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(by the creator of the scientific based Biological Age Test)
When we talk about ‘longevity’, what we are really referring to is a delaying of the aging process. Aging is an unavoidable process of nature, but we now know that the rate of its development is variable. The anti-aging arena is now a big business – spending in this area is projected to reach a whopping US$42 billion in 2007. We are now constantly bombarded with marketing messages about anti-aging creams and anti-oxidant tablets and other purported longevity enhancing pills and potions. However, do any of them really work? How much of an influence is our lifestyle on our longevity? To answer these questions properly, we must examine the scientific research, which includes data on human longevity throughout history, and the more cutting-edge molecular research of the last couple of decades. As we look back through human history, we see that our average lifespan has pretty much improved since accurate records began, but that maximum lifespan has stayed pretty much consistent, at around 115-120 years. The average lifespan has increased from around 22 in ancient Rome, to the early 40’s by the mid 1800’s and has peaked at between 70 & 80 in developed countries today. These increases are due to a combination of factors; reductions in infant mortality rate, eradication of major disease epidemics and, more recently, better treatments for degenerative diseases. As our understanding of the inner working of the human body has improved, a lot of theories have been put forward to explain the mechanisms of aging and they have varying degrees of scientific support – amongst all of this research, a few leading theories have emerged: 1) 2) 3) 4) Telomere shortening Free Radical damage Inflammation Hormonal decline
Let’s now take a brief look at these theories in order to establish mechanisms by which we can counteract them, or at least minimize their impact. 1) Telomere shortening – this theory is all about cell-cycle control. The body is basically a huge ecosystem of around 50 to 70 trillion cells that interact to make us function the way we do. However, all of our cells have a finite life-span (the longest living cells in the body are liver cells which last around 2 years, whereas half of mass of your heart is renewed every 40-45 days) and are ‘programmed’ to die at a certain point in time. A process known as cell division (sometimes call Mitosis) is what keeps us alive and healthy – what basically happens is that the cell ‘divides’ just before it dies, ‘giving birth’ if you like, to 2 daughter cells, which help the body to stay healthy and intact.
Cell-cycle control is the whole process of cell division and cell death and telomeres play a key role in this. They do this by protecting our chromosomes that encode our DNA which subsequently ensures that the daughter cells are ‘born’ with the right characteristics. Think of telomeres as the glue on the end of your shoelaces; with each act of cell division, the telomeres become a little shorter. When they become too short, the chromosomes get damaged (the shoe lace starts to unravel) and this results in DNA damage, which ultimately results in aging. Good evidence for the critical impact of telomeres on the aging process can be seen with the congenital disease Progeria. The telomeres of the cells of affected individuals are ‘shortened’ at a very early age, to such an extent that Progeria sufferers generally die of ‘age-related’ illnesses by the time they reach puberty. Further evidence of the importance of telomeres is emerging from AIDS victims. The telomeres of the CD8 lymphocyte (critical in immune system functioning) are equivalent in length to those of the average 100 year old person, meaning the immune system is barely functioning. 2) Free Radical Damage – Free radicals are unstable molecules (for science buffs, they are lacking an electron) that are created in our bodies through oxygen consumption and the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and protein. It’s therefore obvious that there’s a significant amount of free radicals within the body. In fact, each cell in the body produces around 2 – 3 billion free radicals per day. When you consider that the average human body contains between 50 and 70 trillion cells, that’s an awful lot (between 100 and 200 billion, trillion) of free radicals roaming around the body. Normally that’s not a problem as the human body has a sophisticated defence mechanism to either prevent the free radicals from creating damage, or to counter their damaging effects. However, if we produce too much free radicals or have a poor defence system, these free radicals roam unchecked through the body and attack molecules by stealing electrons from them. This then makes the victim molecule unstable and this damage can spread like a domino effect. So, how are free radicals produces and how can we defence against them? There are 2 sources of free radicals: • Endogenous – produced inside the body, both from by-products of normal metabolism and from by-products of the body’s immune system • Exogenous – from pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation (sun, x-rays etc), certain foods (especially processed) and excessive alcohol consumption. As mentioned previously, our bodies have a highly developed, layered Antioxidant Defence System to combat the harmful effects of free radicals. • Prevention – this system works by inactivating molecules that are likely to produce free radicals, such as certain trace metals within the body. • Enzymatic antioxidants – this is the keystone of our anti-oxidant defence system. They are enzymes that are located within the cells and the neutralize free radicals as soon as they appear. Our genetics largely determine how robust this system is
and as we age, our cells make inferior copies of the enzymes, giving free radicals more opportunities to create damage. Chain-breaking antioxidants – these are obtained from our diet and work by neutralizing free radicals that have escaped through the other 2 lines of our defence. Vitamins A, C & E, the mineral Selenium and bioflavanoids (from fruit and vegetables) are all examples of these types of antioxidants.
