fitness experts consider interval or burst training (20-40 minutes, 3-4 days per week) to be the best way to burn fat quickly and promote after-exercise fat burning for up to 36 extra hours. The key is to start and keep moving on a regular basis for a total of 40-60 minutes, ideally daily or no fewer than five days per week, Selecting something tolerable with relatively easy access is important to long-term compliance with any exercise regimen.
Healthy Weight Maintenance: Scientific studies have proven overweight/obesity to be a significant threat to all body systems and a cause of early death. The health conditions associated with overweight/obesity include cancer, cardiovascular disease/hypertension, diabetes, joint pain and other inflammatory conditions, respiratory ailments, skin conditions, and reproductive difficulties (PCOS, fertility).
Sleep Management: Sleep influences the function of the immune, hormonal, and nervous systems. A growing number of studies have thus linked inadequate sleep, or even sleeping at odd hours, with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure/heart disease, and cancer. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to neuronal damage and accelerated brain aging, emotional and psychological problems, hypothyroidism, and increased hospitalizations and mortality.
The combination of sleep deprivation and chronic stress sets the stage for disease. The resulting adrenal gland production of excess cortisol can cause dysfunction of various organ systems as they constantly attempt to rebalance.
Stress Management: Since all types of stress negatively impact every cell, tissue, and organ, managing the body’s stress response on a daily basis is important to conserving its resources. Any of these daily practices can greatly facilitate chronic/acute stress management: consciousness management techniques; exercise (see above); prayer; meditation; deep diaphragmatic breathing; tai chi; development/use of time management, communication, and relationship skills; and elimination of toxins (including toxic relationships) (see above).
Lifestyle modification is a critical first step to promoting full-body health and longevity, but there is so much more to this story. Watch for Part 2 of this article to learn which dietary supplements can best support your efforts to ensure quality of life.
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, are for educational purposes only, and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice.
Submitted by J. Erika Dworkin, Certified Lifestyle Educator, and Nutrition Consultant and owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe (860.646.8178), 378 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT, www.cthealthshop.com, nutrition specialists trusted since 1956. Erika is available to speak to groups.
All statements in this article are research-based and references are available upon request.