As we age, most of us develop one or more dreaded diseases: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, memory loss, joint pain, fragile bones, cataracts, etc. These are called age-related disorders because they often afflict one in old age. We will discuss how to prevent, postpone or control their development in this article. The aim is simple: live long and disease-free.
In simplest terms, preventing such diseases would mean avoiding ageing. Or more specifically, preventing ageing of the related organs. That is not about just looking young, nor does it mean becoming immortal in some way. It means slowing down the degeneration of various body organs enough that you don’t face the corresponding diseases in your lifetime. For example, memory loss is inevitable with age. But can you slow down the loss enough that it does not hamper your normal life while you are alive?
On the other hand, many people die due to one of the age-related disorders. By preventing or postponing its onset, can you increase your longevity? Combining the two, can you live long and disease-free?
Let’s look at why our bodies and organs age so that we can figure out where to intervene.
Causes of Ageing
Our body as well as its individual organs degenerate or weaken over a period of time due to three reasons: genetic, natural and man-made.
Our cells have a sort of a biological clock. It is written in our genetic code, the DNA. That decides how our cells and organs function and eventually, how they break down, causing ageing. The science is rapidly evolving here and hopefully, one day, we will be able to control this form of ageing.
For this article, we will consider such ageing unavoidable and acceptable. We will, instead, focus on controlling certain natural and man-made factors that accelerate ageing faster than our genetic limits.
If you trip and fall, you may get a bone fracture or a joint cartilage rupture. Similarly, if you use mobile or computer screens for long hours, your eyes may degenerate weakening eyesight. Eating processed foods can damage the heart while eating too many simple carbohydrates may weaken the pancreas. These are the factors you can control to delay organ and body ageing.
Amongst natural causes, there are many body processes and reactions that create harmful waste products. Some of those toxic chemicals are called free radicals. They have an ability to damage many body parts, such as proteins, fats, cell membranes and even cell DNA. That can permanently damage the functions of a cell, and over a period of time, of the whole organ.
The most prominent of destructive free radicals is the body process that is actually the source of our life: energy production. In each of our cells, the fuels such as glucose and fatty acids are burnt to generate energy, which helps the cell to perform its functions. However, this energy generation process is just like the fire we light for cooking. Such blazes spew out harmful fumes, smoke and soot. Similarly, when our body cells burn their fuel, it generates a lot of damaging free radicals. How ironic it is that the process that gives us life, also gives us degeneration, disease and eventually, death!
Our body is not defenceless against this damage from free radicals. It has its own compounds called antioxidants that douse the toxic free radicals. Some more antioxidants are obtained from foods. Together, they keep the degenerative damage of free radicals in control.
Here are some of the commonly used antioxidants (and their best food sources):
- Vitamins such as A, C, E and K;
- Minerals such as zinc and selenium;
- Coenzyme Q10;
- Lycopene (tomatoes);
- Resveratrol (grapes);
- Quercetin (oranges);
- Curcumin (turmeric);
- EGCG (green tea);
- Bromelain (pineapples);
- Lutein (spinach); and
- Beta-carotene (carrots).
As long as the balance between the free radicals and antioxidants inside the body is tilted in favour of the latter, your cells, organs and even the whole body are protected from this natural ravage. That is why when we are young, almost all of our organs are healthy and free from age-related diseases. But things can go wrong due to age or bad lifestyle.
Organ and Body Degeneration
In old age:
- The production of antioxidants in the body drops;
- Appetite reduces, decreasing intake of antioxidant rich vegetables and fruits.
This shifts the balance in favour of degeneration and accelerated ageing.
Youth and Middle Ages
In young and middle ages, bad lifestyle factors such as:
- Processed foods increase free radicals;
- Smoking increases free radicals and reduces antioxidants;
- Alcohol increases free radicals;
- Inhaling air pollution increases free radicals;
- Inadequate sleep can reduce antioxidant processes and increase free radicals;
- Stress increases free radicals;
- Lack of exercise increases free radical damage (extreme exercises also cause an increase in free radical damage—moderate exercises are the best for health reasons).
