Baby Boomers, Anti-Aging, Getting Old Anyway…

Anti-aging sites seem to be overtaking porn on the Internet. I guess I shouldn’t find that surprising since the median age of the Baby Boomers is now around fiftyone. It won’t be too long before the term “Baby Boomers” is replaced with the term “Geritol Generation”.

I’m fortyseven, on the tails of the Baby Boomers. This is depressing to think about if you know you’re not taking as good of care of yourself as you should be. Unfortunately that would be my category. The unfortunate aspect is that I know better!

I’ve explored anti-aging sites. They are all trying to sell you something, books on anti-aging, megavitamins, exercise machines, anti-aging videos, special foods, and lots of magic elixers.

I can remember being in my twenties and working for Pacific Northwest Bell, the local telephone company here at the time, in downtown Seattle, 4th and Spring. It’s a hotel there now. Qwest sold the property off years ago.

When I was working for the telephone company, I used to walk down to Wendy’s for lunch. It was cheap and close. Wendy’s used to have tables with a likeness of circa 1920 newspapers advertisements printed on the top.

You’d find advertisements for things like Dr. Jones magic elixer, takes care of everything from consumption to constipation (consumption used to be the catch-all name for the plethora of diseases involving cell over-proliferation just as cancer is now plus a few other diseases of unknown origin). Hi-voltage electrical devices, the violet wands which had glass attachments for every orifice. These are sold as sex toys for the adventurous today.

In the early eighties, when I was reading these advertisements I thought it was amazing that the government of that time allowed such ridiculous claims.

2006 and the Internet, it’s like the 20′s all over as far as advertising goes. Magic elixers abound. One positive note, the cures for erectile disfunction these days mostly involve synthesized chemicals so at least various, often rare, animals don’t have to be sacrificed for the magical properties of various body parts. No more rhino horn or shark cartilage. Today it’s viagra or some clone thereof. I read somewhere that no animals were used in the testing of viagra but the sheep seemed a little nervous afterwards.

Rarely do I find a site that says if you want to stay healthy, eat a good variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid fats, especially saturated fats, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight, keep stress under control, don’t smoke, don’t drink excessively, get plenty of fiber, limit intake of meat, especially red meats, avoid high fructose corn syrup like the plague. Well, unless they’re selling some exotic fruits or vegetables, $15,000 exercise machines, weight loss miracle drugs or diets, smoke ending patches, etc.

And it’s not just the Internet… In the back of Scientific American, or a page or two from the back, there is an advertisement for a machine made by ROM that sells for a reasonable $14,615. The claim it makes is that you can workout in just four minutes each day.

The main flaw I see in this has to do with the nature of aerobic exercise. The idea behind aerobic exercise is that you exercise at a level that gets your heart rate up to 80-85% of your calculated maximum heart rate (220-age) for a minimum of twenty minutes a day. There is no way to condense that time frame because you are already exercising at near your maximum capacity.

Even when it comes to muscle building, if you’re going for function and not just appearance that’s no good. Yes, in 4 minutes, you can increase muscle bulk somewhat doing heavy lifts. But you’re not going to improve the vascularization or the innervation of muscles in that time frame, so bulk is all you will get and probably nowhere near what you could achieve on a more rational program and it will not equate to strength.

But the advertisement keeps showing up month after month so there must be people out there with $14,615 that buy it. Maybe it’s like owning a Mercedes or BMW, you don’t own them for any practical reason, you own them as status symbols. And I emphasize the you because I’ve got no status, or money to symbolize. Consequently, I won’t be buying myself a $14,615 exercise machine any time soon.

I know what I need to do to be healthy. It is finding the self-discipline to do it that is difficult. Good exercise is hard to stick with. It is hard work. It can be boring. There are always other things competing for time. Eating, you know the general rule is, “If it tastes good, it’s not good for you.” I have found some exceptions.

To make some rational sense of the anti-aging field, it helps to understand a bit about your own physiology. What happens when we get old? Aerobic capacity, that is the ability to use oxygen to produce energy, declines. Muscle mass and strength decline. Bone density declines. Cartilage in the joints disintegrates. Skin becomes thinner and loses elasticity. The lens of the eyes harden and become less accommodating, eventually becoming opaque. The macula may degenerate. Hair may turn grey and may fall out. Gums recede from the teeth. Teeth deteriorate and fall out. Overall metabolic rate declines. The mind becomes less sharp. The arteries become hard and less compliant. Blood pressure goes up. Arteries become clogged with fat and later plaque deposits.

The majority of these things can either be prevented altogether or substantially delayed. Many of them share a handful of preventable causes.

