Anti-Aging Research Helps Us Live Longer, Healthier
Five hundred years after explorer Ponce de Leon roamed the West Indies and Florida in search of a vigor-restoring “fountain of youth,” we have yet to come up with a way to turn back time. But according to physicians and researchers at the cutting edge of anti-aging research, we’re learning a lot about how to keep the signs of aging at bay.
“We’re seeing a ton of compelling research lately on how to slow down the clock and live better and longer,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative physician and author of Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Well-Being. “Happily, most of us will not have to age the way our parents and grandparents did.”
In the past decade, breakthrough research has radically changed our understanding of why our brain, organs and skin age and what we can do, eat or apply to slow the process. Here’s a look at some of the latest science and the technologies to grow out of it.
Workouts for the Aging Brain
Perhaps the greatest fear of an aging Baby Boomer is not flabby abs or wrinkling skin, but rather, the specter of a withering brain. By age 40, reports the Alzheimer’s Association, two-thirds of us experience occasional lapses of memory. By age 65, 20 percent suffer mild cognitive impairment. One in eight seniors will suffer dementia.
For decades, scientists assumed the brain was “hardwired” by around fifth grade, with a finite number of neural connections that inevitably atrophy over time, stealing our cognitive sharpness. It turns out they were wrong.
“What we have learned in the past few years is that you can literally exercise your brain and add in new circuitry. You can rewire it,” says Professor Andrew Carle, director of the Program in Assisted Living/Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia.
The concept, called neuroplasticity, has spawned a $265 million brain-game industry, according to consulting firm SharpBrains. More than 700 senior housing facilities now feature computer brain games, and “brain gyms” are popping up in cities nationwide. Such games are typically either downloadable programs for a home computer or a standalone game console. They challenge hand-eye coordination, auditory processing, memory and the ability to multitask. Typically, the program adapts as the user plays, throwing in new challenges.
Why not just read a book or do a crossword puzzle?
“These are already well-trodden neuronal pathways,” says California neuroscientist Henry Mahncke, Ph.D., vice president of research for brain game pioneer Posit Science. “We know from brain imaging studies that if you have something that you are already good at and you do it, not much new lights up in the brain.”
By contrast, one 2006 study of 2,800 seniors, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that those who engaged in a 10-session cognitive training program, with a four-session booster training at 11 and 35 months, had less difficulty with daily living than the control group. More, they still showed heightened cognitive abilities five years later.
A 2009 study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, showed that 487 seniors who spent an hour a day, for eight weeks, using Posit’s brain fitness program performed better on mental acuity tests than the control group.
Just which game is best remains a matter of debate. Current options are on the table at Dakim.com, GamesForTheBrain.com, PositScience.com and VigorousMind.com.
“We still haven’t had a study comparing this $500 brain game to this $100 brain game to having someone who never did crossword puzzles start doing crossword puzzles,” relates Carle. His advice: Find a new intellectual challenge that we enjoy enough to do regularly.
“Probably the best single factor in all of this is the extent to which the games get used,” he adds.
When it comes to the aging of organs, much research in recent years has focused around the free radical theory. In essence, as our body is exposed to food, air and sun, it throws off toxic byproducts, called free radicals, that eat away at cell walls, causing disease. In our youth, we have a built-in system of antioxidants that mop up free radicals.
In other words, “Like a new car, we have this remarkable array of catalytic converters to clean up the byproducts of burning fuel,” explains Joe McCord, Ph.D., a pioneer in antioxidant research from the University of Colorado-Denver. “But as we age, our catalytic converters wear out.”
Initially, test tube studies showed that simple, nutritional antioxidants like vitamins C and E could neutralize free radicals. This led to a 21st century boom in single-antioxidant supplements. But it turns out that their effect is minimal, “like a firefighter with one bucket, trying to put out a house fire,” McCord says.
Instead, he and others contend, we need to prompt the body to produce more of its own antioxidants. Several nutrients, including sulforaphane from broccoli, curcumin from turmeric, anthocyanins from berries, licorice and shallots, and the herbs milk thistle and ashwaghanda, have been shown to do that. Now, supplement companies are rolling out an array of new products, including Protandim by Life Vantage, a product that came out of McCord’s work, and GliSodin, by Isocell, aimed at boosting internal antioxidant production.
One 2006 trial conducted at the University of Colorado showed that when 29 people took Protandim, biochemical markers of oxidative stress declined by 40 percent after one month. Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2007, found that a combination of sulforophane and curcumin reduced skin cancer in mice.
Meanwhile, researchers are exploring another compound, resveretrol, contained in the skins of red grapes, berries and dark beans, for its ability to slow aging by activating genes called sirtuins.
One 2008 study by the National Institute on Aging found that mice fed resveretrol had better balance and motor coordination, plus bone, heart and eye health. Human trials have been scarce, but several are ongoing. In the meantime, hundreds of resveratrol supplements have hit the market, and some doctors say they are confident in its safety and already taking it themselves.
“Based on the science, I don’t think there is a down side,” says Pittsburgh neuroscientist and physician Joseph Maroon, author of The Longevity Factor, published this year.
Dr. Valorie Treloar, a Massachusetts dermatologist, says the antioxidant theory has spurred a host of new topical products, made with everything from marine pine bark and green tea to acai or gogi berry, all potent antioxidants. “One of the advantages to using it topically is that you can get a higher quantity of the active molecule in the skin, assuming it is in a form that penetrates through the epidermis,” she explains.
Also, keep an eye out for new topical omega-3 fatty acid and topical probiotics aimed at maintaining a proper microbial balance on the skin.One of the most radical topical skin care breakthroughs, from NuSkin, is a line of AgeLoc products that not only triple collagen production while dramatically decreasing an age-causing enzyme, but now also act on targeted groups of genes that regulate how we age. In effect, it resets the genes to youthful activity.
Numerous companies are also exploring the “beauty from the inside-out” concept, crafting everything from antioxidant-rich skin health shakes to candy chews made with cocoa antioxidants. One recent study in the Journal of European Nutrition found that when women ingested 329 milligrams of cocoa daily, the flow of blood and oxygen to the skin nearly doubled.
“In the past few years, we have seen some really good, well-designed trials showing that internal nutrients can make a difference, too,” remarks Alan Logan, a doctor of naturopathy and author of Your Skin, Younger.
Weil says he sees the wealth of new anti-aging innovations as intriguing, but notes that one other critical factor for healthy aging often eludes people: To accept growing older and all the wisdom and experience it brings, with optimism, rather than dread.
“The denial of aging is counterproductive,” he says. “To age gracefully means to let nature take its course while doing everything in our power to delay and prevent disease.”