Anti-Aging Medicine: Fact or Fiction?

Anti-Aging has become sort of a hot topic in the last few years. Not since Ponce de Leon’s failed quest for the fountain of youth and immortality has this gotten so much attention. New offices take root day after day in all parts of the United States promising quick and simple reversal of what many of us consider the most natural and inevitable process in the world: Aging. Techniques range from the use of hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone, and estrogen to a wide variety of supplement regimens that may require us to take up to 60 pills a day. The basic idea behind all of this is to create a perfect balance of hormones and nutrients inside our bodies at all times, thus allowing our body to function to its maximum, young, potential at all times. Presumably at 25 years of age our hormone levels and absorption of trace elements such as zinc is much more effective than at the age of 65 when aging has caused both our hormones and our capacity to absorb and use up nutrients properly to diminish. The premise is to give your 65 year old body the same hormone and nutrient levels it had when it was 25… and thus making you feel 25.

The first problem this sort of medicine encounters is the safety issues with estrogen and growth hormone use. Both have been linked to increased risks of cancer. Human growth hormone (HGH) has also been linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Detractors also argue that the supplement regimens offered by these physicians have never been proven to work. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study backs this notion arguing that vitamins, minerals, and enzymes found in fruits and vegetables do not individually (in supplement form) provide the same benefits as does the natural combination and interactions of each one within the whole food itself. To be fair, quantifying the benefits one would receive from such a supplement cocktail would take a monumental research effort spanning decades. Since vitamins do not require FDA approval or a patent undertaking such a project promises little financial incentive. Hence the evidence becomes mostly anecdotal (my friend did this and felt great).

At this point you may have made up your mind about how you feel about anti-aging medicine and I am not writing to convince you either way. What I would like to point out is how, fads and quackery aside, they may be on to something. Ever since modern medicine began to make exponential improvements in healthcare and treatment of previously fatal disease our life expectancy has gone up significantly. In 1940 it was 60 years for males. In 2010 it was 76. There were essentially 2 major killers in civilized countries before the advent of antibiotics and life saving treatments: Infection and “old age.” Old age is not actually a pathological condition, though. What we have always meant by “old age” are the chronic conditions associated to “old age” such as heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and dementia. In the last 40 years there has been a marked incerase in the incidence of these chronic aging conditions. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is simply that we are living longer than 40 years ago, hence we are more likely to develop these chronic conditions since we are actually living longer. The second is our horrendously unhealthy diets composed of mostly refined sugars and processed foods. The third is our movement from physically demanding factory jobs to sedentary desk jobs. There may be other reasons, but these are the ones that stand out. Naturally with the increased incidence of these conditions pharmaceuticals have also had a boon treating the same. Here we can find the financial incentive we were lacking in our last paragraph. An incentive to treat each of the chronic conditions of aging rather than tackle the one thing that causes all of the diseases: Aging (because of course targetting the source of ALL the diseases provides little financial incentive). When we think about it this way Aging IS the main cause of most of these conditions. Sure radiation causes cancer, but so does aging (as presumably repair mechanisms in our body become more deficient). In fact most cancers are caused by aging, not radiation. So the argument is therefore why not treat aging which is the root of all other evils?

While the anti-aging regimens discussed above still do not have the scientific research to backup their claims there are other remedies that are very well documented to indeed slow aging (and therefore the diseases that come with it): Healthy eating and exercise. As we all know eating healthy whole foods helps prevent basically everything. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, hypertension are all diseases that come with aging, but are accelerated by poor nutrition, stress, and a sedentary lifestyle. We do not need to look further than the rising number of children developing Type II Diabetes; formerly a disease that only occured… with age. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain a plethora of micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals which have powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are compounds that help manage the oxidative stress that builds up in our body constantly. As we age there is a buildup of oxidative damage in our organs that ultimately lead to chronic diseasese such as Alzheimers and Coronary Heart disease. Aging IS oxidative stress. Eating foods high in antioxidant content help slow down this process. Conversely eating less of high cholesterol/high sugar foods (which are the two main sources of the oxidative damage) will also help slow down the process.

Exercise has also shown to help in several ways. During vigorous exercise the body actually suffers plenty of oxidative damage in the form of lactic acid buildup (a by product of our metabolism under extreme conditions). Thankfully we do not have to rely solely on food to help us fend off oxidative stress. Internal antioxidant producing pathways are strengthened when we exercise regularly (particularly the Gluthionine pathway); leading to a higher natural antioxidant production within our bodies. Exercise also helps us in a more subtle way. When we DO NOT use parts of our body they become atrophied. If we don’t ever use our leg muscles they will lose mass and eventually lose functionality. If we dont use our heart; the same thing happens. Constantly demanding our muscles and organs to work upregulates a whole network of pathways that help better maintain the function and efficiency of each organ (since of course the body will invest energy where it is needed). This is the reason why cyclists have a resting heart rate of 38 bpm while we have one of 70. Their hearts have become more efficient and they can now pump enough blood to their bodies with only 38 beats while our hearts require double the amount. This is also the reason why Alzheimers diagnosed in its early stages is now being treated with… Learning a new language. The idea simply being that stimulating the brain so strenuously (as is learning a new language) will help slow down the onset of oxidative brain disease by increasing the body’s focus on maintaining the functionality and efficiency of the brain.

There are two other methods that have recently gotten a lot of attention and studies have shown they have some promise. The first one is known as Calorie Restriction. This is literally… eating few calories. Studies by Dr. Mark P. Mattson, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s (NIA) Laboratory of Neurosciences have found that this method improves glucose metabolism, protects neurons from stroke, and prolongs life in rats. These effects have also been documented in humans. This is likely an evolutionary mechanism that increases chances of surviving some stressful environmental or life event. During a famine, for example, it would be particularly important for humans to be able to survive until food was once again available. Hence the body focuses most of its energy into repairing any damage and maximizing survival so reproduction can then occur when conditions are more adequate to feed offspring. Intermittent fasting also has similar effects to calorie restriction.

The last method, and perhaps the one you will all be happiest to hear about, is a little compound called Resveratrol. This compound is found in red wine. Unfortunately there have been no human studies attesting to this compound’s ability to prolong life, but it has nearly doubled the life of some short lived fish and nematodes. More importantly, the compound does have some well documented effects in mammals. In 2008 Cornell University reported that Resveratrol significantly lowered plaque buildup in animal brains. The compound has also been linked to better blood glucose level control as well as anti-inflammatory effects. All of which are useful in preventing age related chronic disease. So for now help yourself to a glass of red wine with a side of one of the foods below and stay away from the hormones… it may be your best bet to achieve immortality.

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