Understanding antioxidants, free radicals, and the power of balanced nutrition for a longer, healthier life
Long ago, I read in Sputnik magazine, published in the Soviet Union, that most Russians living in high altitudes live long lives because they must walk uphill. Besides, they consume a lot of yoghurt and pollen tablets. In a hospital, patients are treated by making them walk through a garden with special kinds of trees that exhale healing air. Patients inhale this air to get cured. There used to be old commercials featuring hoax Russian villagers who claimed to have reached ages beyond 100 years (and still visited their mothers) by eating a particular brand of yoghurt. However, it turned out that their real secret of longevity was lying about their age. They, and the citizens of other remote areas around the world, had fooled the public for years. Among Ecuadorians, when a scientist met a man who claimed to be 122 years old in 1971 and 134 years old in 1974, later investigation revealed that nobody there had reached a 100th birthday, and that village authorities were planning to build a high-rise hotel that would offer a “week of longevity” to rich Americans.
Human beings have the potential to live up to 115 years. However, the search for ways to slow or delay the degeneration that occurs with ageing has not been suppressed by hoaxes and false leads. It is estimated that humans have the potential to live up to 115 years, yet the life expectancy (the average age at death for a particular population) is now about 74 years in the USA. Researchers working to bridge the gap between reality and potential have found that good nutrition is an important factor in achieving a long and healthy life. “It is also true that life can be shortened by a variety of forms of malnutrition,” writes Alfred E. Harper, Ph.D., of the departments of nutritional sciences and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Surely, dietary modification can be used to reduce the severity of the signs and symptoms of a variety of genetic and pathological conditions that result in metabolic defects. Application of nutritional knowledge in these ways can prolong survival – increase longevity – within the biologically determined life span – just as the application of other therapeutic measures or avoidance of environmental hazards can.”
In other words, a well-balanced diet won’t allow you to live forever, but it may help you live longer than your neighbour. Diets can reduce the chances of developing particular diseases. Some doctors say that one secret is combating free radicals. They base their conclusions on the free-radical theory of ageing.
Free radicals are the swinging singles of the molecule scene. Around the nucleus of a molecule, electrons are particles that rotate. All self-respecting electrons travel in pairs. Molecules with unpaired electrons are called free radicals. They are called free and act accordingly. “A free radical is like a convention delegate away from his wife. It is a highly reactive chemical agent that will combine with anything that is around,” according to gerontologist Alex Comfort, M.D., Ph.D.
“Free radicals are produced in your body every day, as products of normal body processes, including metabolism, oxidation, and detoxification of dangerous chemicals. And they are not complete never-do-wells. White blood cells set them against harmful bacteria. They steal electrons from other molecules, damaging the body’s tissues. “Unleash a free radical in the body, and it steals an electron from the first molecule it bumps into. Now that molecule needs another electron, and it steals an electron from the next guy, and the process continues. Like a wild game of tag. The rampage can destroy cell walls, making chromosome damage and, hence, cell death or mutation (which may lead to cancer), more likely to occur.” Most of these reactions are nonlethal, according to Sheldon Hendler, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of California at San Diego, and author of the “Complete Guide to Anti-Aging Nutrients (S&S).” If they were lethal, you would not last for a few minutes. However the damage from uncontrolled free radicals accumulates and can cause more problems as time goes by. Some scientists blame free radicals for much of the degeneration that occurs with ageing.
Free radicals do their dirty work outside the body too. When you cut apple slices and save them for later, only to find that they had turned an ugly brown. Or forgotten to put away the butter, which became rancid. Or left your bike out in the rain, where it rusted. Free radicals strike again.
Antioxidants: Mankind has created ways to control free radical production in nature. You can limit the contact of food with oxygen, for instance by tightly wrapping it in plastic wraps which “lock in freshness.” Cars are rustproofed, certain kinds of paper are specially treated to keep them from yellowing, and special materials are applied to leather and rubber products to prevent them from deteriorating. In each example, an antioxidant compound is what holds the free radicals at bay. Vitamins can work on the same principle as a rustproofing treatment on your car. Your body needs antioxidants too since controlling oxidation also controls the production of free radicals. “We know that animals deficient in antioxidants like Vitamin E, C, and A, and selenium develop cell damage similar to that seen with ageing,” says Jeffery B. Blumberg, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts, and acting associate director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging at Tufts. “Most people do not take in amounts of antioxidants that are optimal for controlling free radicals,” says Dr. Hendler.
It is an established fact that:
Vitamin E extended the life of blood cells exposed to harmful light.
Vitamin C soaks up free radicals and forms two potential anticancer compounds simultaneously.
Beta-carotene may work as a trap for toxic free radicals.
Selenium helps to produce an enzyme that can turn toxic substances into water.
Cooking with unsaturated oils produces free radicals.
Many bodily imperfections that are blamed on ageing may be signs of malnutrition.
As you age, your body may be less able to tolerate sugar.
Calcium absorption is often impaired with age.
Drink plenty of water, whether you feel thirsty or not.
Water: Older people are at a greater risk of dehydration than younger adults, according to Annette B. Natow, Ph.D., R.D., and Jo-Ann Heslin, M.A., R.D., authors of a study on the nutritional care of the older adult. And what makes things worse is that they may be less sensitive to the normal sensation of thirst. Some doctors suggest you consume from one to one and a half quarts of liquid a day to help flush out waste and take care of other biological jobs dependent on water. It is said that there is no miracle food that will instantly erase the extra pounds from your body, strip the wrinkles from your face, and give you the muscle tone of an athlete. However, making a healthy, balanced diet a way of life may minimize the damage with which time afflicts certain people. Research has yet to pinpoint the exact cause of ageing or the optimum balance of nutrients, but scientists have been coming up with enough discoveries to put you on the right track.
The writer is a former chief engineer and can be reached at [email protected]