the Aging Process
Aging is a fact of life. There’s no getting around it. People, plants, animals, and all other organisms are born, live for a short time, and then die. The will to live is a basic instinct that all higher organisms share. Humans are no different, but unlike some creatures, mankind has the unique ability to actually do something about the aging process. Men have sought for thousands of years to find the secret to eternal life, from the Philosopher’s Stone to Ponce de Leon’s quest to find the Fountain of Youth. With advancements in medicine, agriculture, and ways of thinking, humans have extended their lifespans from only a couple of decades to well over one hundred years of age in modern times.
Aging is called senescence in scientific terms. In humans, the body is able to constantly renew itself by replacing old cells with new ones over and over again, but at some point in mid life, the process stops being as efficient. This manifests itself in the usual signs of aging which include wrinkles, graying hair, physical frailty, and a decline in cognitive function among other things. As a person ages, their body is no longer able to effectively and efficiently ward off stresses, environmental factors, and cellular degradation which all may lead to increased risk of disease. Modern theories on aging suggest that it can be treated like a disease and thus has the potential to be cured. Much research is currently underway involving the aging process and genetic factors that may help to slow down or even reverse the process.
By making some healthy lifestyle changes and being open to new lines of thought, it more possible than ever to defy age and live longer, both in body and spirit.
Biological Life Extenders
The first and most important thing you have to do in order to extend your life and age more gracefully is to get rid of all the bad habits and lifestyle decisions you’ve picked up over the course of your life. This includes eating healthy, exercising frequently, and getting regular medical examinations. A lot of people know that they need to do these things, but quite frankly, they choose not to because of laziness and denial. In order to make a change in lifestyle habits that have been ingrained for decades, you have to first be willing to make a change. It’s not good enough to just know that you have to make changes to your life before it gets too late. Instead, you really have to believe that you must make a change in order to better your life instead of giving in to what is easy. Unfortunately, the motivation for making real changes occurs to a lot of people too late in the form of a major medical crisis or untimely death of a loved one. It’s important to make sure this doesn’t happen to you by making a commitment to leading a healthier life.
In our world today, the word “convenience” is a hot selling point for a lot of food items. We’re bombarded with advertisements for fast food and time saving meals, but when we consume these things, we pay a price. Fast food is notoriously loaded with calories and sodium that can put us at risk for developing chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Also, reading the ingredients label on processed foods can sound more like a chemistry class than something that we would want to eat. Indeed, making changes in food choices and eating habits is our first line of defense against aging.
One of the easiest things to change in your diet is to cut out all sugar as much as possible. First of all, sugar is a major source of calories, which can add extra pounds to your waist line. Next, consuming excess sugar can put you at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which the body has too much glucose in the blood. Glucose is a simple sugar that fuels the body’s cells. However, too much glucose can cause serious complications. First of all, excess molecules of glucose in the bloodstream behave like shards of glass inside the body’s blood vessels. After years of having high blood glucose levels, the vascular system of diabetics is scarred. This can lead to poor circulation in the extremities that can result in amputation of a limb. Scarring of the body’s arteries and veins can also put a person at greatest risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure. Since the blood vessels are no longer as smooth as they are ideally, cholesterol can build up, forming deadly clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. Finally, having high glucose levels over a period of several years can cause the intricate blood vessel system in the kidneys to stop filtering waste and toxins out of the blood. When this happens, a person goes into kidney failure and needs dialysis or a kidney transplant. Although some people have a genetic predisposition, type 2 diabetes can be prevented in most cases by maintaining a healthy weight and BMI (body mass index). To cut out excess sugar from your diet, you can take the following steps:
- Stop drinking soft drinks. In the average can of soda, there can be over 10 teaspoons of sugar in one 8 ounce can. Instead, drink water or green tea.
- Don’t eat simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are carbohydrates made of small molecules of sugar that can easily be metabolized for energy. Most of the time simple carbohydrates are empty calories and lack nutrients. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates. These carbohydrates contain longer molecules of sugars that take the body longer to metabolize. One simple way to recognize a simple carbohydrate from a complex carbohydrate in the grocery store is to avoid white colored foods. Instead of white bread, choose whole wheat. Instead of white rice, choose brown rice. In general, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and will affect your blood glucose level less dramatically than simple carbohydrates.