If the anti-oxidant system fails to neutralize any free radicals, we have other layers of defence: • The P53 gene produces a protein (imaginatively named the P53 protein) that repairs ‘coding’ DNA that has become mutant due to attack by free radicals (if ‘non-coding’ DNA is attacked there are no genetic mutations). • Our immune system contains Natural killer Cells which roam throughout the body, seeking and destroying mutant cells that have slipped through all previous layers of defence. Very strong evidence for the Free Radical theory of aging comes from laboratory experiments where the control of free radicals can extend the life of multi-cellular organisms up to six-fold. This is augmented by research conducted by Dr Pearls from the Harvard Medical School, who found the Centegenerians (those over 100) had much higher than average levels of blood anti-oxidants. 3) Inflammation - This is increasingly recognized as one of the key processed in the development of degenerative diseases and the aging process, as it occurs at a cellular level. Basically, when our cells get sick, we get sick. Paradoxically, it is also the mechanisms by which the body protects itself, as our immune system fights foreign invaders, infections and injury by releasing inflammatory agents. This inflammation creates stiffness and swelling to maximize the time for immune cells to do their job. The key variable, in terms of the impact on our health, is the duration of the inflammation. When the underlying cause of the inflammation is not removed, the inflammatory response becomes chronic (long-term). Most degenerative diseases – such as Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, Cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer disease – as now thought of as being at least partly caused by chronic inflammation, This is why age researchers say that one of the best ways to improve longevity is to stay free of illness a much as possible; not because minor illness and infection kill us, but because they induce a state of inflammation and there appears to be a cumulative effect. So, what are the major culprits in terms of inflammation? Free radicals are a major cause, as are the following, which may cause inflammation directly or indirectly through production of more free radicals: • • • Stress Cigarette smoke Over-exposure to radiation
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Exposure to drugs and chemicals Trans-fats and chemicals in processed foods Elevated blood sugar Excess weight (especially fat around the stomach) Nutritional deficiencies (such as vitamin D) Nutritional excesses (such as Iron) Sleep deprivation
4) Hormonal changes - Recent research is focusing on the importance that age – related changes in our hormonal profiles have on our longevity. As we grow older, some of our hormones undergo a steep decline that has very strong parallels to many of the signs and symptoms of aging. These hormones include DHEA, Estrogen, Human Growth Hormone, Progesterone and Testosterone. Within the brain, there are age-related declines in certain neurotransmitters (Dopamine, Acetylcholine, Norepinephrine, GABA and Serotonin) which reduce cognitive function and impact on our quality of life. To better understand the effects of these hormonal changes, let’s take a brief look at their roles within the body: • • DHEA – the building block for estrogen and testosterone, it also acts to boost our immune system and brain function. Estrogen, Progesterone & Testosterone – these are often referred to as the sex hormones, but they do much more than provide sex drive. They help to build muscle, bone and connective tissue, keep us mentally alert and protect us from heart disease. Human growth hormone – this is often referred to as the ‘longevity hormone’ due to its anabolic (growth & repair) effects on the body. It stimulates our bones, nerves, muscle, skin and organs to regenerate and it full effects are not yet completely understood. Together with these declines, two hormones that act to accelerate aging tend to increase as we get older; Insulin and Cortisol. o Insulin – high levels of circulating insulin generally leads to insulin resistance in our cells. When this occurs, blood glucose levels tend to become chronically elevated. As well as pre-disposing us to diabetes, this leads to damage of body tissues by nasty substances known as advanced glycation end-products – fittingly abbreviated to ‘AGEs’. o Cortisol is the major stress hormone of the body and chronically elevated levels lead to numerous negative effects such as increased inflammation, weight gain, lowering of basal metabolic rate, suppressed immune function and unprogrammed cell division.