Hardening of the arteries, the eye lens, supporting structures of the skin, and of tendons and ligaments, all of these have one common cause, binding of adjacent protein molecules by glucose. The higher the blood glucose level, the more rapid the damage. This makes diabetes deadly. High glucose levels rapidly harden the arteries leading to heart attacks and stroke. The tiny capillaries are damaged and many organs starved for nutrition and oxygen as a result.

There are two types of diabetes. In type I diabetes, an auto-immune condition has destroyed the inlet beta cells of the pancreas. These are the cells that produce insulin.

Type II diabetes is a condition where fat and muscle cells no longer respond properly to insulin. Insulin is the hormone that would normally tell fat cells to take up glucose and store it as fat, muscles to store it to later burn for energy, and the liver to convert glucose to glycogen and store it for later use.

Auto-immune diseases are not entirely preventable but there are things you can do to reduce your risk. If you are going to have children there are also some things you can do to reduce their risk of developing auto-immune diseases later in life.

It has been discovered that the immune system does not develop properly if not occasionally challenged during the first couple of years of life. Of coarse you want to protect your infant from disease, but a totally sterile environment just about guarantees allergies later in life and increases the likelihood of contracting auto-immune diseases. So you do not want to totally sterilize the environment for your young children. Obviously you want to protect them from potentially fatal or debilitating disease but a totally sterile environment makes for poor health later on.

Exercise also reduces auto-immune responses while simultaneously increasing the immune response against legitimate invaders.

So by now as far as your risk of type I diabetes goes, you’re stuck with the risk inherent as a result of the environment you spent your first two years in and to some degree as the result of genetic factors, but you can reduce your risk of auto-immune disease through exercise.

But type I is the minority of cases. Let’s look at what happens in type II. If you are overweight, your fat cells are already full, they don’t want anymore fat, they become less responsive to insulin. At the same time, muscle cells which are not exercised also become less responsive to insulin and won’t take up as much glucose in response to insulin. Muscle cells can store a certain amount of glycogen, a polymer of glucose, which is the primary form in which the body stores glucose. Even though the muscles can store only about 1% by weight, whereas liver cells can store around 8%, the total amount the muscles can store is greater than the liver.

When you eat, the food is digested, and the sugars and starches are broken down into glucose which enters the bloodstream. Glucose is the primary source of energy for all your body cells, everything from brain cells to muscles run primarily on glucose. But excess glucose levels bind proteins and are toxic to the body. So the body stores glucose in various repositories. Insulin from the pancreas tells cells to begin synthesizing and storing glycogen.

Well exercised muscle cells are more capable of storing glucose as glycogen and later more capable of breaking it down and using it for energy. Fat cells which aren’t already maxed out are more capable of storing glucose. For these reasons a healthy weight and well exercised muscles result in effective blood glucose regulation. This is true on both ends of the stick, after a big meal blood sugar is held in check, and when glucose is required, it can be provided by these cells.

Other than weight and exercise, there is another factor. When blood glucose levels rise after a meal, the pancreas responds by secreting more insulin, which causes muscle, fat, and liver cells to store glucose as glycogen. But there is a delay in this feedback loop, it takes a finite time for insulin levels to rise enough to cause glucose to be stored, and time for the cells to respond to the insulin signal and reduce the blood glucose level. Thus after a calorie rich meal, there is a spike in blood glucose levels.

In people who are not diabetic, this short term spike still happens. The more fit you are, the more muscle mass you have, the more conditioned those muscle cells are, the less saturated your fat cells are, the smaller the amplitude and duration of this spike. It happens to some degree with everyone. It is during this spike that binding of proteins happens rapidly causing the arteries to harden, the skin to become less elastic, and the eye lenses to harden.

The amplitude of this spike is determined in part by the nature of the food that you eat. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down giving the whole insulin feedback loop time to operate minimizing the spike. Simple sugars and starches which are rapidly broken down don’t give the insulin feedback loop time to respond and a high blood glucose spike occurs. The degree to which foods cause blood glucose levels to spike is called the glycemic index. Foods with a high glycemic index are more damaging to your body.

Fructose is broken down much faster than ordinary table sugar (sucrose). Sucrose consists of a fructose plus glucose bound together. Sucrose must undergo an additional step to break the bond between these two molecules before glucose can enter the blood stream. This difference is non-trivial. Fructose causes protein-protein binding at a rate of six to eight times that of sucrose.

