In this article we will take the road less traveled and discuss our modern-day preoccupation with slowing down the aging process from perspectives over and beyond plenty of sleep, exercise and good nutrition.
Want to live to 100? 53,364 Americans did in 2010
Interestingly, your chances are better if you are a woman (women make up 82% of all those who live to 100 or over in the U.S.) Your chances are also better if you’d been living in Japan, France, the U.K. or Canada. In fact, the U.S. ranked 5th of 5 in the following chart:
Source: The Population Division of the United Nations
The genetic factor
This is a given that none of us can do much about, and yet it is critical to our longevity. Thomas Perls, Associate Professor of medicine at Boston University manages a study of nearly 1,600 centenarians, the largest in the world. His findings reveal that approximately 50% of those who make it to 100+ have parents or grandparents who also lived to old age. Lucky for the rest of us that the other 50% did not have that DNA at birth.
Having the right genes was further emphasized by Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He conducted a study of 500 healthy Ashkenazi Jews (inhabitants of central Europe with ancestries that go back to biblical times) between the ages of 95 and 112. He said: "The fact is we have plenty of overweight centenarians, plenty who smoke, plenty who drink," says Barzilai. "With the right genes, the body can put up with all sorts of abuse."
Natural wear and tear – free radical agents at work
Our bodies have to contend with wear and tear much like a car engine. In our case, it’s driven by oxidative stress (OS). To understand OS, slice open an apple and observe its color rapidly darkening. Those are free radical agents causing that change, and they come from the oxygen in the environment. They are volatile atoms that create corrosive chain reactions that are continually attacking the cellular building blocks in our body. To visualize that, think of a piece of metal that rests in a corner of your yard. The rust you will observe eating away at the metal consists of unremitting free radical agents.
It’s not all gloom and doom however. Take the apple that is oxidizing and put some lemon drops on it. It will temporarily stop corroding, the lemon acting as an antioxidant. There are many antioxidants in the food we consume, and they are like quality oil that you put in an engine: they slow down OS. In the end, the balance between oxidants and antioxidants unfortunately tips in favor of oxidants, at which point our biochemical systems will surrender to the aging process.
Our cellular building blocks
When our cells age, our organs succumb to aging as well, and they end up declining in both function and appearance. Cells get damaged and die because of external factors such as oxidative stress (or sunlight, ultraviolet rays, pharmaceuticals, trauma). Older cells also wither and make room for new cells, except that sometimes no new cells come up. When no cells come up to replace dead or damaged cells, the organs they were destined to invigorate have to do with fewer cells. They in turn start weakening.
The homeostasis phenomenon
Homeostasis is such a breathtaking phenomenon that it borders on the supernatural. And yet, it’s at work inside us from the moment we are born. At the heart of a homeostatic system –in this case our body- is this ongoing spectacular multiplicity of functions that are monitored by equally spectacular and symbiotic control mechanisms. Here are a few examples:
Need a little help to get up in the morning, or to ace an exam or a job interview? Your Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) will discharge a little adrenalin to see you through. If you’re about to speed right through a red light, it will increase the dose so that you are instantly at full alert, in what is known as the “fight or flight response”.
Your body temperature is maintained at around 98.6º F. A homeostatic control mechanism makes you sweat if your body gets hot and makes you shiver for warmth if it gets cold. It will thus keep you at approximately 98.6º F.
To ensure that you’re healthy, your body must maintain a certain level of glucose in your bloodstream. Your pancreas, another control mechanism, will release insulin when glucose is high, and if it gets low, your liver will convert glycogen into additional glucose.
The heart and the brain collaborate to maintain optimal levels of blood pressure. When blood pressure is too high, the heart slows down, and when it is low, the brain tells the heart to speed up a little.
Because breathing is involuntary, the nervous system ensures that the body is getting sufficient oxygen. Several major systems in the body (digestive, cardiovascular, pulmonary and other) are regulated without ever asking for your permission.
An intricate web of a system like that must keep adapting to changes in the environment and in the lifestyle that we provide it with. This is where a healthy lifestyle produces the least blockages and helps remedy environmental blockages. That speaks volumes for our homeostasis: that it can adapt and evolve while maintaining harmonic balance.
The brain is the last organ to age
The organs that are first vulnerable to aging include the kidneys, liver, and ovaries, and they start declining in performance with age. Interestingly, the brain is the last organ to age, as confirmed by many centenarians who remain sound of mind and memory. When cells are lost in the brain, nerve cells connect in new ways, and nerve cells may form in new areas of the brain. Furthermore, the brain enjoys a condition called “redundancy”: more cells than it needs.
Staying Younger – take care of your brain
I never cease to marvel at the human brain. Every time I think I’ve read an awful lot about it, I come across something new –something even more dazzling. This 3-lb. marvel spends 80, 90 or 100+ years monitoring and fine-tuning everything that is going on in your body. Whether you’re awake or asleep, alert or daydreaming, it keeps you safe and healthy. In order to maintain homeostasis, the brain uses billions of neurons -100 billion by many estimates- each one connected to thousands of nerve cells known as synapses, so that the communication network of the brain includes trillions of back-and-forth impulse-emitting cells.
According to neuroscientist Joe McIntyre of the College de France, “The brain is so accurate because it contains an internal model of gravity. The brain seems able to anticipate, calculate and compensate for gravitational acceleration –naturally.”
The critical benefits of laughing out loud
Every aspect of staying young requires a pro-active role on your part, so start by recreating the above scene in your own life. In that photograph, you have all the constituents of health and vitality. Do the girls look stressed out? Do they look introverted and reclusive? Are they quiet and restrained? In fact, their shouting and laughter is the ultimate recipe for health and vitality. This starts in the brain and trickles down to the rest of the body. Laughter is an integral and absolutely necessary constituent of good health.
By the way, we said earlier that 82% of all those in the U.S. who make it to 100+ are women. Want to know why? Researchers tell us that it is –at least in part- because women process problems quickly, brushing them away rather than dwelling on them.