by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Aging is an interesting process, taking on many different aspects as each layer of our lives builds upon the next, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Aging is just a part of life – naturally – we are born as babies and grow old. But how we age, how we adapt and adjust to the changes, and what we make of it, is all a personal experience.
Caring for women in a women’s health clinic has given me a wonderful opportunity to see and explore the aging process. Both my patients and my own family members have one thing in common: the desire to age gracefully, but also feel strong both mentally and physically. Desire to look younger is a given, but so is feeling younger — having vibrant energy, a sharp memory, and a strong, healthy body.
Without access to a real fountain of youth, we have to rely on both practical and evolving methods to help us through the aging process, along with plenty of wisdom and courage. We can increase our life and health span naturally, if we pay attention and gently nurture ourselves along the way. But where do we start?
We’re as old as we feel
We live in a culture obsessed by youth, and the first thing we can do is stop believing everything we hear about our age. The messages associated with growing older are everywhere, and it is up to us to sort out what really applies, and more importantly–what doesn’t. Aging does not automatically equal a decline in health, or looks for that matter. Active lifestyles and glowing health are actually brought about by the power of positive thinking.
As we age we face different challenges with physical functioning, social activities, employment, and other lifestyle changes. Maintaining a healthy attitude is as important as caring for our bodies. Staying connected to family and friends, exercising our brain as well as our body, managing stress, eating a healthy diet, and most importantly, engaging in activities we enjoy each day, all contribute to positive thinking.
Also, how we feel affects how we look. Body image is connected to how we feel physically, as well as how we think about ourselves. When we feel healthy, strong, and able, it shows, regardless of our age.
Understanding the biology behind aging
There is a time in a woman’s life when she discovers, almost as if by surprise, that she is not as young as she used to be. When that occurs varies for each woman, and the reasons are as unique as she is. Biological aging is a complex process involving cells at a molecular level. All living things are made up of cells that undergo a life cycle. The balance between a cell’s ability to renew, and knowing when to die, drives the aging process.
Our cells are programmed by DNA to manage all of the systems in our body. Research shows that a cell’s life cycle depends on a special region of DNA located at the end of our chromosomes called a telomere. Telomeres actually protect the genetic information stored within the chromosomes. Elizabeth Blackburn, a leading molecular biologist, describes the telomere like the plastic cap at the ends of shoelaces. The longer the telomere, the more frequently it can divide and remain youthful. But with each division the telomeres shrink, lose capacity to repair and regenerate themselves, and eventually disappear. During this process, cells can become deficient and defective, and even destroyed. That is when biological aging reveals itself in the body.
We don’t yet know if telomere length is determined inside our genetic blueprint, or is a function of age, or lifestyle and environment, but research shows it may be all of these factors. The leading hypothesis describes damaged telomeres with an inability to repair themselves, combined with oxidative stress (burdens placed on the cells by toxins and other agents,) along with inflammation, can make our cells simply fizzle out.
A study in 2008 actually linked shorter telomeres to cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and scientists are exploring telomere length as a marker for aging. Another study is underway looking at an enzyme called telomerase, an active and present force within cells which may help chromosomes replenish the DNA sequence that is lost each time the cell divides. Normally telomerase slows down over time, but in certain instances, such as invasive cancers, it actually becomes more active, and enables cancer cells to thrive. Healthy aging depends on the right amount of this enzyme to do its job.
When we are young, our long telomeres help enrich and protect our systems. For example, our heart and blood vessels are resilient, our immune cells fight off infection, our bones mineralize and stay strong, our hair follicles produce healthy hair, and our skin is elastic and supple. But as we age, our telomeres change form, and so does our body.
Biological aging can also be influenced by other things, including environmental and molecular free radicals – entities that are highly reactive and can cause damage inside of cells; maladaptive biochemical reactions; spontaneous errors in genetic coding; and nutritional issues. Some of these things are within our control, others are not.
Can we slow down or stop the aging process?
We can’t stop aging, but the good news is we can slow it down and can increase our health span. Numerous studies link simple lifestyle changes with longer telomere length, which is an exciting prospect! A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reported that women ages 35-74 who take a daily multivitamin had telomeres that were approximately 5.1 percent longer than those who did not take multivitamins.