- Don’t use artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners like NutraSweet and aspartame may not have any calories or sugar, but research has shown that consuming these sugar substitutes can make people crave the real thing and eat more of it when they are able to.
- Read labels closely. The grocery store is a virtual mine field when it comes to sugar. It is important to know how to read labels correctly to be sure you know what you’re actually eating. Make sure to check the portion sizes on the label because the portion size from which manufacturers gather nutritional data is often much smaller than what a person would normally eat.
A lot of chefs say, “fat is flavor,” which is true to an extent, but too much fat can be unhealthy. The body stores fat for energy, but excess fat has been linked to heart disease, cancer, and obesity, all of which can cause premature death. In order to live as long as possible, it’s important to eat fat in moderation. For humans, fat is the main source of cholesterol, which can cause blocks in the arteries, resulting in heart attacks. While everyone needs some fat, most of us get too much of it. Fats come in three types based on their molecular configuration: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. It is important to limit the amount of saturated fats that you consume, for these contain the most cholesterol and have the most potential for clogging arteries. Saturated fats can be recognized by the fact that they are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats include butter, margarine, lard, animal fats, and vegetable shortening. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Some examples of these are vegetable oil and olive oil.
Calories and Calorie Restriction
Calories are the amount of energy that a certain food produces when metabolized by the body. For adult men, the daily recommended calorie count is between 2000 and 2700 calories depending on your size and activity level. For women, the number of calories required is slightly less. In the modern world however, many people exceed these general guidelines and eat more calories than they need. This makes them gain weight. Obesity is at an all time high and is a major contributor to causing diabetes and heart disease, so it is important to maintain a healthy weight.
The only scientifically proven method of extending the lifespan of an organism is calorie restriction. Calorie restriction is the systematic reduction of calories that a person consumes in a day. The goal of calorie restriction is to lower the amount of calories that you consume by 20%-40%, while maintaining proper nutrition. The theory of calorie restriction comes from animal research that has shown that severely restricting the number of calories consumed by an animal had the dramatic and unexpected effect of extending their lifespans. For example in studies done on mice, calories were restricted by 40% which translated into an increase in lifespan for the mice of between 20-30%. Not only did the mice live longer, but they aged more gradually and had fewer chronic diseases. Research has also been done on several other animals including monkeys and has shown similar results. Because of the newness of the research and the fact that humans live for tens of decades, no conclusive human studies have been finished, but researchers are hopeful that calorie restriction in humans may yield the same results. The exact mechanism for what causes an increase in lifespan for calorie restricted animals has not yet been fully understood. One theory for the effectiveness of calorie restriction is that severely limiting calories activates a gene called SIRT1 in humans. This gene is responsible for decreasing the instability of DNA, which can increase lifespan. A molecule called resveratrol, that is found in grapes and red wine has also been found to have the ability to turn on the SIRT1 gene. In the future, it may be possible to activate this gene, increasing lifespan, by taking a pill.
Exercise is needed to strengthen the body. As we age, it’s increasingly important to maintain proper fitness. Not only does being fit help to maintain healthy weights, but exercise has been shown to reduce stress, reduce blood pressure levels, and increase mood. Getting regular exercise can also help the elderly to remain mobile, which is an important part in remaining independent in the later years. Exercise also releases neurochemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s chemical pain killers which can produce feelings of euphoria and well being. You should strive to get at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise every day for good health.
