The concept of aging has many dimensions. The simplest parameter we can measure is chronlogical age, the number of years you have spent on this earth since your birth. This is your so-called birthday age. Physiological aging is a much more nuanced yet more important measure of how your body and mind are handling your years on this earth. Physiological age it’s much harder to measure than chronological age so we need to take a closer look at the science of aging.
Tell Me More About Telomeres
We are starting to understand the aging process on a cellular level. Telomeres are repetitive regions of DNA that are attached to the ends of our chromosomes. Telomeres allow cellular division to take place without a loss of information. After a certain number of cell divisions the telomeres become depleted and no further cell division can take place, so damaged tissue cannot be repaired. You grow old, fall apart bit by bit and then die. Telomerase is an enzyme that restores telomeres, but unfortunately in adult humans it is only present in stem cells and T-cells. T-cells stop distributing telomerase at about the age of 45. Once we run out of telomerase, our stem cells can no longer divide and our ability to repair tissue gradually declines. This process is called senescence.
The Fountain of Youth–Lobster Style
It’s interesting to note that some species show little signs of senescence with chronological aging. Living in the Boston area, lobsters naturally come to mind. The Cardiologist I work with is also a commercial lobsterman and he sometimes brings me a box of live lobsters. Coming from the Midwest I have come to appreciate these spiny wonders. Lobsters continue to grow and maintain their ability to reproduce throughout their lives, with little sign of physical aging. Some people have proposed that lobsters are somehow “immortal”, but that simply isn’t the case. Lobsters have high levels of telomerase throughout their lives, so they don’t show the outward signs of aging, yet they still eventually die at a more or less predetermined age if they don’t first end up in a boiling pot of water. That’s because a species’ maximum lifespan is likely determined by many factors that have nothing to do with telomeres. Lobsters can live at least to the age of 60 and the oldest recorded human being lived to the age of 122.
I suspect that we won’t be finding the age extending fountain of youth anytime too soon, so this upper limit of human lifespan is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Even if we can’t extend chronological aging, we do have tremendous control over physiological aging or senescence. Our goal should be to live like lobsters—fit, virile and healthy until the very end. Although many researchers are looking for the magic bullet to extend telomeres, we already know that oxidative stress, cellular inflammation, glycation, mitochondrial dysfunction and altered methylation can shorten telomeres and cause cellular damage and premature senescence. What do all these elements have in common? They are strong influenced by your dietary choices.
Take a Look in the Mirror
As a practicing physician I don’t need to measure my patient’s telomere length or markers of insulin resistance and inflammation to gauge their physiological aging. All I need to do is simply look at them. Humans evolved with the innate ability to quickly determine the physiological age of other people. Wrinkled skin, dark circles under the eyes, a slowed reaction time and the lack of a healthy glow are parameters that we subconsciously measure to determine the physiological age of others. This is really an issue of evolutionary survival, because Mother Nature doesn’t want you mating or teaming up with folks who are nearing the end of the line. After all, you don’t want to end up on Darwin’s short list!
Life Over at 50
Physiological age not only determines how you look, it also determines what you can do. People who are aging more slowly are more physically and mentally vigorous than those where the aging process has been accelerated. Recently I took care of a 50-year old male who has a physiological age of around 65-70. He looks older than his stated age, he moves like an older person and he thinks like someone a few decades older than his stated age. John (not his real name) hasn’t taken very good care of himself. Years ago he abused drugs and over the years he has at times abused alcohol. He also has consumed the Standard American Diet loaded with processed fake foods throughout his life. He also has type II diabetes, hypertension and depression. Of course his primary care physician has prescribed loads of medications for these problems, yet by the yardstick I use John is doing poorly.
He is disabled and cannot work, his marriage is in tatters and he has no quality of life. His sole focus is on the sorry state of his physical and mental health and he cannot look beyond these problems to give to others around him. His world is narrow and dim. In other words his meaningful life is over at the age of 50. I see patients like John every day. Some are worse off than John and some are better off, but they share his accelerating senescence. What else does science have to say about accelerating aging?
Don’t Get Wormed
As it turns out, much of the basic research on aging has been performed using a microscopic roundworm called c. elegans. Recent research has shown that adding a small amount of glucose to their diet reduces their lifespan by about 20%. Glucose seems to do this through insulin signaling that down-regulates factors that extend life. Other studies have shown that in these worms glucose leads to increased oxidative stress, glycation and mitochondrial dysfunction, all markers of accelerated senescence. Long story short, glucose causes these worms to age faster and die younger. And don’t think you’re off the hook—many studies have shown that this same process occurs in humans, especially when they have insulin resistance and type II diabetes.