Another study of women ages 18-79 found that higher vitamin D levels were associated with longer telomere length. Increasing vitamin D levels simply by sensible skin exposure to the sun, or taking vitamin D supplements, may help regulate oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
Another micronutrient recently linked to aging is vitamin K, which may help off-set our risk for diseases of aging, osteoporosis, and arteriosclerosis. This is an interesting concept. Known as the “triage theory”, a cell uses nutrients to function, and in order of importance. When a particular nutrient is in short supply, its functions may end up at the bottom of the cell’s “to do list”. The cell uses its most important nutrients first, and when some nutrient levels remain in short supply, thus restricting their use, changes may occur, increasing our risk for disease.
There are upwards of 40 essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and fatty acids that actually “talk” to our genes. The nutrients in food make a difference, and the Mediterranean diet is testament to that. This diet which, according to reports, can effectively lower mortality, includes low consumption of meat and meat products, moderate consumption of alcohol -specifically red wine, and high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and olive oil. We are learning more and more about how nutrition plays a key role in the messages our cells receive about activating – or blocking – disease in our bodies.
The more positive information that our cells receive from our choices in nutrition and lifestyle, the better our cells respond, and the less likely we will incur disease that we may be predisposed to in our DNA. Many of my patients are worried that they will develop a particular disease because it runs in their family. But more and more we are understanding how to stop these disease pathways before they start.
Hormones, resveratrol, and calorie restriction
There has been much in the media about celebrities using bioidentical hormones to prevent aging, such as the human growth hormone, and the reports have been positive. But there is controversy around this method, because we don’t really know the long term effects of using any type of hormone – synthetic or bioidentical – as a way to stay young.
Resveratrol is a potent antioxidant compound found in plants, especially the seeds and skin of red grapes (and hence red wine). In 2003, scientists discovered that resveratrol could extend the lifespan of fruit flies and yeast. They are now considering the effects of it in mice, which will lead to clues about how it may act in humans. There is still a lot of work to be done around this particular methodology, but the thought is that resveratrol may reduce the risk for diseases of aging, not necessarily stop the aging process. Some of the positive effects include protecting cardiovascular health, inhibiting cancerous cells, protecting against neurological disorders, and promoting healthy metabolism.
Calorie restriction is another mechanism long debated as a way to reduce the risk of disease and lengthen longevity. It is not clear how caloric-restriction really works, or how people can commit to this regimen successfully, and in fact, it could even backfire. Blackburn discovered in her research that women who yo-yo diet, or go on and off diet plans as opposed to making long term lifestyle choices, have shorter, no longer telomeres. The psychological stress of yo-yo dieting alone places stress on the body.
Recent research on both soy and resveratrol shows similar results to calorie restriction, without severe side effects, like feeling hungry.
What we can do right now
While science is working to uncover some of the ways we can increase our healthy lifespan, numerous studies link simple lifestyle changes to longevity. Eating a nutritiously-balanced diet, absorbing plenty of the right micronutrients, adding a quality multivitamin, reducing chronic stress, and getting plenty of sleep, can actually help telomere length. These non-medical, nonsurgical approaches are not only manageable, but prove successful.
These are just some of the things we have been telling our patients for years. A natural approach to health is always appropriate, and will certainly enhance rather than detract from our wellbeing. Here are a few ways to feel stronger, healthier, and beautiful as we age:
- Eat a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and low in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and processed foods.
- Feed your cells the nutrient-rich information found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, healthy oils, and unrefined grains. The messages your cells receive from a cupcake are very different from those of a plate of greens drizzled with olive oil and lime juice.
- Take a top-quality multivitamin, an omega-3 supplement, and consider extra vitamin D.
- Preserve the length of your telomeres and the ability of your cells to divide by providing antioxidant-rich vitamins and the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s. Finding a quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplement not only can do wonders for your energy now, but will pay off in the future.
- Exercise in a way that replenishes rather than drains you.
The benefits of exercise to aging have been well documented. The key is to find something you look forward to rather than something you avoid or even dread. It only takes a tiny spark of motivation to get started, and a tiny spark to keep going, so exercising becomes a habit you will find you can’t live without!
Explore ways to decrease chronic stress
There’s no doubt that chronic stress is one of the biggest health problems we face today. It contributes to inflammation and increases everyday “wear and tear” on our bodies. Make an honest effort to set aside time each day to lower your stress levels. You might try meditation, yoga, massage, or simply eliminating some unnecessary responsibility on your to-do list.
While the biology behind the aging process is complicated, the steps we can take each day to age gracefully are simple. Understanding how our body’s age is helpful, but if we maintain a lifestyle that supports healthy cell functioning, we won’t have to worry about what our cells are doing, we can just enjoy vibrant health at any age.