Increased lifespan is now a given in modern societies. Increasing the health span is the next challenge as degenerative diseases of aging take increasing numbers of people. Jack Challem investigates the foremost science-backed ingredients.
Over the past 100 years, millions of people have benefited from substantial increases in life expectancy—the combined result of improved sanitation, hygiene and medical care. Yet these phenomenal increases in longevity have been accompanied by an unprecedented rise in age-related degenerative diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
As people live longer, their genes suffer greater numbers of mutations, resulting in a deterioration of genetic instructions. At the same time, biochemical pathways become less functional, leading to reduced cell function and a greater risk of disease.
One way of reconciling this catch-22 of aging is to preserve, as best as possible, the biochemical activity characteristics of younger people. Research supports the argument that good nutrition and dietary supplements can help slow and reverse age-related physical and mental declines. The scientific rationale is sound and straightforward: nutrients provide the chemical substrates of biochemistry and nutritional supplements can shore up weak biochemical pathways.
Along these lines, we focus on four age-related health issues — inflammation, hyperglycemia, osteoarthritis and cognitive decline — and nutritional ingredients that show promise in preventing and reversing them.
In recent years, the medical recognition of inflammation has moved beyond arthritis and other '-itis' diseases. Although the body's inflammatory response protects against infection, chronic inflammation is an undercurrent in every disease process. For example, inflammation plays a major role in the development of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, chronic low-grade inflammation increases with age.
Antioxidants: Oxidation — often considered the uncontrolled generation of free radicals — stimulates inflammation and, conversely, antioxidants can help quell inflammation. Natural-source vitamin E reduces levels of C-reactive protein, a key marker of chronic low-grade inflammation. Other antioxidants, including vitamin C, appear to have similar benefits. Polyphenols, including flavonoids, may be among the most potent anti-inflammatory compounds; they are especially concentrated in herbal extracts.
Omega-3 fish oils: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two principal omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) found in fish oils, have significant anti-inflammatory properties. The omega-3s increase the activity of prostaglandin E1, which helps suppress pro-inflammatory prostaglandin E2. Omega-3 supplements can balance Western diets that tend to be high in corn, safflower, peanut and soybean oils, all of which are high in the pro-inflammatory omega-6 PUFAs.
Vitamin D: A large clinical study of women found that women who took supplements containing 800IU of vitamin D and 1,200mg calcium daily had a 33 percent lower risk of developing diabetes over 20 years. Both nutrients are needed for normal insulin function. A recent epidemiological study reported that people with the highest blood levels of vitamin D were 40 per cent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Chromium: Niacin-bound chromium polynicotinate and chromium picolinate can significantly reduce blood sugar and insulin levels. In one study, large doses (1,000mcg) of chromium picolinate led to substantial decreases in blood-sugar and insulin levels after just four months. In another trial, supplements of niacin-bound chromium significantly decreased fasting blood sugar, with modest reductions in triglyceride and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) after three months.
Vitamin K: Vitamin K is needed for the synthesis of osteocalcin, long recognised as a bone-matrix protein. In 2007, researchers reported in the journal Cell that osteocalcin also functions as a metabolic hormone regulating pancreatic beta-cell activity, insulin, glucose and the size of fat cells. Although this was an animal study, its publication in a prestigious journal is likely to stimulate further research on vitamin K, osteocalcin and glucose tolerance. Vitamin K2 is the most biologically active form.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Aggrecan, the principal noncollagen protein in cartilage, is broken down by a family of enzymes known as aggrecanases. Cell studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit the activity of aggrecanases. In one experiment, researchers cultured cells from the knees of osteoarthritis patients and observed that inflammation yields large amounts of COX-2 and led to the continued breakdown of the cells. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to the cell medium reduced COX-2 activity and prevented the breakdown of cells.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Many studies have found a strong association between high fish intake or high blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids and a slower rate of cognitive decline among the elderly. In a clinical trial, researchers at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, gave omega-3 fish oils (1.7g DHA and 0.6g EPA) to 174 men and women with Alzheimer's disease. Patients suffering from mild (but not severe) cognitive impairment improved during six months of supplementation.
Beta-carotene: As antioxidants, carotenoids may slow age-related cognitive decline. In a recent study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, Harvard University researchers followed up on 4,000 men who had taken either beta-carotene supplements (50mg, equivalent to 83,333IU) or placebos every other day for an average of 18 years. Men who had been taking beta-carotene scored significantly higher on several cognitive tests, compared with those who ad been taking placebos.
Vitamin B12: Approximately one third of seniors suffer from atrophic gastritis, a condition that interferes with vitamin B12 absorption. Many studies have found that vitamin B12 deficiency can mimic Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. In these cases, replenishing vitamin B12 often restores normal cognitive function. Other B-complex vitamins, including niacin and folic acid, are likely helpful in combination with vitamin B12.
The Multidimensional Approach
Nutrients function as part of a biochemical network, and formulas containing multiple ingredients are likely to provide greater health benefits than any single ingredient. Product formulators would do well focusing on ingredients that have complementary or synergistic properties.
Jack Challem is the author of The Food-Mood Solution, and Stop Prediabetes Now, published by John Wiley & Sons.