If you look at the ingredients of almost any processed food, you’ll find the ingredient “high fructose corn syrup”. This stuff is evil. In addition to causing damage to your arteries, eye lenses, skin, and even cartilage, the high fast spike of glucose also “rewards” the brain and you come to crave the foods which contain it. High fructose corn syrup is cheaper than ordinary sucrose, table sugar. That’s one reason the food industry loves to use it. The addictive effect, in the short term, is good for sales. In the long term it hurts sales because people die off sooner. Industries rarely think past next quarters results.

You can reduce damage caused by glucose binding of proteins by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and avoiding foods with a high gycemic index.

Traditional wisdom says you lose a certain amount of capacity each decade. There are examples that defy this assertion. There are centurions running marathons who have the cardio-pulmonary capacity of an average thirty year old.

I’ve looked at the habits of a number of these people and what they have in common is that they all train hard continuously, 2-4 hours of good aerobic exercise every day, eat well, and sleep well. Maybe that’s beyond what the average person can do but the average person is not going to be running marathons on their hundredth birthday.

Understand this about the human body; the majority of the time during it’s evolution, food was scarce. As a result, the human body is tremendously efficient. Unused brain neurons die. Unused muscle shrinks. Unused nerves degenerate. Unused heart and lung capacity diminishes. Unloaded bones lose density, thickness, and strength. Unused tendons lose strength and tear more easily. The red blood cell count goes down if oxygen demand is low.

In short, the human body is a use it or lose it machine. Muscle loss, loss of aerobic capacity, overall decline in metabolism, osteoporosis, these things are more lack of use related than age related. They happen more in the elderly in large part because they’ve had longer to go unused.

When I was 25 I had a aerobic capacity that was on the low end for someone 35, at 45 I had an aerobic capacity that was at the high end of someone 35. The difference amounted to one single variable, regular aerobic exercise.

Aerobic exercise also burns fat, clears the blood stream, makes the muscles respond better to insulin keeping blood glucose levels moderate. In fact that is why I started doing aerobic exercise. My blood pressure was high. My doctor wanted to put me on blood pressure lowering medicines, which I knew had a number of highly negative side effects. I told the doctor I knew what I needed to do to get my blood pressure down. We made a deal that basically gave me six months to do so and if I didn’t it would be meds. I was successful in my endeavor.

Bone mass is a function of load, aerobic exercise will help somewhat as it improves oxygen and nutrient supply to all body tissues. To prevent the loss of bone mass you need to do weight bearing exercises. These also improve muscle and tendon strength and build muscle mass.

Non-aerobic exercise, generally referred to as strength training, involves targeting specific muscle groups, exercising them to cause them to grow, muscle tone to improve, strength and endurance to improve, but different types and intensities of exercise have different effects.

Low repetition high weight exercises cause the muscles to respond by getting larger, bulking up. To some people this is all they are looking for, look good on the beach, even if they drop dead next week. But in my view gaining muscle mass should be part of an overall fitness goal because it does increase the muscles capacity for absorbing and using glucose and oxygen, more muscle does result in some strength gains but not nearly as much as you can get with a more balanced approach.

Muscle size isn’t the only thing that impacts strength, an even larger factor is muscle innervation. Each motor nerve connects to a number of muscle cells. This comprises a functional group. In a poorly innervated muscle, the functional groups are small and many cells have no nerve connection. This means only a small percentage of your muscle actually gets put to work, your strength isn’t what it could be and your endurance will be garbage because those few cells that are innervated are doing all the work for the rest of the slackers.

A muscle twice as large but with only one tenth the muscle cells innervated might look cool but isn’t going to provide the strength or endurance of a muscle half it’s size with all the cells innervated. In addition working all the muscle cells will grow the muscle faster and larger.

Here is one of the problems with high weight low repetitions only routine. Innervation involves using the nerves again and again. Keep stimulating them and they grow axons that reach out and touch someone. Specifically, they reach out and touch more muscle cells resulting in larger functional groups, more muscle response for a given nerve stimulus and a larger percentage of the muscle cells being functional.

With high weights you can’t do enough repetitions to improve innervation before your poorly innervated muscles are exhausted. So while you might want to do some high weight low repetition exercises to grow the muscle tissue, you also want to do some low weight high repetition exercises to promote good innervation. The combination of more muscle tissue and well innervated muscle tissue will provide you with the highest strength possible.

Then there is the matter of endurance. Your muscles can produce energy for a short period of time drawing on stored ATP molecules. But for long term output they need to be continuously supplied with oxygen, otherwise lactic acid will rapidly build up resulting in pain. In order for muscles to be continuously supplied, they need to have good vascularization. That is, blood vessels, especially small capillaries, have to exist sufficiently to provide the required oxygen and nutrients.

