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What is Healthy Aging?

In 1997, three famous women passed away:  Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and the world’s longest-lived woman, Jeanne Calment, who lived for 122 years. Now, there has been some controversy about her claim and it’s a fascinating story. But supercentenerians exist – those individuals who live for more than 100 years (here’s an astounding list of those just in the US alone). 

Fun facts (although we don’t recommend it): Ms. Calmen quit smoking, allegedly, at age 117. The famous comedian/actor George Burns, who passed at age 100, enjoyed smoking numerous cigars every day for about 70 years.

There really is no such thing as “anti-aging?” Or is there?

Strict interpretation of this oft-used (and misused) term means to completely prevent aging. This isn’t possible, otherwise, billions of more people who are hundreds of years old would be walking the earth one day.

The term “healthy aging,” is much more truthful and on point. This is a 24/7 practice of healthy lifestyle habits encompassing physical, mental, emotional, behavioral and even spiritual activities that promote good health for as long as possible into elderly years.

Scientifically, aging is “a series of interconnected processes at the molecular and cellular levels” in the body, according to Steven Austad, PhD, senior scientific director at American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR). He said, “Research on aging is dynamic, constantly evolving based on new discoveries.”

Gerontologist Tom Kirkwood wrote, “Ageing comes about through the gradual build-up of unrepaired faults in the cells and tissues of our bodies as we live our lives, not as a result of some active mechanism for death and destruction.”

Although possible, super-aging to see your 100th birthday and beyond has been calculated in 1825 and is known by the Gompertz Law of Mortality. It boils down to adult humans’ risk of death doubles with every additional eight years of age. It has been studied, even recently with the conclusion that it remains accurate.  

Current Theories

Since the storied Fountain of Youth (and likely even before), scientists have investigated what causes the organism to grow old and feeble, to lose vitality in every system, organ and cell, to cause “old people’s” diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s – named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906; osteoporosis, CVD, etc.). 

According to Dr. Austad, there are several distinctive “hallmarks” of physiological aging.

Epigenetic alterations:  Epigenomic components (parts of histones which are protein spools around which DNA strands are wrapped) can shift, become lost or added oddly, all of which leads to compromised gene activity. Your epigenome may be protected or impacted through diet and other lifestyle factors and pharmaceuticals.

Slowdown of Proteostasis:  Your genes mainly create proteins that are needed to engage all chemical reactions and help provide normal cellular structure. Proteostasis simply means that protein synthesis and use are working correctly. This is characterized by the way the proteins are folded. Misfolded proteins due to an interruption or slowdown of proteoastsis can result in accelerated onset age-related conditions. For example, he writes, “Misfolded proteins not only fail to perform their normal job, they can clump together, and become toxic. Alzheimer’s disease is an example of an age-related disease caused by protein misfolding … and misfolded proteins increase with age.” 

Mitochondrial Dysfunction: The mitochondria is the energy centers of the cells but they also produce a high concentration of free radicals (or reactive oxygen species), which damage cells. The newer theory is the opposite of what it used to be – where free radicals were thought to accelerate aging. However, the new thinking is that free radicals signal cellular stress, which in turn launches maintenance and repair processes.

Cellular Senescence: During youth cells replicate abundantly. Cells that cease dividing and are just there inactive, are called senescent. The older we get, the more senescent (inactive) cells are just hanging around doing nothing. In this loitering state senescent cells tend to damage surrounding molecules. According to Dr. Austad, genetically engineered mice that had their senescent cells removed were found to live longer than control counterparts.

Telomere Shortening: Authors of a new study on telomeres describe them as “repetitive, non-coding sequences of DNA located at the ends of chromosomes, acting like protective caps to prevent deterioration of the genome.” Every time a cell divides its chromosomes must be replicated for each new cell but the enzymes responsible for this activity are not long enough to reach the chromosomes’ ends, so a little bit is lost in every replication. This is known as telomere shortening.

Normal aging is associated with telomere shortening, and telomere shortening has been linked to mortality and age-related diseases. For example, studies have shown that shortened telomeres in leukocytes (white blood cells) has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and overall mortality.

A new placebo-controlled human study has shown that after 12 moths 97 adults (53 to 87 years old) those who ingested a supplement based on traditional Chinese medicine exhibited telomere lengthening.

There is also a hormone, klotho, known as the anti-aging hormone, and studies on its ability to be physiologically protective are wide ranging. For example, one study has associated kidney disease in diabetic type 1 patients with low circulating levels of klotho. In a mouse study, those with higher levels of klotho performed better in cognitive, learning and memory, and they also exhibited enhanced formation and flexibility of neural connections.

The microbiome may play a role in healthy aging, according to a 2018 study. Researchers used fruit flies as subjects, and gave them a supplement combination of several probiotic and Triphala (an Ayurvedic herb) and found that those that ingested the supplement lived for 26 more days than those used as control.  

The authors wrote, “The fruit fly is remarkably similar to mammals with about 70 % similarity in terms of their biochemical pathways, making it a good indicator of what would happen in humans. The effects in humans would likely not be as dramatic, but our results definitely suggest that a diet specifically incorporating Triphala along with these probiotics will promote a long and healthy life.”


In a future blog we will discuss foods that help promote healthy longevity. In the meantime, here’s a fun (if not somewhat frustrating fact):  red sea urchins typically live for more than 200 years, and the ocean quahog (a type of clam) can live for 400 years.

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