Aging: The Truth, The Twaddle

Published: March 6, 2013
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By Lisa Bertagnoli, Body & More

Anti-aging may be all the rage among aging Baby boomers and researchers, but you've got to split the difference between truth and fiction. Let's start here.

It's no wonder anti-aging is one of medicine's hot new areas of exploration. In 2011, not too far off the distance, one-third of the nation's population will start turning 65, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

That's Baby Boomers, the segment of the population born between 1946 and 1964. Like no other generation before them, Boomers as a group have the time, the money, and most important, the desire to avoid the diseases and lack of mobility so often associated with aging.

It seems that any age-related study that breaks new ground makes the front page, the evening news or both. But what's fact? And what's fiction? Can cutting calories really add years to your life? Do fiends called "free radicals" really wreak havoc on the body? What about Alzheimer's? Is it really the unstoppable scourge of old age?

To separate fact from fiction, Body & More talked to doctors and scientists around the country. Here's what they said.

Myth: It's possible to stop or reverse the aging process.

Reality: The blunt truth is only death stops the aging process.

That's why D. Allan Butterfield, a chemistry professor and director of the University of Kentucky-Lexington's Center of Membrane Sciences and Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, prefers the term "successful aging" to "anti-aging."

Butterfield, who's done extensive research into Alzheimer's disease (more on that later), lauds scientists who are exploring how the human body ages, even if they call their efforts "anti aging."

"They have a very good idea: how to help people live and age successfully," Butterfield says.

Myth: Disease is a natural part of old age.

Reality: Your sunset years can be as disease- and pain-free as your youth.

"Age should not be a deterioration of the body as it is today," says Dr. Frederic Vagnini, medical director of the Heart, Diabetes and Weight Loss Centers and the Pulse Anti-Aging Center in New York. Proof lies in the fact that nearly everyone has a great uncle or grandma who positively exudes youthful energy; in other words, not all old people are sick and in pain.

Dr. Vagnini blames the ills of stereotypical old age on, you guessed it … lifestyle choices such as smoking, lack of exercise and a junk-filled diet. And, because such lifestyle choices abound in Western culture, disease in age "seems to be the natural process," he says.

Myth: Pesky creatures called "free radicals" accelerate aging.

Reality: Those pesky creatures not only accelerate aging; they cause it.

Here's a quick lesson in body chemistry: Oxygen, one of the basics of life, fuels cells. The fueling process creates energy. Toxins called free radicals are the byproduct of that fueling process. Free radicals degrade cells, a condition also known as aging.

The body, resilient organism that it is, produces substances called antioxidants, which counteract the negative effect of free radicals.

According to Dr. Vagnini, a smoke-free, well-exercised body that's fed plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables produces more antioxidants than a junk-laden, unexercised body.

Myth: Calorie-restricted diets prolong life.

Reality: It may sound faddish, but caloric restriction studies have been going on for 65 years, and results indicate that eating less does indeed put off the symptoms of aging and extend life span in lab animals.

Though no formal studies have been done on humans, Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum suspects that calorie restriction would work in humans as well because fewer calories mean less energy-producing activity, which means creation of fewer free radicals.

The restriction, however, must be severe, to the point where you'd probably be hungry all the time. For that reason, the tactic "is more of a pain than it's worth," Teitelbaum says.

Butterfield agrees: "It's too much of a sacrifice. There's too much of life to enjoy."

The easier alternative is to make sure the calories you do put in your body offer maximum nutritive value. According to Vagnini, mom's advice remains the best: "Fresh fruits and vegetables supply natural antioxidants and phyto (plant-based) nutrients."

Myth: Alzheimer's is genetic, and nothing can stop it.

Reality: Only a small minority of Alzheimer's cases are due to pure genetics. "The inherited form counts for no more than 5 percent of cases," Butterfield says. "Ninety-five percent of it is caused by something other than pure genetics," though genetics do play a role, he adds.

Studies show that one of the main causes of Alzheimer's is the overabundance of a substance called amyloid betapeptide, which causes free radicals to do more damage to the brain.

"Everyone has this peptide; a lot of people have a lot of it and we don't understand why," Butterfield says.

Nevertheless, Butterfield believes (it's not established fact," he stresses) Alzheimer's can be prevented via vigorous and lifelong use of the brain. Mental activity, be it reading, learning a language, playing an instrument or engaging in a hobby, force the brain to make new synapses, which are the connections between neurons. Synapses eventually die, so the more you have, the better off you are.

"Think of (synapses) as a brain reserve," he says.

Dr. William Rodman Shankle, a cognitive science professor a the University of California-Irvine, also says Alzheimer's and other brain aging can be delayed, if not prevented: "If you can delay it long enough, you'll live your entire life without it."

Thanks to the brain's built-in repair system, it takes 30 years for the symptoms of Alzheimer's to appear, Shankle explains. "It takes a longtime for the damage to outrun the repair," he says. Alzheimer's Symptoms usually begin at age 70; therefore, delaying the disease by just a few years would push its onset beyond the average life expectancy, he says.

Shankle's studies show that low, regular doses of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as Advil or ibuprofen, can stave off the first symptoms of Alzheimer's by 3.5 years. Other delaying tactics include reading, writing and even leisure activities such as dancing. Long story short, pretty much anything but sitting on the couch and watching TV stimulates the brain.

Myth: There is a "fountain of youth."

Reality: There is, indeed, a fountain of youth, but you have to work to drink from it. It's the triumvirate of enough sleep, proper nutrition and regular exercise that mothers (and some doctors) have been advocating forages.

For instance, 30 minutes of daily exercise, the kind that gets you hot and sweaty and pushes your pulse over 110 beats per minute, increases the flow of blood and oxygen to every part of your body, says Dr. Kathleen Wilson, senior internist at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans. "I advise all my patients to exercise daily."

Dr. Vagnini agrees. "Do something that's fun," he says of exercise. "If it's not fun, you won't do it." Alternatives to the gym include shopping (if you walk, not drive, from store to store) and sex (three times a week seems to work magic, Vagnini says).

Speaking of sex, don't forget to add a little pleasure to life.

"Medicine has the bad habit of trying to take away pleasure," Teitelbaum says. "Sex is healthy, wine is healthy. Things that feel good are generally healthy."

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