What does it all mean? It is now clear that there is no single process of aging – rather it is the cumulative effect of multiple processes happening in parallel. My longevity plan detailed below acts on two
fronts – reducing damaging agents and increasing the damage repair. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that acting on both fronts simultaneously will yield the best results.
Obviously the most effective way to enhance our longevity is to maintain the body in a pristine condition. It has been demonstrated that cell-cycle control is very well regulated in young people, but becomes increasingly volatile as we age. Dr Pearle from Harvard estimates that less than 30% of our longevity is controlled by our genetics. This view is backed up by the US Centre for Disease Control, who estimated the key determinants of health in 1995. They attributed roughly the same proportions to Genetics as the Environment (18% vs 19%), with the vast majority of health (57%) being attributed to Lifestyle factors. The researchers in the Okinawa Study, who spent 25 years studying the lifestyle habits of an Island with the biggest concentration of Centegenerians anywhere on the planet, concluded that Cardiovascular disease and most Cancers are 80% preventable. Results from these researchers and conclusions from other molecular studies have contributed to the formation of my science-based 10-step Longevity plan. The prevention part of my plan involves 3 steps; Step 1: Limit your exposure to toxins • • • The greatest threat to longevity comes from tobacco – only 26% of smokers live to 80, compared to 57% of non-smokers. In short, anyone who smokes is bonkers! Our bodies also receive significant amount of toxins from the environment – pollution, pesticides & insecticides (from non-organic foods) and chemicals in cleaning products, so ‘going organic’ will reduce your exposure to these nasties. Radiation is another major source of damage and we get it from many places – over-exposure to the sun (we need around 20 minutes of exposure per day to get enough Vitamin D), X-rays, mobile phones (it is my personal belief that the risk from mobile phones is currently very understated) as well as computers, television and other electrical equipment. The major point here is that it’s all cumulative! Recreational drugs, although a source or relaxation for many of us, damage our bodies in different ways. Alcohol, caffeine and all classes of drugs (Cocaine, heroin, cannabis, stimulants, barbiturates etc) have adverse effects on the body. Although the individual effects are beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that none of them are good for you (excepting the small positive effect on cardiovascular health of moderate consumption of alcohol, especially red wine).
Step 2: Manage stress – some stress is necessary to keep us motivated and to increase capacity (known as Eustress), but excessive stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, messes with your hormones and can slow your metabolic rate whilst increasing fat
storage. The topic of stress is huge (I will cover it in a future article) and chronic stress can be extremely debilitating for our health. Consequently, stress management techniques are crucial to anyone who encounters significant stress on a regular basis. Techniques such as Progressive Relaxation, Autogenic Relaxation, Transcendental Meditation (or any other Meditation type), Prayer, Guided Imagery, Tai Chi, Yoga and Exercise are all proven interventions for stress management. Step 3: Control your blood sugar and improve your sensitivity to insulin – think of the damage that sugary drinks do to our teeth (which have a tough enamel coating) and you will start to get some idea of the effects that high circulating blood glucose can do to our organs and cells (which have no tough enamel coating) over the years. Controlling our blood sugar and insulin levels is a pretty straight-forward process of regular exercise and a healthy diet. There is much debate over what is a ‘healthy diet’, but steering clear of refined carbohydrates is the most important for controlling blood sugar. Every bout of exercise can improve insulin sensitivity for over 24 hours, so regular is the buzzword when it comes to exercise in this context.
