To Your Health

I am 68 years old, and I can't decide how best to delay the aging process. I exercise some, eat sensibly, and take a multivitamin. What else works?

Q. I am 68 years old, and I can't decide how best to delay the aging process. I don't want to lead a "long and hungry life" even though research says that calorie restriction lengthens life. I exercise some, eat sensibly, and take a multivitamin. What else works?

A. Most people say they do not want their body to outlive their mind, so keeping your mind sharp may be the highest priority. A study just published (February 2002) in the journal Neurochemistry International reports that, after adjusting for a lot of things that might make a difference such as education, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity, a better diet was associated with better "cognitive performance," the ability to think, reason, and remember. Although the specific aspects of a "better diet" were not made clear, we can assume that it emphasizes whole foods, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. It is already well established that such a diet goes a long way in preventing many chronic diseases that affect both mind and body.

Even when you eat well now, surveys indicate that elderly people tend to have barely enough vitamins and minerals, probably due to diminished nutrient absorption with age. The diet that has kept you healthy up to now may need to be upgraded, with special attention paid to antioxidant intake. Antioxidants have received a lot of press for their role in protecting us against the free radical damage associated with aging. Some free radical damage to our bodies is always going on just because we are alive so we always need antioxidant protection. Free radical damage is worse when we are exposed to impurities in our food, water, and air, which can be minimized by making changes in your environment to reduce exposure to pollution. Free radical damage is recognized as an important risk factor in many age-associated diseases such as dementia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, the leading causes of illness and death among the elderly.

Perhaps no aspect of aging is more important than an organism's ability to withstand stress from all sources, and we know that all organisms, as they age, lose their ability to withstand stress. Terms like stress resistance and adaptability, though poorly defined, have long been used to describe wellness. Keeping up even gentle physical activity all your life will help maintain stress tolerance.

Acting on the observation that stress also causes mitochondrial function to decline, research published in the Feb. 21 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA reported that rats supplemented with two rather uncommon nutrients, acetyl-L-carnitine and lipoic acid, exhibited partial reversal of the age-related decline in mitochondrial function. This combination of nutrients also significantly increased voluntary activity of the rats, which was more obvious in old compared to young animals. Mitochondria are the power plants for our cells, and it is important to keep them functioning well. The amounts used were quite large, the human equivalent of about 15 grams of acetyl-L-carnitine and five grams of lipoic acid per day, roughly 10 times the amount usually used in supplements.

Although it is inevitable that we age and eventually die, for some individuals this is less of an ordeal than for others. Adding antioxidant supplements including acetyl-L-carnitine and lipoic acid to your current multivitamin/mineral and maintaining a diet rich in antioxidants while staying physically and mentally active seems to offer the best hope of prolonging the vigorous portion of life.

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