Thus, with a bad lifestyle, the balance once again tilts in favour of free radicals, leading to premature and accelerated ageing.
Damage and Inflammation
When an organ suffers any damage, the natural response of the body is to heal it. As the first part of that process, the cells in that part of the body secrete certain chemicals. They cause what is called inflammation. This is a normal and healthy response of the body to the problem it faces.
Think of your body’s enemies such as various toxins or pathogens. The body needs to eliminate them. The inflammatory chemicals aim to destroy them. But in the process, that part of the body also suffers damage. Even normal cells in that area get injured and often, killed. An example would be a hostage situation inside a residential area. As the last resort, the security forces may fire or throw grenades at the kidnappers to kill them. In the melee, some innocent victims may also get injured or die. A similar situation happens in the body.
Inflammation for a short duration is normal and even healthy. However, chronic inflammation can incrementally cause more and more damage to the healthy body parts. Just like living in a war-zone for years is not conducive for a normal life. Thus, in young and middle aged people, unhealthy lifestyle can expedite the development of age-related disorders.
In elderly people, once some age-related damage or disease sets in, inflammation can result. Unless such disease is kept in control, the inflammation can become long-lasting. For example, age-related joint pain or arthritis can keep the joint in perennial inflammatory stage. Alzheimer’s disease, which involves age-related memory loss, can create further inflammation in the brain. Diabetes involves increased blood glucose levels, causing inflammation all over the body. Disease begets more disease. This further accelerates their ageing.
There are many nutrients that reduce inflammation in the body, such as:
- Fatty fish or fish oil;
- Berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries;
- Green tea;
- Green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower;
- Turmeric; and
- Tomatoes, bell peppers, avocados, and mushrooms.
Just to point out the difference: antioxidants help prevent the organ damage; anti-inflammatories help repair the organ damage. The former are needed all the time; the latter are needed if any damage is already set in. Unfortunately, the early signs of inflammation-related damage are not easily visible. So it is a good idea to consume antioxidants as well as anti-inflammatory nutrients regularly.
Strategies to Prevent Age-Related Diseases
As we can guess from the explanation above, the approach is:
- Reduce unhealthy lifestyle:
- Reduce processed foods and simple carbohydrates;
- Avoid trans-fats;
- Reduce alcohol consumption;
- Avoid smoking;
- Protect yourself from air pollution, at least indoors with air purifiers;
- Increase antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other nutrient intake:
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day;
- Eliminate basic nutritional deficiencies; and
- Consider antioxidant and anti-inflammatory supplementation for precise control.
I have provided enough links above about lifestyle changes. So let’s focus on the second point: nutrient-related strategies.
Consume More Fruits and Vegetables
Research shows that consuming more fruits and vegetables decreases the chances of dying. This is due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients in them. In fact, the improvement is better as more and more servings of fruits and vegetables are eaten on a daily basis.
American Heart Association (AHA) suggests eating four servings of fruits and five servings of vegetables a day. The vegetables cannot be starchy ones such as corns, peas and potatoes. Similarly, drinking fruit juices is not advised since that involves removing healthy fibres. A serving is roughly a cup or a closed fist of an adult.
However, nine servings a day means a lot of vegetables and fruits to eat for a normal person. It will be expensive as well as impractical. As a result, many organisations give a more realistic guideline of two fruits and three vegetables a day.
But does nature care about what is practical? If science shows that nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables are the most protective, either we figure out how to take nine servings or compromise on our health. That is where supplementation helps, which is essentially antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients of fruits and vegetables condensed in the form of a tablet or a capsule.
But first, one must ensure that there is no shortfall of basic nutrients.
Eliminate Basic Deficiencies
Many people, especially as they become older, develop deficiencies of vitamins such as D and B12, minerals such as iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium, proteins, and dietary fibres. Since these are raw materials for body processes, a deficiency of any of them will prevent proper functioning as well as repair of the body. Think of them as basic cooking ingredients. You can’t cook a great meal if your kitchen does not have salt, spices, oil, or even sugar. So here is what you should consume to supplement the commonly deficient nutrients:
- A good multi-vitamin, multi-mineral, preferably from natural sources (not chemicals);
- A complete Protein (technically speaking, one with PDCAAS of 1.0); and
- Dietary fibres.
