What we’ve learned about rejuvenation, oxidative stress, and slowing down the aging process
Wouldn’t that be incredible? To not age. How many of us aren’t chasing the fountain of youth? Let’s be honest. We faithfully take hands full of supplements, get injections, subject ourselves to tweaking surgeries, to “tighten” or “re-contour” our bodies—some minor, some major. Only to discover, it’s all an elusive endeavor. Through the ages this has been the case, mankind searching for longevity.
There is indeed nothing new under the sun.
Alexander the Great, pursued eternal youth while conquering the then-known world, all the while looking desperately for an apparent miracle river which could arrest aging. The Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, claimed in 1513 to have found the fountain of youth when he discovered a fountain in the present day Florida, in St. Augustine.
When I was 20, I thought, “you’re kidding me, I am youth!” At thirty I started wondering about that and at forty I realized, “uh oh!” Yes, it was happening. I was growing older. My eyes, for one, said, “absolutely!”
Why do we age? How does aging work? Aging is a systemic event. The “whole” body ages—it’s not only our joints or eyes or arteries. It effects everything: from our brains to our hearts, our skin, our knees, to our toes.
In each of our cells, we have 46 strands of DNA, which are coiled into chromosomes. Each of the chromosomes is capped by telomeres, which protect the former from fusion and degradation. Each time the cells divide, the telomeres shorten. Telomere-length has in more recent years been implicated to explain organismal aging—or mortality. Protect your telomeres, and you’ll live longer. Studies that have identified statistically significant linkages between telomere length and mortality had provided some support for this expectation. But perhaps it’s not that simple.
In a recent 2016 study, telomere length (TL) was compared to age, sex, and 19 other variables for predicting the 5-year mortality among people, older than 60. (Study subjects were in the Far East, Central America and the US.) They found telomere length had little discriminatory ability to predict mortality—it ranked 15th and 17th (out of 20)—even less than self-reported variables, such as mobility, global self-assessed health status, limitations with activities of daily living, and smoking.
This having been said, although TL may not be a strong predictor of mortality in older people, it could still be a valuable marker of health span, in age-related disease. What is more, eating a plant-based diet, definitely benefits your telomere length.
Although our brains only make up 2% of our body weight, it receives 50% of the oxygen we breathe. As we grow up and older, especially older, such an abundance of oxygen leaves us vulnerable to the damaging effects of reactive oxygen species (ROS), over time. ROS are derived from the incomplete reduction of molecular oxygen—such as we find in all living cells in our bodies—during the process of cellular respiration. Most of the oxygen is converted to water, but a small percentage form superoxides. The latter (ROS) are very reactive and, when in abundance, can cause cell damage and may influence lifespan.
The Sirtuins (silent information regulators—SIRT 1-7), are enzymes that keep our DNA wrapped up, and can modulate ROS levels, which enhances lifespan. This activity by sirtuins is enhanced, especially during dietary regimens known as caloric restriction (periodic fasting—don’t confuse it with anorexia.) The loss of surtuin activity has been shown to lead to the progression of neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s.
The pharmaceutical industry is aiming to develop drugs that can increase sirtuin activity. You can reduce suppression of these enzymes by limiting your dietary intake of AGEs (advanced glycation end products.) AGEs are found when fat and protein-rich food (meats), are exposed to high temperatures. Your method of food preparation matters—steaming and stewing is better that frying and grilling.
There is no cure or reversal of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease available. But it is, to a large extent, preventable. This is crucial to understand: we can prevent Alzheimer’s and its devastation!
Yes, we can do something about it. Especially how our brain and heart ages. And, science has shown over and over, what is good for our hearts, is also good for our brains. Improve your heart health and you also improve your brain health. When you reduce your chances of a heart attack through what you eat (yes, that simple and that difficult) and how you live every day (still the wonderful staying fit mantra), you also reduce your chances for hypertension, getting a stroke, developing diabetes and developing Alzheimer’s (dementia.)
