by Michael Janson, M.D.
Growing older has never been easier.
Youth is wasted on the young. The older and wiser we become, the more this old adage rings true. Chances are good most people would give a lot to gain a little control over the inevitable aging process. But as people get older, physiological changes are unavoidable. Changes in vision, memory or sexual function are just some of the unpleasant reminders of aging. Age also brings on a subtle loss of strength, altered sleeping patterns and difficulty with digestion. Visible signs of aging include wrinkles; dry skin and discolorations, with loss of elasticity and flexibility; hair loss; and posture deterioration. Aging can also be associated with serious diseases such as arthritis, atherosclerotic heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and even asthma. Other age-related conditions include degenerative eye disease and senile dementia.1
But take heart: It's not all bad news. Gradual changes are inevitable, but the rate of change is variable. Plus, the development of what are considered the "diseases of aging" may not be as unavoidable as many people think.
In fact, with current knowledge, those approaching 40 can design a supplement program to protect them from age-related health issues. Aging gracefully begins with a basic comprehensive multivitamin and mineral with adequate B complex; basic amounts of vitamin C and E; beta-carotene; trace minerals; and, if possible, adequate magnesium and calcium, which may need to be taken separately because of their bulk.
Also consider incorporating mixed bioflavonoids (1-2 g daily), specifically quercetin for the heart, liver and stomach2-4 and proanthocyanidins for the brain, kidneys, eyes and blood vessels.5-8
Parts of the Plan
Dietary supplements protect the body from accelerated aging processes in a variety of ways. They may enhance metabolic functions, detoxify harmful substances or spur antioxidant activity. Here, they are arranged in order of importance and availability.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that enhances immune function and protects against cancer and heart disease as well as eye and kidney disease related to diabetes. In 1990, researchers at the Tufts University U.S.D.A. Human Nutrition Research Laboratory on Aging showed that 800 IU of vitamin E per day enhanced immune function in the elderly.9 They also found vitamin E reduced fatty deposits in the blood that can lead to both diminished cellular function and heart disease. Further, vitamin E enhanced white blood cell activity to levels seen in younger people, thereby restoring normal immune function. More recent studies show immune benefit with vitamin E doses as low as 200 IU per day.
Many studies also show vitamin E protects against different cancers. A population-based study conducted between 1984 and 1985 showed reduced oral and esophageal cancer in those who took vitamin E.10 In addition, vitamin E helps prevent the most common cause of death, arteriosclerotic heart disease. A 1989 report said blood levels of vitamin E are a better predictor of heart disease risk than cholesterol.11
More recently, researchers using megadoses of vitamin E have shown reversal of eye and kidney degeneration related to diabetes.12 This was an eight-month trial with 36 patients. After four months, circulation to the vessels in the retina improved in patients who took 1,800 IU of vitamin E per day, and the improvement was maintained during the withdrawal period. Retina and kidney disease are two examples of the acclelerated aging process in diabetics that can be slowed by vitamin E supplements.
Vitamin C, another protective antioxidant, reduces the risk of age-related diseases and oxidative damage. One sign of this damage is abnormal function of cells lining the arteries. These cells ultimately promote relaxation of the arteries. In one study, researchers gave patients with coronary artery disease 2,000 mg of vitamin C two hours before testing how well their arteries relaxed. Compared with a placebo group, there was a significant improvement in arterial relaxation.13
There are several ways vitamin C can help slow the aging process. It enhances wound healing, improves collagen production and stimulates immunity.14 It also helps prevent cancer and heart disease. In a prospective study in Switzerland, vitamin C, independent of other beneficial antioxidants, was associated with reduced heart disease risk.15
Carotenoids are another product from the fountain of youth. The carotenoids in human blood all function as antioxidants.16 Beta-carotene, probably the best known carotenoid, may enhance immunity when 25,000-50,000 mg are taken daily.17 It is associated with lower risks of cancer and heart disease.