Increasing Damage Repair
The remaining 7 steps in my plan are all about enhancing the mechanisms that repair the damage that is constantly occurring within the body; Step 4: Build Your Immune System & Anti-oxidant defences - It is clearly very important to protect and support our immune system and other body defences as much as possible and in terms of nutritional support, there is much that we can do. The following is a (by no means exhaustive) list of foods that are good for immune function, antioxidant defences and processes of digestion: • Antioxidants – they help to combat one of the biggest accelerators of the aging process – free radicals! Antioxidants are found in abundance in fresh fruit & vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Happily, chocolate is also high in antioxidants, as are tea (especially green) and coffee (decaffeinated varieties are preferable!). If you are over 50, you should also consider taking a multi-vitamin supplement on a daily basis to improve immune function, due to a combination of natural decline and tendency towards restrictive diet from this age. Omega 3 fats – there is increasing amounts of data about the anti-inflammatory properties of omega 3 fats. Get them from fatty fish (easily the best source), flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, soybeans, dark green vegetables and walnuts. Fiber – this keeps our digestive tract in good order, enhancing the absorption of nutrients and avoiding toxin release from the build-up of rotting foods in a suboptimal digestive tract. The best sources of fibre are psyllium husk, bran, grains, corn & vegetables (insoluble) and oats, rice, legumes, fruit & vegetables (soluble) – both types are required to keep things moving along smoothly.
Step 5: Get regular health checks (especially after the age of 40) – advances in medicine are such that many degenerative diseases can be eradicated or at least controlled when they are detected early in their development. Your doctor can perform a variety of tests to check on your overall health. In addition to the standard tests of blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure, it is a good idea to have your doctor perform a thyroid check, liver & lung function tests, a test for inflammation (such as ESR or, preferably, CReactive Protein) and homocysteine (an amino acid linked to heart disease). Although they often do not point to anything specific, you will know that something is wrong on your insides if levels are elevated. As you approach middle age, it may be worthwhile to check your hormone levels – hormone replacement therapy is not just for women (your doctor will advise you on the pros and cons). Anyone over 40 (especially males) should ideally undergo a 12-lead ECG stress test, the best way to pick up early heart abnormalities. Other important tests are a Skin Cancer check for all, Uric acid & Prostrate check for males and a Mammogram & Iron check for females. Step 6: Get plenty of Cardiovascular exercise – ideally involve at least five 30 minute sessions per week. If you don’t like gyms or dedicated exercise, ensure you take at least 70 000 steps every week. Being physically fit is one of the most effective ways to reduce chronic inflammation, thus reducing our speed of aging. Recent research has confirmed what many experts have believed for years – that intense, interval exercise (anaerobic in nature) is more beneficial to the body than long-duration, lower-intensity aerobic exercise. Having said that, you must build up to this intensity level if you are not accustomed to strenuous exercise, as a heart-attack will undo all of your good work! Cardiovascular exercise also has massive benefits to your mood and has been shown to improve cognitive functioning. It appears that these benefits are enhanced as you age. You may recall that levels of neurotransmitters (communication hormones) decrease as we get older – low levels two of these (norepinephrine and serotonin) are strongly linked with depression, which may explain why rates of depression increase with age. The good news is that exercise boosts levels of both of these neurotransmitters and has shown to help alleviate depression as well as helping to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Cardiovascular exercise also has a strong anti-inflammatory effect – fit and lean produce much less inflammatory agents than unfit and overweight people. They also have much less risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia and other degenerative diseases. It also helps to improve your body’s anti-oxidant defence mechanism, which counters the harmful affect of free radicals – unless you are an endurance athlete. In this case, the very high levels of exercise significantly increase free radical production and thus inflammation, which is why endurance athletes should consume lots of extra anti-oxidants (preferably in the form of fruit and vegetables). Step 7: Perform at least 2 strength training sessions per week – One of the most significant conditions in the aging process is Sarcopenia, or muscle wasting disease. As we age most people respond by becoming more sedentary; this accelerates the aging process and particularly the development of degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular
disease and diabetes. Additionally, this loss of muscle strength, power and co-ordination makes you more susceptible to falls, which often result in serious fractures in older people. One frightening statistic is that around 70% of people aged 70 or over, who suffer a fractured hip will die within 5 years! Other benefits of strength training are that it will improve body composition, increase metabolic rate and, most importantly, keep your levels of anabolic hormones (growth hormone, testosterone, DHEA) from falling too low. If you don’t like strength training, learn to, because you’ll like chronic disease even less. Step 8: Drink plenty of water – being dehydrated puts stress on all of your cells. We can go for months without food, but only a few days without water - enough said! Aim for 30 ml per kilo of bodyweight (i.e. around 2 litres if you weigh 70kg). Remember that caffeine (in coffee, tea & soft drinks) is a diuretic, as is alcohol, so you must drink extra to counter the dehydrating effects of these drinks. Step 9: Sleep yourself to good health – there has been a plethora of research into sleep physiology in the last 2 decades and we now know a lot about the detrimental effects of chronic sleep debt. Unlike dolphins, which have the unique ability to let the right and left brain hemispheres alternate their sleep cycle so that they are always awake, we humans have to let both hemispheres sleep at once. Thus, the brain can recover from the day’s exertions, but that is only the start of the story. Sleep is so important to proper bodily function that Dr John Lang, chairman of Good Health Solutions (Australia’s biggest Corporate Health Company), refers to it as the fifth pillar of health (along with exercise, sound nutrition, stress management and avoiding smoking). Our research into sleep is so extensive that there is an International Classification of Sleep Disorders, totaling 48 different sleep disorders! Our sleep cycle follows a circadian rhythm (from the Latin words circa, for about, and ada, for a day) of between 24 and 25 hours (modern living adjust it to 24 hours). This cycle is regulated by the hormone melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland in the centre of the brain. However, within the circadian cycle, an ultradian rhythm of around 90 minutes exists, meaning that there is around 90 minutes between peaks of either energy or sleepiness – this ultradian rhythm also governs which stage of sleep we are in at any given moment, of which there are 5; • • • Stage 1: Transition from wakefulness to sleep Stage 2: Light sleep, characterized by certain brain waves Stage 3 & 4: The deep stages of sleep, often called slow-wave sleep due to the nature of brain-wave activity. These 2 stages are crucial for our physical and psychological repair, as the body secretes many growth and repair hormones. The most critical of these is growth hormone, as it has wide-ranging effects on cellular repair and regeneration, immune function, muscle growth, bone density, connective tissue and even asthma. Stage 5: REM sleep. Characterized by rapid eye movements and increased brain activity, REM sleep is now known to be essential in learning, memory and
emotion. We get more of this type of sleep at the end of the night, which is why we function much better if we wake naturally after a full night’s sleep. In short, sleep is essentially an anti-aging activity and most of us need between 7 and 8 hours per night to function optimally. It is interesting to note that we sleep an average of 2 hours less (7 vs 9 hrs) than we did 100 years ago. The importance of sleep is highlighted by the fact that nearly 2% of all GP consultations are about sleeping problems. Around half of all workplace accidents involve fatigue and sleep disturbance plays a significant role in disease, injury and poor performance. A good night’s sleep will come much easier if you develop a bedtime routine, just as it works for babies. The key components to your routine should involve; • • • Consistency – try to go to bed and wake up at the same time. Random late nights and early mornings or lie-ins can mess with our Circadian rhythm of sleep. Regulate stimulant use – Caffeine should be avoided after around 3 or 4pm, as its effects last for hours. Alcohol has a negative effect on our quality of sleep and the temptation to drink yourself to sleep should definitely be avoided. Wind down – dim the lights an hour or 2 before bed, as that will send a signal to the brain that darkness is approaching. TV should be avoided in the half an hour before retiring as the pixels in a TV screen stimulate the brain. The final 30 minutes should involve some sort of relaxation. Make your bedroom a sleep haven – if you have a television in there, get rid of it. The room should also be dark and cool, as this will help facilitate sleep. Relax into it – once in bed, methodically relax all your muscle groups and do some deep diaphragmatic breathing (into the belly rather than the chest), with slow, even breaths. Plan for disturbances – if you do wake up, do what you need to on autopilot. Try to avoid turning on lights and resume your relaxation techniques as soon as you can. Switch off your RAM – many people find problems sleeping because their heads are full of thoughts about the day and what needs to be done tomorrow. The use of a dump pad will help. This is a notebook that you use to write down everything of concern, which gives a bit of closure to the subconscious and facilitates relaxation.