Like almost every other aspect of the body, blood vessels grow to the degree to which they are needed. Low repetition, high weight, doesn’t allow you to keep a muscle in the state that encourages vascularization long enough. Low weight won’t put enough strain on the muscles. So in addition to high weight low repetition exercises for muscle fiber growth, and low weight high repetition exercises for innervation, you also want some medium weight exercises to improve vascularization. These are exercises you can keep doing for quite a few repetitions but place enough load on the muscle that you feel the burn, you cause some lactic acid build-up which is a signal to the body that hey, more oxygen is needed here.

Weight lifting, loading the muscles, also improves bone density and tendon strength but several words of caution are in order here. Don’t start out slamming the most weight you can in a single repetition. Two bad things happen, unconditioned tendons stretch or tear. Conventional wisdom says that once stretched they never return to their original length without surgery. I know this to be false after an incident with my shoulder. It took almost a decade, but with gradual exercise the joint eventually did tighten back up without surgery. But it’s best to avoid doing stupid things than spend the better part of a decade recuperating.

The second bad thing that can happen is that lifting heavy weights causes your blood pressure to spike. If it spikes too high you could be in for a stroke. One thing to be very careful about, when you are in the contraction phase of an exercise, DO NOT hold your breath. Doing so can considerably increase the amplitude of that blood pressure spike. Be very aware of your breathing and continue to breath normally through the contraction phase.

If you want to do heavy lifts, work up gradually over time. This gives your body time to accommodate. The tendons will grow stronger, additional calcium will be deposited in the bones, vascularization will improve.

When a muscle demands oxygen and nutrients, the arteries feeding it dilate, and other arteries constrict, forcing more blood to the muscle. If vascularization is poor, it’s like trying to force water from a hose through a closed nozzle, pressure goes up. Good vascularization allows blood to flow more freely. So you want to start out with lower weight and more repetitions to give this time to happen, particularly if you are older and more of those proteins in the artery walls and tendons have been cross-bound with glucose resulting in less elasticity.

Macular degeneration, the degeneration of the fovia and related structures near the center of the retina, is often very closely related to vascular health. Vascular health can be maintained through adequate and proper exercise, and by avoiding high glycemic index foods.

So, of the items in my original list, aerobic capacity, that is the ability to use oxygen to produce energy, can be maintained through adequate aerobic exercise.

Muscle mass and strength can be maintained through strength training. Bone density can be maintained through load bearing exercises.

Cartilage in the joints will to some degree disintegrate, but exercise and avoidance of high glycemic index foods will reduce the rate at which this occurs.

Skin becomes thinner and loses elasticity, avoiding smoking, proper nutrition, and exercise will keep the skin well nurished and reduce the rate at which this happens. Particularly avoid smoking. Smoking constricts the peripheral blood vessels starving the skin of oxygen and nutrients, resulting in premature aging.

We have all heard about the danger of excessive exposure to the Sun, skin cancers. But we are only given half-truths by the marketing media. The truth is moderate UV exposure is best, not zero, not too much. Australia is the nation with the highest skin cancer rate in the world, in part because the ozone layer is less effective at filtering UV radiation from the sun in this region.

A study was done in Australia comparing the rate of skin cancers of people that spend all day outdoors, people that spend all day indoors, and people that spend part of their day indoors and part of it out.

The people that spent all day outdoors had, as expected, the highest rates of skin cancer. But what wasn’t expected is that the people who spend all day indoors had significantly higher skin cancer rates than those that spent part of their day indoors and part of their day outdoors.

The people conducting this study then wondered if UV radiation from fluorescent lighting in indoor space wasn’t at fault for the high rate of cancer for those that spend all day indoors. The UV output from fluorescent lighting varies highly between different manufacturers and different phosphor coatings. Some fluorescent lighting has a fairly high UV output, other fluorescent lighting has very little. So what they did is they was to survey all the locations where the people included in their indoor sample worked, and then divided the indoor sample into groups based upon the amount of UV light they received indoors.

What they found was that the group with the highest indoor UV radiation had the lowest melanoma rates and the group that received the lowest indoor UV had the highest melanoma rates.

Another factoid, in the continental United States, Seattle has the distinction of being the city that receives the least annual sunshine. Seattle also has the distinction of being the city with the highest melanoma rates.

Two other factoids to consider, while high UV rates do correlate with high skin cancer rates, low UV rates correlate with high melanoma rates in the Australia study and low UV exposure also correlates with higher breast cancer rates even when vitamin D supplementation is present.

