I don’t think I was the first to use the expression ‘age-related functional decline’, but I think it an excellent descriptive summary of what happens as we age. Aging, as we experience it, is the result of many related physiological processes slowing gradually, or in some cases rapidly. Everything that used to run at full tilt gradually slows to a crawl, and finally, one or more of these processes gets so broken that we die.
We all age, we will all die; those are the unavoidable facts. The only thing we have some control over is whether, by our lifestyle and actions, we slow the process or speed it up. Over the social history of civilization, our great writings and traditions have upheld norms of behavior and action that seem to lead to fuller and longer life, warning us against those things that make life less worth living and shorten it. We tend to neglect or disregard this wisdom in our youth, and then wish we had followed it when we are older. At some point we get concerned about our health and fitness and decide to start from that point on to get our act together. That happened for me when I was 30. But at 33, I got serious, and made it a life priority. I decided that I did not just wish to avoid disease; I wanted to learn how to optimize my health and fitness, and maintain it throughout the aging process.
Research on aging has found four major mechanisms that bring about this decline. These are: OXIDATIVE DAMAGE - damage by free radicals at the molecular level, GLYCATION/GLYCOSYLATION - bonding of sugars to proteins that stiffens tissues and destroys their function, INFLAMATION - a repair/immune process that becomes more prominent, damaging and indiscriminant as we age, and SENESCENCE - cells stop dividing due to loss of telomere length; this seems to set maximum lifespan limit. Maintaining physical capability (and mental capability) is a matter of delaying and minimizing the effects of these aging mechanisms for as long as possible. The benefits are worthy of effort, and as science advances, technology may allow us to outrun aging entirely. I’m not holding my breath on this, but it is interesting to ponder that we may someday be able to reverse-age as we grow older. I don’t know what the world would be like with a huge population of youngsters over 200 years young, but I wouldn’t mind being among those to first deal with the problem.
The tools we have to combat these aging mechanisms are not well understood by the average citizen. Most know that we should eat right, exercise some, get enough rest and have a positive, constructive attitude. Some know that there are supplements that slow the aging process or prevent disease. But, the devil is in the details and the details are presented to us with of much confusion. Two examples: We were told for the last 30 years that fats were bad and carbohydrates were good, clean burning, etc. But the less fat and the more carbs we ate, the fatter we got, and the higher the incidence of type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer climbed in our population. Then, we were told that we needed anti-oxidants and one of the best was vitamin-E. But the vitamin-E we were told to take was alpha-tocopheryl. Vitamin-E turns out to be made up of four tocopheryls and four tocotrienols, all of which have anti-oxidant properties and are synergistic in the way they de-energize free radicals in different tissues of the body. Taking large doses of alpha-tocopheryl actually creates a vitamin-E deficiency, increasing free radical damage in many areas of the body.
How does one find lasting truth in the midst of shifting knowledge? The best way, in my mind, is to listen intently to the debate; listen to all the viewpoints, old and new, read all sides of the arguments, and then pick what make the most sense to you. Ultimately, you are solely responsible for the lifestyle choices you make and their impact on your health.
Still, the tools for combating age-related functional decline are indeed NUTRITION, EXERCISE, REST and a POSITIVE ATTITUDE. At some age, for each of us, we have to make up for the deficiencies of aging by adding SUPPLEMENTS and HORMONAL ENHANCEMENT if we want to stay in the game and be able to play hard to the last inning (period, set, quarter, etc. ). In the pages below I will do my best to distill the truth of what promotes health, strength and vitality into advanced age, as I have come to know and experience it in my last 34 years of research and self-experimentation. Much more information is presented on the website I edit: http://www.seniorfitness.com and you can see some video proof that the principles I promote work reasonably well.
Part 1. Nutrition - the Raw Material for Health and Power Start with food – the basic materials that build and sustain the body. In our prime we can seemingly eat anything and digest it, absorb it, assimilate it and utilize it. But as we age, stomach acid and enzyme production decrease, digestion worsens, absorption and assimilation of nutrients becomes less effective. Mechanisms for getting nutrients into our cells, and waste products out, become less effective. The basic starting point for any anti-aging effort is to eat all the necessary nutrients and enhance the mechanisms for digestion, absorption and assimilation.
We tend to think of our body as a self-contained object like a chair or maybe a car, and yes we need to input food and water or we get messed up, but the tendency is to think of oneself as the same today as we were yesterday. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are constantly tearing down and rebuilding every organ, cell and DNA molecule we possess. Even our bones are constantly replacing themselves. The material for all this renovation is food. Any deficiency in the needed materials, even short term, and our body will cleverly sacrifice one part to repair another; like scavenging muscle for protein to repair sunburned skin.
The body is an amazingly complex system; its nutritional requirements are equally complex and yet humanity has been thriving on a wide range of regional diets for a long time. In most cases, primitive regional diets make the best of what is foods are available and the physical conditions that prevail, and for perhaps millions of years, have allowed us to reach reproductive age and live long enough to rear children to replace us. The current purpose, however, is to eat so well that we get all the nutrients we need to maximize our health and life span, and to avoid functional decline (and pain) as long as possible.
