Slow down ageing with Integrative Medicine.
Slow down ageing with Integrative Medicine. The opportunity we have to live longer is now greater than any other period in human history. In fact, Australians are ranked among the top 10 in the world for longevity. Life expectancy for people living in first world countries has increased significantly in the past 60 years. Men on average live to 79.9 years, and women to 84.4 years (as at 2012). Average life expectancy has increased from 70 years to 82 years for all people since 1960 – a combination of healthier lifestyles, better living standards and advances in medical care making a considerable difference to mortality. An extra decade or more of life is a great achievement! But there is a difference between living longer and living well in the latter years of life and most people when asked about their desire for longevity will qualify their response with ‘as long as I am healthy’. It may be useful to define personal beliefs about ageing and what goals you have. For example, there is a difference between a goal of growing old but having a full life with sufficient energy, versus a goal of living with the absence of disease. Healthy ageing is a relatively new and emerging area of medical research with growing significance in our ageing population base. If we approach ageing from the perspective of Integrative Medicine we are able to consider a person beyond their chronological age and pay closer attention to lifestyle including characteristics such as health, cognitive function and musculoskeletal health. We can also consider the idea of ‘slow ageing’ as opposed to ‘anti-ageing’ – this shift of perspective allows us to respect ageing as a natural process in the body that we can influence by making correct choices. Integrative Medicine focuses on the idea of health expectancy – how long we expect to be healthy, rather than life expectancy. Ageing is multidimensional. It is more than a set number based on years lived. Ageing is a natural process in the body that is brought about by cell death. Cells replicate a finite number of times after which they cease to operate – a natural process called senescene. It is normal for cells to wear out and the skin and lung cells are usually the first to show signs of wear and tear. These ‘mortal’ cells are thought to contribute to more than 80 percent of deterioration and diseases associated with human ageing. So longevity is not so much about the person ageing as it is about the cells ageing. Research indicates that ageing is 25 percent genes and 75 percent lifestyle. In a US study conducted by University Hospitals Case Medical Center in 2013, researchers have shown that the ageing process is influenced not only by the accumulation of mitochondrial DNA damage during a person’s lifetime, but also by the DNA inherited from their mothers. One of the new research frontiers in DNA and ageing relates to the health of telomeres. At the end of DNA strands there are protective regions called telomeres, which were first discovered by Australian-born molecular biologist Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, Monash University Graduate and Nobel Prize winner, in the late 1970s. Blackburn linked shortened telomere length and telomerase enzyme activity – telomerase is an enzyme that adds new DNA to telomeres and lengthens them – with human ageing. It was discovered that, in general: · With increased age, telomeres became shorter; · Chronic stress shortened telomeres and accelerated the signs of ageing; · Cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other age-related illnesses were higher in people with shortened telomeres; and · Premature ageing diseases were linked to shortened telomeres and/or defective telomerase enzyme function. While it is still early days, the implications of this research into telomeres and telomerase, and their influence in lengthening health span, is promising. Telomerase may well hold one of the keys to ‘immortal cells’ and therefore aid us in keeping our cells young and healthy in the future. While supplementing telomerase is now undergoing trials in America, it has also been seen to influence cancer cells so there is still much to explore. What we do know, however, is that a healthy lifestyle has a significant and positive effect on telomeres. A natural healthy diet, suitable exercise and focused relaxation therapies, in particular those that support stress management, are all effective in stablising or even increasing telomere length and therefore minimising the effects of ageing. The role of a healthy diet and exercise have been discussed more fully in previous articles in this publication. If we want to find examples of healthy life spans that lead to longevity (and of course longer telomeres) we need only look to the recent Blue Zones study developed by Dan Bruettner in conjunction with the National Geographic Society. Bruettner spent many years researching populations where living to one hundred years of age was typical. He reviewed the lifestyle parameters that were similar between these populations, which were as diverse as Okinawa (Japan), Linda Loma (California, US), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Sardinia (Italy) and Ikaria (Greece), and came to some interesting conclusions, which are now useful as an Integrative Medicine blueprint for a long and healthy life. In the Blue Zones research, the following recommendations are made: 1. Move naturally – be active without having to think about it, incorporate more movement into daily tasks. Exercise. Practice yoga or walk the dog. 2. Reduce calorie intake by 20 percent. Do not eat until you are full. 3. Eat more plant-based foods and reduce intake of red meat and processed foods – eat for nutrition, eat locally and eat fresh. 4. Drink a little red wine in moderation for its antioxidant value, and relaxation potential. 5. Figure out a purpose in life and live it – try new things, do what you love. 6. Always make time and have strategies to relieve stress and relax – take breaks – yes, even from technology! 7. Restful and restorative sleep is also critical to health. Make sleep a priority. 8. Participate in your community – a sense of belonging and engagement is critical, get involved. Volunteering provides great satisfaction. 9. Make family a priority – nurture your closest relationships. 10. Connect with others who also share your values and desire for a long and healthy life – social connectedness and regular sharing are good for good health. These Blue Zones ideas for a simplified life are well supported in medical research and provide a powerful holistic perspective on life. Overeating and inactivity has been shown to speed up the ageing process, right down to our cells, and exercise is proven to be protective against many diseases, in addition to its capacity to slow ageing. In addition to the Blue Zones ideas, the maintenance of healthy brain function and a healthy musculoskeletal system (bone and muscle) are of paramount importance for a healthy long life. Read more about healthy brain function and musculoskeletal health in previous articles in this publication. The general tips for good health do not change dramatically as we age – healthy oils (omega 3 from seafood and omega 9 from olive oil) are important, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption is advisable, consulting an integrative health practitioner is always great advice for managing specific conditions. Maintaining a healthy weight range and ensuring Vitamin D levels are adequate, remain important irrespective of age. Research has shown that a daily Multivitamin can reduce the rate at which telomeres shorten. It is controversial whether Resveratrol, which is available in a number of foods and as a supplement, has an anti-ageing role. Another area of controversy involves the popular use of hormonal anti-ageing therapies, but more research is needed. It is interesting to note that some of the longest living people, including French woman Jeanne Calmert, consumed dark chocolate daily. (Calment is said to have consumed 100gms of dark chocolate every day and died at age 122!). Dark chocolate provides a wealth of slow ageing benefits. Our attitude to life, our enjoyment of what matters most and our ability to manage stress are also key lifestyle interventions that have proven influence on health and wellbeing. It makes sense that the post-work era of our lives holds some of the most pleasurable years of our lives. Regular checkups and blood tests to see how well our body is functioning are also essential tools for preventative health care. What is known through research, particularly research into telomeres, is that what we do in our younger years, and indeed through all the stages of our lives, has an effect on how well we age. In fact, research is indicating that the pre-conception health of both the mother and father, plus a healthy mother during pregnancy are of paramount importance for the future health and longevity of the newborn. Healthy ageing comes from inside our cells (despite a market full of products offering anti-ageing solutions for the ‘outside’) and purposeful living is also the best protection we have against disease and chronic illness. Slow ageing is not random – become informed, create a plan and set changes in motion that best support your vision for a long and vital life. Is there an upper limit for life expectancy? Could we foreseeably live to 150 years old or more as whole populations? Researchers remain divided on this point as it becomes increasingly difficult to lower mortality at later ages (even though there is still opportunity to lower infant mortality rates). For the people living in the Blue Zones, where living to one hundred years of age is part of life, there is no secret to health expectancy. A long healthy life is a matter of lifestyle and Integrative Medicine provides a contemporary and Australian-orientated way of adapting the lessons Blue Zones populations teach us for everyday life. Professor Avni Sali is Founding Director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine (NIIM). niim.com.au