• • • •
Step 10: Be positive - there is so much evidence that positive thinking has a beneficial effect on your longevity and a new branch of science, known as epigenetics, is telling us why. We now know that the environment has a huge impact on the functioning of our cells, through the production of hormones and electrical signals that influence both cellular actions and our DNA. The placebo effect is also an indicator of the success of mind over matter, so if you’re a ‘negative nelly’, then check the resources section for help in reframing your thoughts.
A Ray of Hope for the Hedonists
It’s pretty obvious that for some people to implement all of these changes, they would feel like their life was taken over by the fun police. However, if you’re in that category, don’t panic – a new scientific theory, HORMESIS, has emerged in recent years and is gaining credibility. Hormesis is the term for generally-favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. A pollutant or toxin showing hormesis thus has the opposite effect in small doses than in large doses. This is because the body produces substances such as DNA repair enzymes and heat-shock proteins to counter the effects of the harmless toxins and it appears that they may overcompensate for the damage, thus making our bodies more resilient. Just remember – the key concept is low doses of toxins! Further Reading & Resources 1. Re: Life, by Dr John Lang. Mc Pearson’s Printing Group, Mulgrave, VIC. 2. Molecules of Emotion, by Dr Candice B. Pert. Scribner, New York. 3. The Power Of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW. 4. The Biology of Belief, by Dr. Bruce Lipton. Elite Books, Santa Rosa, CA. 5. Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel By Changing The Way You Think, by Dr Dennis Greenberger & Dr Christine Padesky. The Guildford Press, London. 6. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Basic Books, New York. 7. www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu Paul Taylor offers health and fitness professionals a biological age test software to test a persons biological age compared with their chronological age. Paul Taylor Bio A former Royal Navy Aircrew Officer, Paul is an accredited and practicing Exercise Physiologist and Nutritionist. He has combined his years of University training with his interests in neuro-science & quantum physics to develop an integrated approach to health and well-being that he calls Scientific Holism, evidence based holistic health that integrates both the physical and mental components of the self. Paul is Owner/Director of the The Personal Training Academy (an International Fitness Certification company offering personal trainer courses), part-time University Lecturer in Exercise Science, Radio Presenter, International Fitness presenter and Author (regular contributor to PTontheNet, Ultra-Fit Magazine, Fitness Australia, and Women's Health & Fitness). In addition to his extensive background in health and fitness, Paul has a proven track record in leadership, management and dealing in high-pressure situations, through his roles as an Airborne Anti-submarine Warfare Officer and a Helicopter Search-And-
Rescue Navigator with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. He has also undergone rigorous survival and resistance-to-interrogation training which, when combined with his knowledge of physiology, makes him a true expert in stress and its effects on both body and brain. He also runs high-performance programs for some of the top executives of the National Australia Bank through the Corporate Health section of this site. Paul has been invited to present at the inaugural Meeting of the Minds, an International event held in Denver, Colorado, that brings together the top 26 Health & Fitness Educators in the World. Qualifications BSc Hons MSc Exercise Science MSc Human Nutrition American College of Sports Medicine-certified Health & Fitness Instructor Cert IV Master Trainer Cert IV Workplace Training & Assessment
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