Here are most of the basic principles for obtaining, digesting, absorbing and assimilating all the right nutrients:
Eat mostly that which is plucked from the ground, off a tree or bush, or was walking, swimming or flying recently, and its corollary - Eat almost nothing that comes in a bag or a box. – Our entire evolutionary history was spent eating foods described in the first line. It makes immense sense to me that we evolved to prosper on such foods. Eat real, whole, unprocessed foods! We humans have recently rediscovered that the red and blue fruits are loaded with anti-oxidants, that the cabbage family vegetables are rich in cancer-fighting sulforaphanes. Do you know that grass-fed beef is high in omega-3 fats, and actually reduces inflammation like fish and fish oils? Make baked goods (cakes, cookies, desserts and white breads) a rare part of your diet.
Fat is absolutely necessary for survival, but there are Fats that Heal and Fats that Kill - that is the title of an amazing book by Udo Erasmus - a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in optimum health. If you don’t eat enough of the right fats, virtually every cell in every organ of your body will be compromised. Fats, however, require bile, produced by the liver and metered by the gallbladder, for digestion in the small intestines. Poor bile flow or an obstructed gallbladder will make digesting fats an uncomfortable task. The liver manufactures approximately one quart of bile every day, which serves as a carrier for toxic substances to be effectively eliminated from the body. In addition, the bile emulsifies fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the intestine, improving their absorption. When the excretion of bile is inhibited (cholestasis), toxins stay in the liver longer with damaging effects. Many seniors have slow bile production, and need to be taking supplements (such as Milk Thistle and SAM-E) to enhance bile production.
Avoid all refined oils; use extra-virgin olive oil, extra-virgin coconut oil or butter for food and cooking, and its corollary - Eat or drink nothing that has the words ‘partially hydrogenated’ on the label. Please read my article on hydrogenation to understand the gravity of what these fats do in your body, then get Erasmus’ book and fully understand the physiology of fats and their importance to your health. If you don’t eat enough fat, you will be unable to reduce your body-fat levels; you can’t be lean and muscular unless you eat enough fat. Bear in mind that those incredibly ripped contest photos you see in the fitness magazines are capturing moments of temporary near-starvation, and it is not uncommon for contestants to collapse backstage because of severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This is not a healthy state you should strive for.
Sensible portion size is a major part of eating correctly; never eat until you’re full. Eating five or six small meals a day is essential for fat control and muscle growth. Most people over 45 have a protruding belly; the primary cause is eating three solid (read Big) meals a day. A very good gauge to portion size is that your protein serving (meat, fish, fowl or vegetarian) should be about the size of the palm of your hand (fingers and thumb removed). The rest of the meal should not exceed that weight in total. You can go some overboard on fibrous, non-starch vegetables, but small meals are the rule; shrink your stomach to fit in your abdominal cavity without a bulge. This one practice alone will reduce your blood sugar swings and slow the glycation mechanism of aging to a crawl.
A healthy, active (intense weight training or aerobic sessions or sports 3 days per week) person needs about 1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass to grow muscle. So, in these five to six meals, if three of them have palm-sized meat courses or a couple of eggs, you will not be far from the right number. If you make the other two to three meals fruit, vegetables, nuts or starch-based meals, you should get adequate fat and protein intake. A protein drink after a workout will start the repair process and supply immediate amino acid needs. A protein drink before bed will reduce normal muscle loss during the night and force some stored body fat to be burned during sleep.
Learn about food combining; basically, don't eat starches and proteins together - they will stay in your stomach for hours and you won't absorb the protein. Proteins require an acid stomach environment for the meat-digesting enzymes (proteases) to work. The youthful stomach produces abundant hydrochloric acid for just that purpose. Starches require an alkaline stomach for the starch-digesting enzymes (amylases) to do their stuff. Combining them slows the process badly for the aging stomach. Hence the reputation of beans and chili as gas-builders; beans are high in protein and starch – tough on old stomachs. Many nutritionists will insist that you should eat a balance of protein, carbs and fats in every meal. I say they should try that at 60-plus and see how bloated they feel for the next three hours.
Stomach acid and enzyme production decreases as we age - digestion worsens, absorption and assimilation of nutrients is less effective. Acid indigestion or heartburn is a clear sign that we are producing insufficient hydrochloric acid (HCl) and/or pepsin. It means food is staying in the stomach because it is not digesting. The problem is not too much acid, but too little. The media (and the medical community) will have you believe you need antacids or Prilosec to shut down acid production, but those strategies make proteins virtually indigestible and unavailable for assimilation. Take an HCl with Pepsin capsule with any protein meal and see how much faster your meal digests, with no heartburn. There are many digestive enzyme formulations available that will make digestion a breeze. If you have frequent heartburn you are priming yourself for esophageal cancer. With proper sized meals, adequate HCl and digestive enzymes you should overcome most digestive issues, and improve virtually all bodily functions as a result of increased nutrients available at the cellular level.