Lycopene, abundant in tomatoes but also available as a supplement, is the most prevalent carotenoid in the blood. People with the highest lycopene levels have the lowest rate of age-related eye disease called macular degeneration (ARMD).18 Lycopene helps prevent prostate cancer and in doses of 15 mg per day may help slow its progression.19 Two other carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, are also related to ARMD prevention.20
Mineral cofactors play an important role in warding off age-related problems by enhancing antioxidant enzymes produced in the body. Iron is one of these cofactors, but excess iron can actually lead to increased free radical generation. Other cofactors include manganese, copper and zinc.
Zinc levels decline with age in both animals and humans, ultimately resulting in decreased immunity.21 Supplementing with zinc, however, can offset this occurrence.22 In older diabetic patients, zinc supplements can restore some deficits of T-cell function and thus enhance immunity.23 An adequate dose is 30 mg per day with 2-3 mg copper.
Selenium and glutathione, a sulfur-containing amino acid, also contribute to antioxidant activity. A typical selenium dose is 200 mcg per day.
Coenzyme Q10 also helps protect against oxidation and age-related diseases. It is essential for energy production, especially in the heart. CoQ10 may be able to reduce damage to the heart muscle in ischemic heart disease. Researchers in one study found that CoQ10 increased aerobic energy production and protected enzymes from free radical damage.24 In an animal study, cell membrane damage was prevented with 10 mg/kg a day oral CoQ10 when challenged with a chemotherapeutic agent, adriamycin, which induces cell membrane damage.25
In addition, CoQ10 can prevent liver damage caused by acetaminophen (commonly known under the brand name Tylenol), adding evidence to its role in free-radical protection.26 Typical preventive doses of CoQ10 would be 50-100 mg daily, but someone with signs of age-related disease — particularly cancer, heart disease or immune disorders — can increase the dose to 100-400 mg daily.
Herbs and flavonoids can help prevent and treat age-related conditions, though it is impossible to thoroughly cover all of them here. For example, silymarin, found in the berries of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) protects the liver and helps control blood sugar;27 St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) treats depression, a common problem associated with aging;28 while hawthorn berry (Crataegus spp.),29 garlic (Allium spp.)30 and proanthocyanidins from grape seeds7 protect the heart and the eyes. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and pygeum (Prurrus africana) help prostate disorders common in men older than 50.31,32 Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) reduces vertigo, improves small blood vessel circulation that helps with the functional signs of atherosclerosis33 and preserves memory34 — one of the most distressing signs of aging. Sixty mg of standardized ginkgo extract is recommended two or three times a day.
Melatonin is showing increasing promise in fighting age-related diseases. Produced by the pineal gland in the brain, it is a powerful antioxidant hormone that protects the brain, particularly by scavenging damaging free radicals.35 Decreased melatonin production, which naturally occurs with age, is associated with age-related disorders. It's no surprise, then, that melatonin appears valuable against Alzheimer's disease.36 It is thought to protect brain cells from the oxidative damage that may lead to brain deterioration. Here's how: Antioxidants that might protect the brain need to cross the barrier between blood and the brain, and melatonin readily does so. Within the brain, melatonin protects nerve receptors from oxidative damage.37 Melatonin enhances immune function, as well.38 Typical doses range from 1-6 mg, always taken at bedtime.
Dehydroepiandrosterone is another hormone that declines with age. According to several review articles, supplements appear to help many conditions that are usually age related, including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, immune function decline and osteoporosis. Low levels of DHEA are also associated with increased cardiac disease. I recommend 5-100 mg daily, but people taking more than 5 mg/day should have their blood levels monitored.
Customizing Your Plan
People with specific health problems can customize their plan: For example, incorporate higher doses of chromium for diabetes; garlic and CoQ10 for heart disease; lutein and lycopene for eye disease; and saw palmetto for prostate enlargement.
Many supplements can help prevent or treat the health issues that come with growing older. Of course, it is always best to combine them with a healthful diet and other supportive practices.
We now know enough to empower ourselves to control some of these age-related conditions and be vibrant, productive and fully functional into our golden years.
Michael Janson, M.D., is past president of both the American Preventive Medical Association and the American College for Advancement in Medicine. He is the author of Dr. Janson's New Vitamin Revolution (Avery) and All About Saw Palmetto and Prostate Health (Avery).
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