The first step down this wormy pathway is insulin resistance, where it takes more insulin to move glucose into your cells. The primary dietary driver of insulin resistance seems to be excessive fructose, mainly from added sugars like sucrose and HFCS. These simple sugars are added to most processed foods and in developed countries they now make up a substantial part of most people’s diet. Excessive fructose is converted to fats called triglycrides that eventually begin to fill your liver with fat. Once you have insulin resistance and consume high glycemic carbohydrates, you end up with magnified glucose spikes in your blood. In other words you get “wormed” just like c. elegans swimming in a broth with added glucose.
Frying Your Brain with Processed Food
High levels of glucose are especially bad for your brain and over time can trigger a form of food-induced brain dysfunction called Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain syndrome or CARB syndrome. It takes a healthy brain to auto-regulate your fat stores and control your metabolism, so people with CARB syndrome begin to store extra fat even when they don’t overeat. They can also develop up to 22 brain dysfunction symptoms that interfere with their ability to function. CARB syndrome is really the disease process that happens to your brain when your nerve cells are affected by too much glucose, leading to the same oxidative stress, glycation and mitochondrial dysfunction that derailed our wormy friends. David Perlmutter’s excellent book “Grain Brain” further outlines the connection between processed food and common brain disorders.
It’s not just your brain that takes a hit in this sorry tale. This process adversely affects every organ in your body leading to accelerated aging or senescence when you eat a diet loaded with processed fake food. You end up with eyes that don’t see so well, sputtering thyroid and adrenal glands, poor lung and heart function, a GI tract that doesn’t know whether it’s on foot or horseback, sex organs that are over the hill, a liver that can no longer detoxify your body and kidneys ready to go bust. Throw in some heart attacks, strokes and common cancers and you get a sense where this is heading—the worm farm rather than lobsterland.
The Pathway From the Worm Farm to Lobsterland
So if you want to age with grace, the best strategy is to avoid insulin resistance. It is estimated that up to 38% of Americans already have insulin resistance, but even if you are one of them you can turn the ship around if follow the right strategy. Keeping your glucose levels rock steady and your insulin levels in check is a good place to start. The best way to accomplish this is by avoiding all sugar, HFCS and fruit juices. You will also need to severely restrict high glycemic carbohydrates, especially from grains like wheat. To learn more I recommend reading “Wheat Belly” by William Davis. I also recommend decreasing your intake of omega 6 fatty acids from vegetable oils and increasing your intake of omega 3 fatty acids.
Most people don’t realize that glucose isn’t the only fuel that can be used by their cells for energy. Virtually all the cells in your body can also use ketone bodies from fat for energy. Some studies have suggested that a low carbohydrate, high fat ketogenic diet might slow the aging process, especially when it comes to your brain. Jimmy Moore is one of the masters of this type of diet and if you are interested in learning more, I suggest that you visit this site. Remember all those high protein diets? We now realize that if you eat too much protein, your body will simply turn it into glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis and once again you become a wrinkled up dying worm! Keep the simple carbohydrates in check, consume a moderate amount of high-quality protein and most importantly consume a lot of healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids, butter, avocados, fatty cuts of grass fed beef and lamb, bacon, olive oil and coconut oil. I know–your Cardiologist will likely have a heart attack when he finds out what you are eating, but don’t despair because there is mounting evidence that saturated fat can be good for you, especially if you don’t combine it with added sugars and refined grains.
Intermittent fasting has also been shown to slow the aging process and it’s relatively easy to skip meals when you are eating a high fat diet. A Paleo style diet can also help slow the aging process because it eliminates the age-accelerating elements of our modern diet. I recommend a visiting Loren Cordain’s or Robb Wolf’s web sites to learn more about a Paleo diet. For more information about the adverse affects of carbohydrates and insulin on your health, Gary Taubes is your man. The experts on the dangers of excessive fructose are Richard Johnson and Robert Lustig.
If You Don’t Comply, Don’t Complain
I’ve covered a lot of ground when it comes to the aging process, but as a practicing physician every day of the week I see one glaring truth–the rate that you are aging is the best metric of your overall health. You want to age more like a lobster and less like a small worm swimming in a petri dish of glucose. Now the ball is in your court and you are in control of your own destiny. You can no longer claim ignorance, but you can choose to be non-compliant and ignore my anti-aging advice. As I tell my patients, if you don’t comply then don’t complain when the wheels fall off!