Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Chandigarh, India

B O D Y  &  M I N D

Take care to prevent ravages of ageing, have healthy life
Mohinder Singh
ou can stop smoking. Avoid alcohol. But there’s one toxin you can’t escape: oxygen. With every breath you take, you gulp oxygen. Oxygen is mostly good. It combines with fats and carbohydrates to churn out the energy that gets us through the day.

From the research desk

  • Exercise good for old women

  • Childhood stress harmful




Take care to prevent ravages of ageing, have healthy life
Mohinder Singh

You can stop smoking. Avoid alcohol. But there’s one toxin you can’t escape: oxygen. With every breath you take, you gulp oxygen.

Oxygen is mostly good. It combines with fats and carbohydrates to churn out the energy that gets us through the day. And it nourishes the blood that courses through our veins. But during this interaction, a small amount of oxygen is regenerated in the form called a free radical or oxidant — the very critter that causes iron to rust. The oxidants careen about, binding to and disrupting cell membranes, proteins, DNA and other cell structures. Over the years, this damage adds up, making you an older, frailer person.

Oxidants are said to bombard the DNA inside every one of our cells around 10,000 times a day. Luckily, most of the assailants are intercepted by the body’s antioxidant chemicals. And proteins patch up the damage caused by the radicals that do get through. But eventually, as the theory goes, the old tired cells get less efficient at repelling free radicals while repair work becomes sluggish. The damage accumulates, and we begin to rust from inside out.

Some researchers think the key to ageing is to understand how oxidative damage works. Once that is known, it shouldn’t take long to increase life expectancy.

Experiments on flies and rodents have shown some promising results with antioxidants such as lipoic acid. Fruit flies bred with a dose of SODI, an antioxidant enzyme that breaks down free radicals lived 40 per cent longer than normal fruit flies did in a University of Guelph laboratory. Notably, the phase of life extended was youth, not old age.

Another idea is to protect the most important injured cells, rather than trying to fight oxidative damage throughout the body. One candidate cell in mind: the motor neuron, which directs muscles from the brain and spinal chord.

If antioxidants work for flies and rats, what about human beings? Nobody has an answer yet. Can you down a daily antioxidant supplement that will extend your years? "Don’t count on it," say most researchers. The evidence that vitamin C and E in pill form, or any other synthetic supplement is actually useful for delaying ageing is very thin. For one, your body can absorb only so much of these vitamins; the rest goes the way of other wastes. Anyway, a balanced diet in modern terms supplies us enough of the basic antioxidants.

Even if antioxidant supplements do boost our defences against free radicals, it’s tricky to know how much to take. A large dosage could well be harmful. One recent study discovered that beta-carotene supplements — the best known antioxidant — had actually increased rates of lung cancer in smokers.

If antioxidant supplements are mostly out, and the "famine diet" presents an unappetizing scenario, all that you can do to prolong life is to manage a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Good healthcare can make you fitter and less liable to suffer some of the worst ravages of ageing — but it won’t make you live much longer than you were genetically programmed to live. Stopping ageing lies in changing our genes, and success here awaits quite a few breakthroughs in scientific advancement.

The quest to beat ageing goes on. But far too many factors seem to be involved in ageing — at least several key processes are involved. According to a recent tally, some 300 theories of ageing have been proposed.

No wonder, gerontology, the science of ageing, focuses more on improving mental and physical health during the time we’ve got than on extending our natural lifespan.


Remedy: munch fruits, veg

Munch on fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants. With a supplement, you never get the benefit of a fruit or vegetable that contains hundreds of compounds. right now researchers can’t even identify all compounds, much less to explain, how they might work together to fight free radicals.

Till something dramatic turns up, your best bet for fending off cellular damage from free radicals — and thus improving your odds for a longer, healthier life — is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. This, of course, has been the conventional wisdom, but now it has the backing of science.

Here are some foods rich in antioxidants:

Fruits: oranges, plums, cherries, strawberries, red grapes, prunes, raisins, grapefruit.

Vegetables: Onions, green chilies, spinach, beets, corn, eggplant, carrots, various sprouts.

Also, reduce caloric intake

Another researched approach to longevity is to cut down on calories. Lab experiments on rats and even primates have shown that "caloric restriction" has the effect of prolonging life significantly. And scientists see no reason why the same shouldn’t work for us. Lighting the load of food is seen to reduce wear and tear on the body and may delay the slow descent towards death from free radicals and other aggressors such as the tissue-damaging sugar, that weigh down the eater of a normal diet.

In effect, it would mean restricting the daily caloric intake to round about 1,500 instead of 2,000 calories the average-seized human consumes every day. And this again has to be four to five small meals a day, predominantly vegetables and fruits.

Now this is a prescription that could keep you painfully thin and perennially hungry, let alone you missing most of the fun in food. One is not sure whether many would bargain for decades of such living — eating broccoli, distilling water, gobbling garlic — just to add a few years to their life span.

Be happy, curb anger

Cultivating a sunny disposition, curbing bursts of anger that could trigger a stroke, and leading an active life can assuage the ageing process, yet there is little evidence these actually beat ageing.


From the research desk

Exercise good for old women

Elderly women who exercise regularly are less prone to suffer mental decline, another indication that physical activity helps stave off some of the frailties of aging, researchers said.

"This finding supports the hypothesis that physical activity prevents cognitive (mental) decline in older ... women,’’ study author Kristine Yaffe, a psychiatrist and neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco, said yesterday

The researchers tracked nearly 6,000 mostly white, healthy women aged 65 or older living in planned communities, such as nursing homes, whose mental faculties and levels of exercise were evaluated over a six- to eight-year span.

Those in the highest quartile of exercise — measured by calories expended walking, gardening, or more rigorous activities — were 26 per cent less likely to develop cognitive decline than those in the quartile who exercised the least.

For example, for every mile (1.6 km) per day the women walked, they lowered their risk of mental decline by 13 per cent, the researchers said. Walking speed was not a factor. Reuters


Childhood stress harmful

Neglect and abuse during early childhood can cause memory loss and impaired cognitive abilities later in life by boosting the production of a hormone that harms the brain’s learning and memory centere, scientists say.

In an experiment involving laboratory rats, researchers at the University of California at Irvine’s College of Medicine showed that these stress-related dysfunctions were caused by a brain hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).

Dr Tallie Baram, who led the study, said pinpointing the mechanism at work could lead to new types of treatments for stress-related damage to the brain.

The researchers studied what happened in the brains of rats in an attempt to gain a better understanding of how stress in early childhood, including emotional neglect and abuse, produces enduring negative consequences in people. "It’s been shown in children and infants and also in animal models that chronic, early-life stress leads to a decline in cognitive function, particularly cognitive function that’s related to the brain,’’ Dr Baram said in an interview. "That part of the brain is responsible for learning and memory. What’s been really not clear is how that happens.’’ Reuters

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