Oh, one more, some of the organic UV blockers used in sunscreen have been found to be carcinogenic. So if you elect to use a sunblock, pick one of the metal oxide blockers, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Yes, they are generally uglier, though there are some newer nano-particle suspensions of metal oxides that are visibly transparent.

The lens of the eyes harden and become less accommodating, eventually becoming opaque. UV exposure correlates with higher incidences of cataracts. It’s a good idea to protect your eyes from UV. If you ware glass glasses, they block the majority of UV, plastic lenses are more transparent to UV and will not provide protection unless equipped with UV filters.

Proper exercise and avoiding high glycemic foods can delay this. It will still happen if you live long enough because glucose binding can not be prevented entirely because our cells depend upon glucose for energy. But it can be greatly reduced. Exercising the eyes can also maximize the strength of the muscles controlling the lens shape maximizing their ability to accommodate for any given lens condition.

The macula may still degenerate, but doing what you need to do to maintain good cardiovascular health, aerobic exercise, avoid high fat foods, especially saturated fats, get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids (the benefits of omega-6/9 are less certain), avoid high glycemic index foods, will delay that degeneration.

Hair may turn grey and may fall out. These things are largely hereditary. There is some evidence that stress levels does indeed increase graying and exercise and proper nutrition can help with those, but largely this is genetically determined.

Gums recede from the teeth, teeth deteriorate and fall out. Proper dental maintenance decreases this, brushing, flossing, and use of mouthwash to minimize tartar build-up and getting your teeth professionally cleaned when needed reduces this.

Overall metabolic rate declines… If you sit on your but and watch TV all day. Proper exercise can prevent this.

The mind becomes less sharp, keys get lost more frequently. This is another use it or lose it. People who learn multiple languages are in general much less subject to general age related cognitive decline. The brain also uses between one third and one half of the bodies entire energy caloric consumption. This means that proper infrastructure is very important to the brain, vascular trouble will result in dead neurons. Wild sugar fluctuations result in dead neurons. Lack of oxygen results in dead neurons. Too much alcohol results in dead neurons. Exercise your mind, body, avoid excess alcohol, and more neurons will live on into old age.

The arteries become hard and less compliant, blood pressure goes up. They may become clogged. Maintaining correct weight, regular exercise, and avoid high glycemic index foods will minimize this.

With the exception of hair color or loss, damn near every aspect of aging can either be stopped or significantly delayed. And that’s before you even consider magic elixers.

Hair dye can address color if it’s a big deal and various treatments can address the cosmetic issue of hair.

And now there are some real magic elixers. Retin-A, can improve skin elasticity and thickness, as well as reducing age spots, and it has been documented to even reverse some precancerous conditions. It can have some benefits in reducing acne. Retin-A also dries and irritates the skin. So it’s not strictly magic, but it can be helpful.

I read somewhere about an experimental drug which undoes the glucose binding of proteins, restoring arteries, connective tissues, skin, and the lenses of the eyes to a more youthful state. I don’t remember the specific drug, but it was being tested in dogs as a possible blood pressure medication where upon they found it also had these other effects. To the best of my knowledge, human testing is not yet underway. But this may be something that becomes available to us in the future.

5 Comments

  1. Wow, what a long post! Good comments about how many “snake oil sales” there currently are. It’s funny when you look at it from a historical perspective that the internet (a brand new invention) is bringing back the old tradition of selling objects/supplements with magical properties!

  2. I agree that good ol’ diet and exercise are the keys to looking younger. According to a recent Forbes article, “People who get regular exercise, eat healthfully and avoid tobacco have a lower risk of chronic diseases that lead to premature death. They also have reduced rates of disability, better mental health and cognitive function, and lower health costs. Just 30 minutes of activity five days a week can make a difference. The right kind of activity coupled with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lead to a longer happier life.” It also goes on to say that these are things we all know we need to do, we just got out of the habit.

  3. Nanook says:

    Yes, I believe that 99% of us know these are things we need to do. However, the plethora of bogus products and procedures provides an excuse for people not to do what they need to do. Why worry about being fat? I can just get liposuction. Why worry about wrinkles? I can get a facelift. And these things are probably far less dubious than most of what is out there.

    One of the big things I think people don’t understand is that it’s not just about living longer, it’s about living BETTER. If you’re healthy then your body will not prevent you from doing what you want to do. I know I’m going to die a physical death at some point. I can’t change that, and while I’d like to push the “when” out there as far as possible, what I REALLY want to avoid is living the second half of my life in a dysfunctional state. I want to be able to live a full life up to the point where it ends.

  4. Beverly says:

    Enjoyed the read!

    Stop by my blog sometime.

    Peace & Blessings

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