Can you supplement them through food, instead? Sure. But you ended up with those deficiencies because somehow your food was not adequate. So keep a realistic expectation from your diet.
- Some antioxidants are more protective of some organs:
All antioxidants prevent degeneration of multiple organs. However, some of them accumulate more in specific organs and so help in protecting those organs more. For example, most antioxidants can’t reach your brain but the antioxidant EGCG in green tea can reach the brain and protect it from degeneration. Similarly, the antioxidant lutein is predominantly stored in the eye. So while it can help other organs stay healthy and young, it works its charm mainly in protecting the eye against degeneration.
- Different antioxidants control different aspects of ageing:
Antioxidants have different mechanisms of action and act on different parts of an organ. So there is nothing like the best antioxidant for any organ. If you develop poor night vision, vitamin A will protect your eyes. If you start developing age-related cataracts, vitamin C will be better, while if you start seeing signs of a disorder called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), lutein will offer better results. If you want to avoid the degeneration in any form, you should take all of them.
- Antioxidant action needs much more than regular amounts of a nutrient:
Taking a multi-vitamin will not give an antioxidant dose of the vitamins. Multi-vitamins are designed for the regular needs of the body, not its antioxidant needs. For example, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin C is 90 mg a day; but its antioxidant dose is 1000 mg a day. With 90 mg a day, you can expect vitamin C to help in its routine tasks such as immunity, bone health and skin health. But if you want it to protect against pollution or heart disease, you will need the higher amount. Similarly, RDA of vitamin E is 15 mg a day, but its antioxidant effects are not seen below 250 mg a day.
Add Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients
Increase your intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients, while reducing intake of inflammatory foods. Just like antioxidants, each anti-inflammatory nutrient performs better for specific organs. For example, fish oils help in reducing inflammation in the joints and blood arteries. Similarly, curcumin in turmeric is very useful for liver inflammation. So you are advised to consider a wide range of anti-inflammatory foods and supplements for better health protection. You don’t need to consume each of them on a daily basis. So you can rotate their consumption. Consume fatty fish on day 1, cauliflower on day 2, and berries on day 3, etc.
Curing Versus Controlling Age-Related Diseases
Many people wrongly consider success of preventive health strategies only in terms of curing a disease. However, many age-related disorders are degenerative and progressive. They worsen with time: memory loss increases, bones become more porous, cartilage wears down, heart arteries harden, and pancreas loses cells that secrete insulin. Even if you cannot cure the disease, postponing the inevitable and staying healthy longer is a definite achievement.
Given the physical, emotional and financial cost of age-related disorders, it makes sense to act long before the problem arises. Preventing such diseases is a game of probability. Instead of demanding a cent per cent guarantee, one is better off increasing the odds in one’s favour with the help of lifestyle changes, and supplementation with basic nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories.
Articles in Nutrients Series
- Omega–3 Oils: A Complete Guide
- Vitamin D: A Complete Guide
- Vitamin A: A Complete Guide
- Coenzyme Q10: A Complete Guide
- Turmeric (Curcumin): A Complete Guide
- Lutein: A Complete Guide
Articles in Supplementation Series
- Why Do We Need Supplements?
- Supplements for Various Age Groups
- Supplements for Preventing Ageing & Age-Related Diseases
- Supplements for Type 2 Diabetes
- Supplements for Osteoarthritis
- Supplements for Hair Loss
- Supplements for Fatty Liver
- Supplements for Autoimmune Disorders
- Supplements for Anemia
- Supplements for Prostate Enlargement
- Supplements for Macular Degeneration
- Supplements for PCOS
- Supplements for Parkinson’s Disease
- Supplements for Gout
- Supplements for Eczema
Image credit: Mikhail Nilov on Pexels
First published on: 25th December 2022