16 Oct 14 How to live a long time: ignore the anti-aging oxymorons
The natural foods industry is deep into the anti-aging business, and it’s all based on two lies—one about pesticides and toxins, the other about anti-oxidants. Neither toxins nor oxidation are the reason that we get old, and we can’t live longer by eating less toxins or more anti-oxidants. In fact, toxins in small quantities stimulate the body’s longevity pathways, and anti-oxidants can nullify the very real anti-aging benefits of exercise. [Great insights from the Josh Mitteldorf science blog, Aging Matters. Ed]
People who are fanatical about clean air and organic food don’t live to extraordinary ages. Animals raised in a super-clean, toxin- and pathogen-free environment actually die earlier than animals raised with bugs and dirt.
Anti-oxidants have been tried in animal experiments and human studies, and they don’t extend life. In a definitive study, 29,000 Finnish men were given anti-oxidant vitamins in the 1990s, until the experiment was called off for ethical reasons. It turned out people taking the vitamins were dying at a higher rate than the placebo group.
“Natural anti-aging” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. There are plenty of good reasons to eat organic. Support more sustainable farming practices. The vegetables taste better. There’s more nutritional value and it might even be healthier, especially for young people. But natural foods are not part of the recipe for a longer life.
In fact, there is plenty you can do to slow down aging and improve your odds for a long life, but the best practices aren’t particularly “natural”. Weight loss, fasting and short bursts of vigorous, all-out exercise are high on the list. There are also some hormones and two prescription drugs* (long out of patent) that seem to work. The easiest thing you can do to improve your odds is to take tiny doses of aspirin and mega-doses of vitamin D. (Much more here.)
What aging really is
Aging is not about the body wearing out, and it’s not about accumulating toxins. Aging is something our bodies are doing to themselves. All the stuff that goes wrong as we get older is no accident, and it’s not a failure of the body. Aging is suicide on a schedule, programmed into our genes.
- The stem cells in our body are tasked with renewing our skin and muscle and bones and blood, and even our nerve cells regrow over time. But the stem cells have replication counters in the chromosomes. Regular readers of this page are familiar with telomeres and “cellular senescence”. Telomeres are the body’s primary aging clock; when the counter gets too high, the stem cells get the message to slow down growth and repair, to let the body go to pot.
- Our immune system is brilliant at distinguishing invaders from self, attacking the former and protecting the latter. This is done by the T-cells in our blood. The T in T-cell stands for “thymus”, a little organ behind the breast bone where T-cells are trained to tell the good guys from the bad guys. But your thymus has been shrinking ever since you were about 10 years old, and by the time you’re 40, it’s only ⅓ what it was when you were a child. 90-year-olds have almost no thymus left, and that has everything to do why 90-year-olds can’t defend against the flu, and why pneumonia is the Old Man’s Friend.
- The T-cells don’t just fail to defend us against enemies, they make the opposite mistake as well, and attack perfectly good, healthy tissue. Inflammation is your first line of defense against invading microbes when you’re injured, and it works great when we’re young. But as we get old, inflammation turns inward. Healthy cells are destroyed. Stem cells are re-purposed as cancer cells. Inflammation has been linked to the Big Four diseases of old age which, together, are responsible for more than 90% of all deaths: cancer, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s dementia, and stroke.
- There are more ways in which the body actively destroys itself in old age. Read some of them here.
These aren’t failures of the body. They’re mutiny. We can’t fix these problems by supporting the body with a natural diet. Instead, we have to trick the body into doing something it wasn’t designed to do. That’s the very opposite of “natural”.
The reason that medical progress in the diseases of old age has been so slow is that the researchers are all working with the wrong model. They are stuck in the paradigm of the 20th century, when “natural medicine” was so successful. The idea was to work with the body, to enhance the body’s natural defenses, to help the body heal itself rather than to engineer fixes from the outside…..