By understanding some of the underlying principles which result in us ageing, we can make interventions to slow this down. The biological clock starts ticking at birth and gives us the potential to live to about 120 years - if we lived the most perfect life we could not expect to live longer than this. This is because Evolution gets in the way - in order to adapt to our environment we need a new generation of Homo Sapiens. If the older generation persisted we would simply fail to adapt to the changing environment and become too overcrowded for the planet. So the natural history is for us to die and pass our selfish genes down to our children who, of course, go through the same process. So although you may think I am advocating all sorts of unnatural supplements to keep us healthy in our old age, actually the business of being old is in itself unnatural. By the time we have bred and raised our children, we are on the evolutionary scrap heap. As you get older you have to box clever to stay well!
Why do we age?
I subscribe to the free radical theory of ageing. The ageing process is determined by our mitochondria which are inherited down the female line, so look for potential longevity genes in your mother and her mother. However mitochondria are damaged by free radicals. Free radicals are an inevitable product of normal metabolism. You cannot "burn" sugar in the presence of oxygen and not produce free radicals! Free radicals can also come from internal toxic stress, but in our increasingly polluted world also external toxic stress. We can see examples of this in our everyday life. For example, people who smoke have an accelerated ageing process - just look at their skins and the fact that they die younger from heart disease and cancer. So putting in place lifestyle changes to reduce free radical formation and mitigate the damage that results helps to slow the ageing process.
How to slow the ageing process?
The principles of slowing the ageing process emanate from the above understanding of ageing and they are:
To reduce external toxic stress - sugar, fags, booze, prescription medication etc.
To reduce internal toxic stress - not too much food!
To improve our anti-oxidant status (these are the key molecules that mop up free radicals).
Use supplements to heal and repair the body where damage has occurred.
Allow time for sleep when healing and repair takes place.
Exercise optimally to maintain muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness without wearing out joints, connective tissues and muscles. See Exercise - the right sort
Exercise your brain daily.
Detox regimes - these are now essential because we live in a polluted world and we all carry body burdens of chemicals. You can test for this by doing DNA adducts, Fat biopsy for pesticides or Volatile Organic Compounds, Sauna sweat test - measure toxic and trace metals (useful screening test) or Kelmer test (best for specific heavy metals such as mercury).
Fatigue is part of the ageing process - but it can be reduced by tackling mitochondrial function.
Keep an eye on thyroid and adrenal function - it declines with age.
Avoid Toxic Stress
Most people are aware of the sort of toxins that produce ill health. In order of importance these are smoking, sugar, (excess of which causes diabetes which accelerates the normal ageing process), alcohol, prescription medication, industrial pollution, pesticide residues, heavy metals in dental amalgam and jewellery (especially nickel), food additives, background radiation etc. I've probably forgotten a few! Not only do these chemicals accelerate the ageing process, but many switch on allergy and autoimmunity. Avoid.
Reduce Internal Toxins
The single most important factor proven to increase longevity is the amount of food we eat. Food is intrinsically toxic as well as being nutritive and getting the balance right is very difficult! The less we eat, ie the minimum to maintain weight, the longer we live. Particularly as we age, we need to eat small amounts of the best quality food we can find. This is to balance up our body's ability to digest food efficiently. If this does not happen one switch to a fermenting gut with all the problems that go with that! In modern societies, we are seeing people eating large amounts of poor quality food, which has the effect of accelerating the ageing process. Taking drugs such as proton pump inhibitors which reduce acid secretion results in bacterial overgrowth downstream and therefore more fermentation. See Fermentation in the gut and CFS.
Improve Antioxidant Status
It is very likely that much of the ageing damage is caused by low-grade inflammation, which is triggered by free radicals (produced as a part of normal metabolism as well as toxic stress). But poor antioxidant status will mean that these free radicals are not effectively mopped up and hang around to cause damage. The "front line" antioxidants are co-enzyme Q 10, glutathione peroxidase, and superoxide dismutase. These can all be measured by blood tests. The results are given in parts per million. These front line antioxidants mop up free electrons (ie free radicals which are highly destructive) which are released by normal metabolic activity and xenobiotic stress. These "free" electrons are then passed on to second-line antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin A and beta-carotene and these are measured in parts per thousand (milligrams). In doing this the front line antioxidants are recycled. The electrons are then passed back to vitamin C, which is measured in gram amounts - vitamin C is the ultimate repository of many "free" electrons, which can then be excreted safely. In the short-term, one can supply "instant" antioxidant cover with vitamin B12.
As well as ensuring that you have good antioxidant status by taking a range of nutritional supplements (see below), there are many other antioxidants in fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Make these your staple foods.
During our wakeful hours, we are constantly damaging our body and breaking it down. During sleep healing and repair takes place. Getting the balance between the two right is essential. If we get insufficient sleep then the rate at which we break the body down exceeds the rate at which we can heal and repair and our overall health gradually ratchets downhill. The average sleep requirement is for nine hours sleep between 9.30pm and 6.30am, a little more in the winter, less in the summer, with of course a certain amount of individual variability.
It has long been known that exercise improves longevity. It is exercise which determines the number of mitochondria in our muscles and hearts. Having good numbers of mitochondria mean we can function at a high level without undue stress. You can achieve this in just 12 minutes of exercise a week - everyone can do that! See Exercise - the right sort.
Exercise the Brain
Throughout life the brain makes one million new connections every second! How these are employed depends on how you use your brain! You need new ideas and new horizons for good brain health, together with social interactions (solitary confinment is a sure way to madness) for good brain health. Also see Brain fog - poor memory, difficulty thinking clearly etc.
Heal Acquired Metabolic Dyslexias
As a result of nutritional deficiencies, exposures to viruses and allergens, physical damage from the trauma of life, exposures to internal and external toxins, failure of antioxidant status and so on, we cause internal biochemical damage to the body. This may be to DNA and chromosomes, it may be to the molecular machinery that renews essential molecules daily, it may be to cell structures themselves or even organ damage. The overall effect is that we get what I want to call 'acquired metabolic dyslexias' - that is to say, our ability to make certain key molecules is impaired. There are several ways we can get around this. The first is that we should all be taking a package of nutritional supplements including a good multivitamin, multi-minerals, essential fatty acids, vitamins C and D. (See my nutritional supplements handout). Many enzymes go slow because of a lack of essential co-factors such as zinc and magnesium and therefore the metabolism works far more efficiently when these essential molecules are present.