Six things to do, to slow aging:
- Remain fit—lifelong. Walk, run, cycle, row, dance. Don’t sit still! Get a heart rate monitor and push yourself regularly. Keep your heart rate in the safe zone. Have fun! Slow down once you turn 110 years of age.
- Eat yourself healthy. Eat to live. Plant-based diet. Think Mediterranean diet. Limit meats. Limit dairy. Periodic fasting and calorie restriction. Lots of water. Junk food—if you must: once a month. Rather steam and stew your food, than fry or grill.
- Maintain a healthy weight. The focus is not BMI, but waist circumference and waist hip ratio. Fitness and what you eat, is more important. Keep a food log.
- Don’t smoke. If you do—yes, it’s hard to quit—get help—it’s not impossible. Learn how habits work. Get an accountability partner. Reward yourself—but not with food.
- Exercise your brain. Read wide: fiction and nonfiction. Play mind games. Play chess. Learn Sudoku. Learn another language. If you speak one, learn # 2. If you speak two, master # 3. Take up Spanish-dancing.
- Social interaction. Don’t neglect your friends. Be a friend. Be dependable. Get out everyday. Show kindness—to everybody (even to jerks.). Learn to smile. Go to dances. Volunteer. Join a faith community. A church choir can be healing and therapeutic.
Recent research in aging is pointing, not at the fountain of youth, but perhaps at the “plasma of youth.” The elixir of rejuvenation, has perhaps been found. Tony Wyss-Coray, at his Stanford lab (for one), has been showing that young blood (products) might help reverse aging.
- They were able to show that by sharing a circulation between an old and a young mouse (through a process called parabiosis), the older mouse’s brain function could be improved. No cells entered the old mouse’s brain, only plasma—thus indicative of blood factors that played this role.
- The argument is, as the body ages, so does the brain. It is blood that transports oxygen and nutrients to the brain. They found a striking relation between the levels of multitudes of blood proteins, biological age and chronological age.
- Similar effects may be achieved by administration of “young” plasma to older recipients.
- They have looked at the effect of giving plasma from young donors to Alzheimer’s patients, once a week for 4 weeks.
The ethics of using young blood/plasma for rejuvenation abounds. The possibility is there, that a black market can be created with young children, harvesting their plasma to “rejuvenate” (affluent) individuals. This should not be made off as only science-fiction. The powerful and the rich, all eventually grow old.
You can listen to Tony Wyss-Coray’s TED-talk here.
Science is still learning about age-related factors, and how we can modulate, alter and reverse them to modify age-related disease, but also increase longevity.
Supplements (in spite of the hype and billions made from it), is less effective than the quintessential healthy lifestyle and what you eat. Young plasma has to be administered every week, is very expensive, and opens a whole new potential ethical dilemma.
It seems, the secret comes down to the basics: Eat sensible. Good whole food. Not processed. More plant-based. And good old healthy, regular exercise—for the body and the brain. As well as regular social interaction. Remain connected, care, and don’t neglect your friends. As simple, and as difficult as that.
Why do we search far and wide for the elusive fountain of youth? We pay vast amounts for treatments that often have little proven effect to make us younger or healthier.
We don’t want to die.
And yet, all life eventually comes to an end—because we are (all) mortal. In medicine, we “fight” disease, prevent it, treat it, and reverse it. And yet, at a certain point, we have to surrender: death keeps knocking at the door, unrelenting.
It would be incomplete then, not to look at death, at the fear of dying, and at the possibility of life after death. Especially in our pursuit of eternal youth. For many, this life is it. There’s nothing more. Others believe in an eternal life, in a living God. And that faith lessens their anxiety about not living forever on earth; it fills them with a certain hope. Not that the latter free us from the responsibility to take care of our bodies and minds.
For now, it suffices to know, there is much we can do to slow aging, and live a life of purpose—even to beyond a hundred.
Forever young? Perhaps not, but we may find the fountain of youth in unlikely places!
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