Bette Davis said famously that old age is no place for sissies. Amusing, yes, and somewhat true. But with several ounces of prevention and a commitment to healthy habits, aging doesn’t have to equal physical decline. Some of the deterioration we experience in our senior years can be directly attributed to a lifetime of unhealthy practices, and most of us assume that failing eyesight, less than perfect hearing, slower movements and disease are just a natural part of aging. Yet, according to longevity experts, your body can stay healthy, flexible and strong for 100 years or more — if you treat it right.
When we’re young, our bodies fend off cellular damage with naturally produced antioxidants. But by the time we hit middle age, many of us find ourselves on the path toward disease and premature aging, as free radicals overwhelm our natural antioxidant system, causing cells to dysfunction or die faster than the body can replace them. Eventually, say Dutch gerontologists Gerbrand J. Izaks, M.D., and Rudi Westendorp, M.D., this accumulation of cellular damage inevitably leads to the diseases of old age.
Working hand in hand with free radicals, advanced glycosylation end products (AGEs) occur when a protein and a carbohydrate (glucose) are linked in the wrong way. As a result, protein becomes sticky and can adhere to the arteries, damage eyes and kidneys, and affect your sex hormones. The more AGEs produced, the faster we age.
A poor diet, lack of exercise and exposure to preservatives, cigarettes, alcohol and refined foods all can promote the development of free radicals and AGEs. But a healthy lifestyle and some well-chosen supplements can protect your cells and proteins — and give you an edge against aging.
Herbal Help for a Younger-Looking You
Although cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a traditional Peruvian herb that has been used by indigenous people for generations, new research shows it may be a powerful weapon against aging. Not only does cat’s claw boost immune function and thwart inflammation, but researchers at the University of Lund in Sweden have discovered the herb fights free radicals, reducing DNA damage. More important, during their clinical trial involving 12 healthy adults, the Lund team found that compounds in the herb actually enhanced DNA repair. While no adverse reactions have been reported, people with autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis and tuberculosis should use the herb with caution. Recommended dose: 350 mg a day.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) is a tasty drink that has gotten a lot of press lately, primarily because of its protective action against a variety of cancers, including oral, prostate, gastric and skin cancers. This super antioxidant reduces oxidative stress and also is credited with promoting cardiovascular health by lowering total cholesterol, making platelets less sticky and cutting the risk of hypertension.
If that weren’t enough, the polyphenols in green tea, espec- ially epigallocatechin-3-gallate, guard against periodontal disease and help protect the skin from premature aging by mitigating sun damage. Although most clinical trials use brewed green tea, a new study by the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that drinking green tea may not be as effective as taking a supplement of the extract. Better yet, the study authors note that green tea supplements offer large doses of polyphenols without the side effects of the caffeine found in the beverage. Recommended dose: 100 mg of green tea extract daily, the equivalent of three cups of brewed tea.
Russian researchers have found that rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) reduces stress and fatigue, improves memory, enhances concentration and physical fitness, and increases overall well-being. Rhodiola’s antioxidant properties stimulate the immune system, enabling the body’s own defenses to ward off the negative effects of stress. If that weren’t enough, new evidence from Kaunas University of Medicine in Lithuania points to this herb’s ability to bolster cellular resistance to stress-related damage. And preclinical data suggests rhodiola also might stop the growth of malignant tumors. Recommended dose: 200 to 600 mg of a standardized supplement daily.
Carnosine is an anti-aging peptide that’s created quite a buzz among longevity researchers. Made up of the amino acids histidine and alanine, studies show that carnosine reduces both AGEs and oxidative stress. In one study, researchers from China’s Harbin Medical University found that this peptide also can breathe new life into aging cells and help prevent cataracts and other age-related diseases. Recommended dose: 500 mg daily.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) produce hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins that regulate many bodily functions, in- cluding heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, fertility and conception. Prostaglandins also play a role in immune function and prevent the inflammatory response from getting out of control. But EFAs — especially omega-3 fatty acids — also are essential for providing the body with what it needs to manufacture cell membranes. What’s more, studies show that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and flaxseed, protect against heart disease, slow skin aging, prevent depression, improve cognition and ease osteoarthritis.
A healthy balance between omega-3s and omega-6s is important to reduce the production of inflammatory immune factors. A ratio of 4:1 is ideal — and the best way to achieve this balance is to take either 1,000 to 2,000 mg of fish oil or 3,000 to 6,000 mg of flaxseed oil a day.
Lutein, a powerful antioxidant, is one of the carotenoids credited with defending against age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) — the primary cause of blindness in older adults. Lutein is concentrated in the macula of the eye and acts like a filter to protect the eyes from potentially damaging ultraviolet light. In a recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 90 patients with ARMD were given either 10 mg of lutein, an antioxidant/vitamin supplement containing 10 mg of lutein or a placebo every day for a year. By the end of the study, visual function had improved in all of the patients taking either the lutein alone or the antioxidant/vitamin supplement. To protect against ARMD, take 6 mg of lutein daily with a fat-containing food to improve absorption. For more information on lutein, including dietary sources, please see “Eat Your Colors” on Page 26.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002) and a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.