The next important aid to digestion is a source of friendly bacteria or Probiotics. If you have ever had a course of antibiotics, you have decimated the flora that should beneficially inhabit your digestive track. These bacteria, that we have evolved with symbiotically, are an important part of the digestive process, and create certain vitamins and enzymes for us. They play a vital role in our immune function. By their presence, they inhibit the overgrowth of harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E-coli, fungi and parasites. I have been the victim of food poisoning on several occasions, and am familiar with the progression of it symptoms. Immediately dosing with several probiotics capsules will stop it in its tracks. I always have them on hand, and at any sign of an upset stomach or intestinal stress, I pop two or three capsules and the problem subsides. My favorite brand is now named I-Flora, and you can Google for a supplier. For the most part these friendly bugs live beyond the stomach, but some bacteria such as H-pylori will bloom to dangerous and destructive levels unless the stomach is bathed in strong HCl frequently. Using antacids on a regular basis give these critters the advantage they need to infect the stomach lining and promote ulcers.
Eat or drink almost nothing with sugar in it, refined or otherwise; give up sodas. All simple sugars and high-glycemic foods will rapidly raise blood sugar, causing an insulin output for the purpose of lowering the blood sugar level back under 100mg/dl. Glycation (the bonding of sugars to proteins), sited above as one of the four primary aging mechanisms, is an unavoidable consequence of burning glucose as a metabolic fuel. But, research has shown that keeping blood sugar in a narrow range between 90 and 95 reduces glycation, the primary cause of the damage associated with diabetes and high blood sugar. Chronic high blood sugar leads to insulin resistance and sustained levels of both blood glucose and insulin as seen in type II diabetes. Insulin itself is inflammation-promoting, and chronic high levels result in rapid aging of most body tissues. The key offender these days is high fructose corn syrup. It has been hyped as very healthy because it doesn’t cause a rapid insulin response; it still shoots blood sugar through the roof, and is pro-inflammatory – avoid it entirely.
Another of the big offenders today is the boxed breakfast serial; generally loaded with sugar and refined flour. Even the Granola types increase blood sugar too rapidly, and most are based on hydrogenated fats for shelf life. I haven’t eaten a breakfast serial in two decades. I do eat plenty of free-range eggs with diced vegetables lightly stir-fried in butter and olive oil; high in protein, fiber, good fats. The other favorite is cottage cheese with diced fresh fruit stirred in.
Carbonated soft drinks are highly acidic, and raise blood acidity. The body responds by pulling calcium out of our bones to buffer/reduce the pH of the body’s fluids – not something you want happening to your bones. The sugar load from a soda is enormous; if I were looking for a single significant cause of obesity in children, I would site soft drinks as the number one culprit. Give them up and drink almost anything else. Avoid big glasses of any fruit juices; it is far better for your blood sugar levels to eat the fruit.
If you have signs of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowl syndrome or lupus, try eliminating all grains and grain products. I say this because it is very hard to tell what grain products contain as the constituents of their flour. Gluten is the big offender, but it shows up in many grains, and is not sited as an ingredient. Mankind has lived without grains in many regions and times; archeological evidence suggests that inflammatory diseases increase in cultures that depend on grains as the prime foodstuff. Two to three weeks are usually all that is required to see a reversal of symptoms if gluten sensitivity is the culprit.
These principles fairly well sum up what I have learned about getting the right nutrients from the right foods, digested, absorbed and assimilated. There is much more at the detail level to learn, but this is a very good start to eating right and getting the most out of it. I have mentioned a few supplements that enhance digestion, but the bulk of that topic will be saved for part 3. I want to impress upon the reader that what you eat is the primary basis for your health, or lack-there-of. This information has been long coming to credibility, yet it is amazing to me that my grandmother was aware of most of it from a folk standpoint. One of my goals at Senior Fitness.com is to point our readers to credible sources of information, and to filter out the junk from the treasure. Don’t stop with a shallow understanding of health and fitness; make it your intent to be a life-long researcher of knowledge aimed at keeping your fitness at a peak level for the rest of your life.
In Part 2 we will take up the topic of exercise, and address specific supplements that greatly enhance the results of exercise - muscle growth, strength gains, endurance and cardio-vascular-lung improvement, resistance to injury as well as grace, balance, flexibility and poise.
In Part 3 we will discuss the broader category of Supplements to nutrition and supplements that extend fitness into advancing age. We will also look at the topic of extending youthful hormone levels into advanced age; the benefits, the risks and the methods to essentiall extend the vitality of youth into our 80s, 90s and maybe even into our 120s.
In Part 4 we will expand on what activities contribute to rest, recovery and revitalization, and bring about renewal of body, mind and spirit.
Good Living, Frank
Frank Wilhelmi; BS, ME, is a 66 year old electronic engineer still working in the defense industry, with a 33 year habit of bodybuilding and pursuing knowledge needed to keep fit and healthy. He is an avid student of the physical and biological sciences, and a once-certified fitness trainer specializing in aging mitigation, and president of Muzology, Inc. . He is editor of the Senior Fitness.com website that provides information for Seniors to attain fitness, health and improved quality of life at any age. Learn how at http://www.seniorfitness.com , bookmark it and become a frequent reader