What You Should Know About Aging
Aging is a natural process and not a disease. It is something we all will experience and, it is hoped, deal with in a positive manner. Ideally, numerous benefits attend old age: wisdom; the pleasure of watching your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren flourish; and having time to help others and to enjoy life fully.
But to many people, old age is synonymous with ill health and disability. That’s too bad, because most of the diseases we associate with aging—arthritis and other painful conditions, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, digestive problems, frailty, depression, sexual dysfunction, and fatigue—are not an inevitable part of growing older. These so-called age-related disorders are mainly caused by lifestyle factors, such as diet, exposure to environmental toxins, lack of exercise, and stress, along with genetic susceptibilities. If you’re young or middle-aged, you can prevent many problems by changing your habits now. If you’re older and already experiencing health difficulties, it’s not too late to bring balance and harmony to your bodily systems.
Normal aging occurs when old cells start dying at a faster rate than new ones are generated. Since the body’s tissues have a smaller supply of cells to draw upon, they begin to degenerate and malfunction. This process happens to everyone; it’s simply a natural part of life. It appears that our cells are preprogrammed to have a maximum life span. Yet the key is to prevent premature aging, wherein one ages faster than one’s genetic programming would have ordained. In addition, most people will agree that quality of life is even more important than life span.
In recent years, we have come to understand more about the highly reactive kinds of atoms or molecules called free radicals. In many cases, free radicals assist the body by destroying invaders, producing energy, and helping to carry oxygen through the bloodstream. When they are present in overwhelming numbers, however, they attack healthy cells, sometimes destroying them or mutating their DNA. When cells die before their time or are damaged, the normal aging process is accelerated, and the body becomes vulnerable to life-threatening ailments such as cancer, arteriosclerosis, and many degenerative diseases.
Damage to the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres affects aging. Shortening of telomeres affects the ability of cells to replicate.
It is becoming more and more difficult to keep the number of free radicals in the body down to a healthy level. Many aspects of modern living, including unwholesome diet and exposure to pollution, tobacco smoke, environmental contaminants, and even the sun, put us in contact with more free radicals than any previous generation ever encountered. Luckily, nature has equipped us with the means to neutralize free radicals in our bodies. Substances called antioxidants accomplish the task, and they’re found in many fruits and vegetables and in some herbs. A combination of healthful eating, combined with antioxidant supplements and wise living, can prevent excessive damage from free radicals.
In fact, poor diet and nutritional deficiencies—including overeating—are major causes of several age-related diseases. Studies on laboratory mice prove that a reduced-calorie diet significantly extended their lives. Research is starting to show that this is true for humans as well. In addition, diets that are high in fat and sugar lack many essential nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants. Poor diets also contribute to gastrointestinal disorders, which can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb important vitamins and minerals.
Sometimes, however, a good diet is not enough to keep deficiency at bay. As a result of normal or accelerated aging, older people are often simply less efficient at absorbing nutrients, even if they eat well. If you have reached old age, you will need to redouble your efforts to take in nutrients.
Aging is accelerated by a lack of exercise. If you don’t regularly exercise, you increase your risk for almost every kind of disorder, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis.
Hormone balance is a key to healthy aging. This is particularly true of the stress hormones such as cortisol and DHEA. A deficiency or an abnormal elevation of these hormones (particularly cortisol) accelerates aging and immune-system breakdown. In reality, all the hormones are important for healthy aging. Thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, as well as growth hormones, must be kept at balanced levels to slow the aging process. Researchers are finding that growth hormones may play a special role in slowing down the “aging clock.”
It is also important to keep blood sugar levels in the normal range. Elevated levels of glucose lead to a process known as glycosylation. This contributes to a weak immune system and speeds up aging. An example of this process is diabetes.
Finally, the effects of stress appear to play a role in aging. People who experience prolonged periods of intense and unresolved stress are more likely to develop chronic diseases. One major stressor is loneliness. This has become a big problem with the elderly, who may lack companionship and stimulation. Many older people cut back on social obligations, intellectual activities, and sports and exercise. Giving up these essential activities has been linked to a shorter life span and an increased risk of disease. It is up to all of us, whatever our age, to create families and communities in which the elderly are welcome, active members.