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MEDICAL ADVICE: Becoming Ageless

Posted by Jenn on December 24, 2010

(Source: By DESMOND EBANKS M.D., Special to the West Hartford News; Friday, November 26, 2010)


Benjamin Franklin first stated that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. While that may be more true than not, there is another certainty we all experience during the time that we are alive; namely, aging. Technically, we begin aging from the time we are born. But those first couple of decades typically offers welcome improvements in our maturity, intellectual prowess and physical capabilities. Aging, as we commonly think about it, begins in earnest in our 30’s or 40’s. That is when hormones begin to decline and generally when we may first notice subtle changes in our appearance. At the same time diminution in our physical faculties, stamina and sexual potency signals the beginning of that relentless journey downhill.

Few of us want to just go quietly into the mist. Since the days of Cleopatra and Ponce de León, if not before, people have been seeking the elusive Fountain of Youth. The longer we can maintain our youth, the less functional decline we will encounter and the less likely we will develop a chronic disease and die. And, nearly all of us are dying of chronic diseases; not old age. Genetically, we are programmed to live for 110 or 120 years. To be sure, there is no shortage of dubious promises and untested remedies to increase longevity that are available for the naïve or ill-informed. But recent scientific discoveries are unraveling the secrets of aging on a cellular level and may identify ways to slow it down.

It has been abundantly clear for some time that a healthy lifestyle with regular, vigorous exercise and a diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of chronic diseases and premature death. According to the World Health Organization, 80-90 percent of cardiovascular disease and nearly 40 percent of cancers, the two top killers of people worldwide, could be prevented with healthy lifestyle modifications. But is there an underlying biological process that can be exploited to improve, restore and prolong youthful vitality?

In 2009, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, a molecular scientist and two of her colleagues for their work in uncovering the role of telomeres and the enzyme telomerase in aging, cancer and chronic diseases. Telomeres are snippets of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that function, in part, like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces, providing stability and protection to the genetic material. Telomerase is the enzyme responsible for rebuilding and maintaining telomeres. Most normal human adult cells do not have enough active telomerase to maintain telomere length indefinitely, so each time a cell divides, the telomere shortens until a critical length is reached, signaling cell senescence or cell death. Telomere length is currently the best measure of your actual biological age compared to chronological age. It is also an important barometer of your overall health.

There is pretty clear scientific evidence pointing to an important role for telomerase activity and telomere length in the causes of human disease. Regularly, new studies are published demonstrating the correlation between telomere length and health. In a recent analysis of a subset of the National Long Term Care Survey, telomere length was associated with disability, functional status, heart disease and cancer. A recent study found a correlation between telomere length and years of healthy life. An intriguing connection has also been observed between telomere length and levels of psychological stress. This is particularly relevant since individuals subject to chronic psychological stress show a shortened lifespan and more rapid onset of diseases typically associated with aging. Researchers in Italy recently found a direct association with short telomeres and an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer. The risk of dying was eleven times higher in those with the shortest telomeres. It then stands to reason that therapies directed at preserving telomere length may slow aging and retard the onset of age-related diseases.

So what can you do to age more youthfully? Exercise has been found to increase telomerase activity. Combining the health benefits of regular exercise with a plant-based diet in a comprehensive lifestyle plan was shown to increase telomerase activity by 30 percent and improve telomere length maintenance. One of the best nutrients for activating your telomerase is trusty omega-3. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed about 600 people over a full five years. They found that daily supplements of omega-3 fish oil significantly increased telomerase activity. Vitamin supplements have also been found to increase telomere length. Two separate studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported longer telomeres in individuals taking vitamin D, E, C and B12. Managing stress and maintaining optimal hormone balance also plays a critical role. Read the rest of this entry »

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