Routine Medical Check Ups
Finally, it’s extremely important to get regular medical checkups. Many people are afraid to go to the doctor or are in denial about their health condition. They may feel like it’s better not to know that something is wrong, but this could not be further from the truth. Diseases are generally much easier to treat and have more favorable prognoses when detected early. For example, in the case of diabetes, much of the severe effects like kidney damage can be avoided if glucose levels are properly maintained. Without going to a doctor and having routine blood work done, a person can go for years without knowing anything is wrong with them, and by then the damage could already be done. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Having a Positive Outlook
Having an optimistic outlook on life is an important part of defying the aging process. Research has shown time and time again that people with optimistic outlooks live longer than pessimists. One explanation for this is that pessimists place themselves under much more stress than optimistic people. Stress is a major aging factor. People under high amounts of stress have higher incidents of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Pessimists are also less likely to engage in healthy activities than optimists. Optimists also have more developed social support networks than pessimists, simply because being around pessimists can be depressing, leading to a lack of friends and life partners. It may be tough to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty, but making such a paradigm shift can dramatically improve the quality of your life.
Live Life with a Purpose
Our lives would be meaningless without purpose. Sure you could conceivable sit at the couch all day watching TV, but what’s the point? Studies have shown that people who keep from retiring live longer lives. They have lower rates of heart disease, less depression, and healthier immune systems. Why is this? Because, their job gives them a sense of purpose and satisfaction. It makes them feel important and useful. That’s one of the things people want most — affirmation. We want to be heard and know that what we are doing and what we think really matters. Living a life of purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be making a contribution to the world through your job. Instead, it’s doing whatever it is in life that makes your happy and gives you satisfaction. A lot of people go through life without ever finding out what their purpose is. They wander aimlessly, trying to live a satisfying and full life, without actually achieving what they want. In order to find your purpose and true calling in life, it is helpful to sit back and take inventory of your life. Write down on a piece of paper the things you value. This could be your family, job, material possessions, etc. Then think about what you do best and what makes you happy. Once you write all of these things down, take a deep look at them and start searching for patterns that connect everything. It’s not important how grand your purpose is. It doesn’t have to be something as lofty as bringing about world peace. It could be something as simple as planting a new garden or knitting a new sweater. It doesn’t really matter what your purpose is as long as it makes you happy and motivates you.
Numerous studies have shown a link between religious faith and longevity. They have shown that people who attend religious services regularly have less stress, engage in less risky behaviors, and have better social support mechanisms than those who do not attend. Having faith that a higher power is in control of our lives allows some people to fell less stress about their daily lives. For them, everything that they endure is part of a greater plan and happens for a reason. This can reduce stress levels, which can have negative health effects such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Faith can also help to prevent depression.
Keep Your Mind Active
Keeping mentally fit is just as important as keeping in shape physically. During the aging process, memory and cognitive skills may diminish. As the saying goes, “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” This is particularly true about the mind. Many elderly people are afflicted with some form of dementia. Although some of these cases are related to health issues, maintaining an active and alert mind may help to offset some of the decreases in cognitive abilities. The brain is composed of a vast network of cells called neurons which connect to one another and are responsible for controlling bodily functions and dealing with memory and thought. If not used, these cells can be lost and the connections between them can shrink, leading to a decrease in memory and cognition. One of the best ways to guard against this is to read. Reading can help to maintain and even build neural pathways that can keep the brain strong. Another way to maintain an active mind is to take new routes on your way to destinations. For example, when driving to the grocery store, take the back road. This forces your brain to think about where it is going and how to get to the destination more than if you were to go through a familiar route. Doing crossword puzzles is also an excellent way to keep your mind sharp. They force you to use your memory and to use critical thinking skills, both of which can help to maintain an active mind. Finally, you can take up a new hobby. Learning a new skill creates new neural pathways in the brain and can lead to a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Humans have been able to increase their lifespans by decades of the years through advances in modern medicine and nutrition, but it’s also important to consider lifestyle and attitude contributions to long life. Eating healthy and getting regular exercise can help to ward off chronic diseases. Research suggests that calorie restriction may help us to age gracefully and to live longer. However, in addition to these physical contributors to long life, having a good attitude and mental outlook on things can be just as important. The main culprit in aging on the emotional side is stress, which does its damage both mentally and physically. Perhaps one day scientists will find the proverbial fountain of youth and learn how to bottle it, but for now, changing attitudes, making new friends, practicing religion, and have a purpose in life can all lead to a reduction in stress, which will allow you to live a longer and healthier life.