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Quality of life—we all want it. And it’s affected as we age. With medical advances and improvements in the environment, average lifespan is now about 70 years. But as we live longer, it’s become clear that quality of life trumps quantity, or length, of life. Age brings physical changes. As your physical health declines, your muscles get weaker, your memory fades, your vision and hearing dwindle . . . What causes this? And can you change it?
There are lots of theories about what happens inside the body that causes us to decline as we age. Here are a few, some old and some new:
Finite Rate of Life
- Ancient philosophers came up with the idea that living things contained a vital substance, and when that substance was gone, the living thing would die. The body would age and become infirm as the substance was used up. People were born with a predetermined amount of this substance, which determined how many breaths or heartbeats a person could have, and then it’s just all over. Definitely not a theory that stood the test of time!
- “Neuroendocrine” describes the complicated connections between your brain and nervous system and the endocrine system, which produces hormones. As we age, neuroendocrine system function starts to decline, leading to an overall reduction in the amount of hormones, such as the reduction in estrogen that causes menopause. Scientists thought that this overall reduction in hormone production was what caused aging. But then they found evidence that the reduction of hormone production can actually lengthen life! This theory is still being investigated, and it’s clear that it depends on which hormones are reduced during the aging process. For example, a recent study found that people who genetically don’t have the ability to use human growth hormone seem to have some protection against cancer and adult-onset diabetes. This seems to indicate that this genetic anomaly provides some protection against age-related deterioration.
Cross-linking and Glycation
- After the discovery of DNA, scientists saw that, during the aging process, proteins, DNA, and other molecules in the body linked to each other in ways that inhibit normal activities. For example, glucose molecules start to stick to proteins (glycation), which inhibits enzymes from breaking down the proteins when they become damaged. These damaged proteins then stay in the body and cause problems, such as wrinkling, cataract formation, hardening of the arteries, and decline in kidney function. Scientists now usually agree that cross-linking and glycation can cause issues, but they are only part of the aging puzzle.
- Another theory of aging involves the ability of cells to continue dividing. Our cells renew themselves to regrow and regenerate tissues. But most cells can only grow and divide a limited number of times, somewhere between 40-60. Why? Scientists have linked this to a cell’s telomeres, small structures that form a sort of protective cap on cells. (Think about the little plastic caps that are on the end of shoelaces to keep them from unraveling—a little like that.) Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomere. Eventually, the telomere is gone, and the cell can’t divide any more. Telomeres can also be damaged by free radicals, toxins, and oxidative stress. Scientists believe that telomere shortening and damage is another piece of the aging puzzle.
- Your DNA is damaged every day. Free radicals, toxins, and/or mutations (the mistakes your body makes while it’s replicating DNA) cause constant damage. Eventually, the theory says, your DNA will become so damaged that aging processes will begin which will eventually lead to death. Your mitochondria are major players in the DNA damage caused by your own body—they produce free radicals as a byproduct of their energy production. As the DNA of your mitochondria accumulate damage, they decline in function and produce even more free radicals. According to this theory, keeping your mitochondria healthy can help support overall health as we age.
- Free radicals are a toxic byproduct of normal cell metabolism. If not cleaned up by antioxidants, free radicals roam the body, damaging DNA, proteins, mitochondria, and telomeres. And what’s the consequence of this oxidative damage? Aging. Most of the theories of aging mentioned above involve damage to one or more of these important structures. Free radicals are especially hard on mitochondria, pulling them into a vicious cycle. Free radicals impair mitochondrial function, which in turn leads to the mitochondria producing even more free radicals. Eventually the mitochondria become so damaged that they are unable to generate enough energy to meet the demands of the body, which can prevent the body from working optimally.
With increasing knowledge of the aging process and its associated mechanisms, scientists are finding novel ways to “biohack the aging code” to help people maintain optimal health over the years and preserve quality of life. What is biohacking the aging code? It means findings ways to –
- overcome the natural deterioration process that ultimately leads to the interruptions in health and
- protect against anything that might interfere with the body’s ability to function optimally.
The end goal—to help increase a person’s healthy lifespan, also called healthspan. Though many methods are being studied, one promising method focuses on establishing balance within the body.
Because the body is an intricate system that requires balance—something that largely depends on body input and output. Specifically, what goes into the body influences body output or how we feel and perform on any given day. Interruptions to this state of balance appear to be at the root of the changes we experience with age that often interfere with day-to-day life.
Therefore, to ensure optimal health and performance throughout life requires that you manage inputs to the system to maximize body output; something that can be challenging in today’s world.