Resisting the Aging Process

J. Conaway



      Increasingly, doctors and scientists concerned with aging are examining a person’s totality of experience: diet, habits, heredity, medications and accumulated problems. All these elements of the human entity may add up to a prescription for increased longevity, if various ameliorating factors can be made to work together, making the individual stronger and more resistant to disease.
       The success of modern medicine and health care has created an ever-expanding group of constituents vitally interested in all of this. People over 85 constitute the fastest-growing population segment in America, the best country in the world for octogenarians, where they live a decade longer on average than citizens of other nations. But the baby boomers are the real 500-pound gorilla of actuarial America, and they are vitally interested in aging or, more specifically, in reversing the effects of aging.
       One phrase being used for the all-inclusive perspective in medicine is "disposable soma" (soma means body in Greek). It is attributed to a gerontologist named Thomas Kirkwood at the University of Manchester in England, who suggested that aging is a figurative attic where our damaged cells and tissue are collected. Human beings, unlike other species, are not subject to the demands and limited mortality of life in the wild and so have a unique capacity for accumulating, over time, worn-out or imperfect parts. These must be mended or replaced if a person's years are to stretch comfortably into the future.
       The aging body seeks to shed these cells and to produce better ones. Drugs can make this easier and more effective. Hormone replacement, for instance, fits nicely into this view, except that some hormone supplements taken to make one more youthful can also trigger diseases that might not otherwise have developed, like cancer. Or so tests indicate.
       Research continues on hormone replacement for enhancing everything from immune deficiency to psychological health. But researchers are also experimenting with enhancing the life span of the cells themselves. "Telomere shortening" refers to the natural process whereby the body instructs certain cells to die off. By increasing the enzyme telomerase, which determines the telomere length in sperm and egg cells, scientists hope to someday make other cells live forever.

       This is a potential fountain of youth in a petri dish, but until the aging American can be saved by science he must find new holding actions against tired and damaged cells.
       The total body concept has produced some practical guidelines, like those recently put forward by Johns Hopkins University in its medical letter, "Health After 50." Pointing out that by the year 2050 most Americans will live to the age of 83, the letter makes specific recommendations for resisting the aging process.
       Foremost among these is not hormone replacement or cell manipulation, but exercise. Tests prove that men who regularly and strenuously work out can reduce their cholesterol levels as much as 27 percent below those of inactive males. This translates into better cardiovascular and respiratory activity, but it also affects bone mass, digestion, rest and attitude.

       We are not talking about walking around the block, but sweating through endurance training. The Johns Hopkins people recommend burning as much as 3,000 calories a week above the "normal sedentary baseline." That means jogging about four miles five times a week — a lot of exercise (and more than I get).
       Walking briskly for half an hour three times a week does help reduce blood pressure, but rigorous exercise is "the single most important anti-aging measure anyone can follow, regardless of age, disability or general level of fitness," according to Johns Hopkins.

       Diet is the next most important aspect of aging. Consuming a lot of fruits and vegetables halves the likelihood of some cancers and lowers the odds of developing heart disease, diabetes and gastrointestinal problems. Abandoning high-fat foods for low-fat reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. Five servings a day of fruit and vegetables are recommended, and two to four serving of low-fat dairy products for calcium, with daily cholesterol intake limited to 300 milligrams.
       Multivitamins should be taken regularly to correct the natural deficiencies in older people of vitamins B6, B12, and D, and folic acid and calcium. Lots of water is necessary. Older men are prone to dehydration and need six to eight glasses a day to keep the system running smoothly and efficiently.
       Smoking is out, since it spikes the risk of congestive heart failure, lung cancer and other problems. Alcohol is permitted under this regimen, but only one glass of wine or one drink of spirits a day, the most conservative recommendation I have seen.
       Excessive exposure to the sun is blamed for deterioration of eyes and of skin, both cosmetically and in terms of cancer risk. Stress hampers the immune system and so should be avoided. Again, exercise is sited as an antidote to stress, and as a spur to increased mental activity.
       Regularly challenging the mind can improve reaction time, a problem with older people, and help counteract short-term memory loss.
       One more thing. Unless you have a bleeding ulcer, are taking anticoagulants or have had a hemorrhagic stroke, take a baby aspirin (65 mg.) once a day. It could do wonders for your aging soma, say the experts.



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