I think most people would agree that aging is not particularly desirable. Some even go as far as to call it a "disease". While I wouldn't go that far, I want to do all I can to understand the aging process and perhaps slow it down and avoid its more serious consequences.
What are these consequences I am talking about? Well although I do not see aging as a disease in itself, our risk of degenerative diseases certainly increases as our bodies age. Heart attacks, strokes and cancer, some of the the biggest killers in the developed world become much more likely, as do multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson's disease and various forms of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease. Not to mention conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis which can leave individuals disabled.
All of these diseases of aging reduce a person's quality of life and in the case of cardiovascular disease and cancer can cut life short. I think it is safe to assume that everyone would want to live to a good age but more importantly, remain healthy, free from chronic illness, and be happy and autonomous in their old age. The good news is that there are a few key ways in which we can significantly improve the chances of this for ourselves.
Why do we age?
Aging is not a simple process and scientists are still trying to unravel its complexities. We do already know a lot about what causes our bodies to grow old however. Major processes involved include:
1. Oxidative Stress - Oxidation reactions take place throughout our bodies, for example in the production of energy (ATP) in the mitochondria inside our cells, and also as a means for our white blood cells to attack pathogens as part of our immune response. Oxygen has a dark side however. As a by-product of these reactions oxygen can form free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS), highly reactive and potentially damaging chemicals such as superoxide and peroxides. Normally the body takes care of these through the use of antioxidants and reduction reactions to keep things in balance. However, as we age our ability to neutralize them tends to decrease and the balance is lost. When oxidation gains the upper hand the body is said to be in a state of oxidative stress. If ROS are not neutralized they instead react with body tissues, causing damage to DNA, mitochondria, cellular membranes, and protective materials such as collagen and the fatty myelin sheath that surrounds neurons. All of which can lead to degenerative disease. More benign outward signs of oxidative stress include wrinkles and "age spots" (essentially oxidized fat).
2. Inflammation - We have all at one time or another experienced acute inflammation when we have injured ourselves or had an infection. This is a normal immune response whose prupose is to protect the affected tissue from further damage and facilitate healing. It is chronic systemic inflammation which has become common in our modern world that is a problem and contributes to aging - and diseases of aging. Inflammation occurs whenever tissue is damaged. Today this can happen silently at a low level, but on a chronic basis. We are exposed to toxins and pollutants all day, every day. Sources include pesticide residues, mercury and artificial additives in the foods we eat, heavy metals, chlorine, fluoride and other contaminants in the water we drink, petrochemical-derived chemicals related such as formaldehyde and benzene in our cleaning and personal care products, and industrial and vehicle pollution when we venture outdoors. Individually, each of these might result in chronic inflammation but in combination they almost certainly do in the majority of people. Directly and through inducing oxidative stress these toxic exposures damage tissues and cause inflammation, which when chronic, only serves to damage tissues further as healing is never allowed to occur. Hence chronic systemic inflammation is a major factor in the aging process.
3. Poor Methylation - Another chemical reaction that is vital to our health is methylation. Basically this involves various molecules passing methyl groups (CH3) between each other with both molecules being transformed into something else as a result. Methylation is involved in the production of such vital biochemicals as DNA/RNA, neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and antioxidants and detoxifers including glutathione and taurine. Methylation relies on an adequate supply of folic acid and vitamin B12 (as well as other sources of methyl groups) and the body's ability to utilize them efficiently. Unfortunately, small genetic mutations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which reduce methylation efficiency are relatively common - making the supply of the right nutrients even more essential. Without adequate methylation DNA damage may occur (potentially increasing cancer risk), neurotransmitters are not produced in adequate amounts (increasing risk of mood disorders, neurological disease and dementia), and deficiencies of glutathione and taurine can develop - leading to toxicity, oxidative stress, inflammation...and aging.
What can we do to slow the aging process?
With a focus on the above processes established as involved in the aging process there are numerous anti-aging strategies we can employ:
1. Eat a balanced organic diet rich in antioxidants - fruits (particularly berries) and vegetables are an excellent source of antioxidants and eating a variety of different colored plants ensures you are consuming a wide range of different antioxidant compounds. Eating fresh organic foods ensures you are not consuming toxic chemicals and additives along with the nutrients you need.
2. Take a high quality antioxidant supplement - this should definitely include vitamins A, C and E along with alpha lipoic acid or R-lipoic acid. Each are powerful antioxidants in their own right and also help to preserve glutathione. Additional antioxidants to look out for include polyphenols such as quercetin and EGCG (a chemical found in green tea)
3. Drink filtered or (glass) bottled spring water - helps you avoid toxic contaminants that can contribute to oxidative stress, inflammation and aging.
4. Avoid exposure to toxins and pollutants as much as possible - besides eating fresh organic foods and pure water this would include switching to more natural cleaning and personal care products that are free from artificial fragrances and toxic metals like aluminum and lead. If you live near heavy industry and are unable to move you may wish to consider wearing a face mask with a carbon filter when outdoors.
5. Maximise you methylation capacity - this can be achieved by consuming a generous amount of foods rich in folic acid and vitamin B12; these include dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, asparagus, avocado, spinach, fish and seafood, red meat, cheese, eggs and liver. You may also want to supplement with the active forms of folate (folinic acid and 5-MTHF) and sunlingual vitamin B12 (for better absorption). Additionally, trimethyl glycine (TMG) - also known as betaine - provides another means to maintain optimal methylation.
Reference: Institute for Functional Medicine & Jones DS (ed) (2006) Textbook of Functional Medicine Institute for Functional Medicine
About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.