By Andy Gibson
How old are you? No, we don't mean how many birthdays have you celebrated. That's your chronological age. But how good is the pacing of your heart, the density of your bones, the agility of your mind? Their status will tell us your biological age. Some people are chronologically 40, but biologically 60, while others are chronologically 60, but biologically 40.
It's your biological age that matters. When you're biologically fit, you can throw away the calendar, for your motor is humming well and there's life in your years!
Biological age, says Dr. James Fries, professor of medicine at Stanford University, is a measure of how much "organ reserve" one possesses. Organ reserve is defined as the amount of functional ability one has available in response to a stressor in the form of an illness, accident or major life trauma. As we grow older, we generally lose organ reserve. Our immune, endocrine, and nervous systems are altered. Not only are we at greater risk of contracting infectious diseases, but we are also more susceptible to auto-immune diseases such as arthritis.
In the 1950s, Dr. Denham Harmon, from the University Of Nebraska School Of Medicine, proposed that many losses of function associated with aging are due to what he termed "free-radical damage." Free radicals are highly reactive chemical substances produced in the body, not only as a consequence of exposure to pollution, drugs, and chemicals but also as a result of natural metabolic activities. Harmon proposed that accelerated free-radical reactions may act as molecular time bombs that destroy the body's cells and result in the loss of organ reserve.
Research indicates that increased free-radical damage is associated with diseases that cause death in the elderly, including coronary heart disease and heart attack, certain forms of cancer and adult-onset diabetes.
Fortunately, our bodies are equipped with a mechanism - the antioxidant defense system - that helps protect against free-radical damage. Antioxidants are specific substances found in all cells that defuse free radicals before they have a chance to do serious damage to the body. They include vitamin E, beta carotene, vitamin C, and a variety of essential nutritional minerals, such as zinc, copper, and selenium.
Vitamin E is one of the superheroes when it comes to battling free radicals. Because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is attracted to cell membranes which have large amounts of fatty acids. Vitamin E prevents the oxidation of these fats by itself oxidizing and absorbing the free radicals.
Food sources of this vitamin include nuts, wheat germ, and sunflower seeds.
Vitamin C: Unlike Vitamin E, which works from the outside of cells, C does its antioxidizing job inside the cell, in its fluid (C is a water-soluble vitamin).
Food sources include: citrus fruits, amla (Indian gooseberry), strawberries, guavas and tomatoes.
Beta-carotene: Richly found in yellow-orange fruits and vegetables like mangoes, papayas, cantaloupes and carrots, beta-carotene converts to Vitamin A in the body. It is believed to be particularly effective against a highly toxic free radical called singlet oxygen.
Selenium: This trace mineral fights free radicals indirectly - by producing an enzyme which turns peroxides into harmless water. Best food sources are grains, fish, cabbage, celery and cucumber.
Zinc: another trace mineral, but this one works its effect in two ways: One, it acts as an antioxidant on its own; two, it forms part of an enzyme which protects cells against free radicals.
Good natural sources are liver, beef and nuts.
EAT RIGHT - STAY WELL!
Some of the major health-slackers and age-speeders (heart disease, osteoporosis) are often the result of faulty eating. In many cases you can reduce your disease risks as soon as you adopt good nutrition habits - even if you begin at 60.
REDUCE FATS: A high intake of fats is associated with obesity which, in turn, is connected with the onset of diseases like high blood pressure heart ailments, gall bladder problems, adult-onset diabetes and even certain forms of cancer.
You can safely reduce fats to 20 per cent of daily calories - 30 per cent is the outer limit. Of the three types of fats, saturated fats (from animal products and from vegetable sources like palm and coconut oils) are associated with the build-up of cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats (from ground nuts oil, nuts such as almond, cashews, peanuts, etc.), and polyunsaturated fats (from safflower oil sunflower oil, etc.) appear to have a cholesterol-lowering effect.
Animal fats also carry the added danger of cholesterol. One egg yolk, for instance, contains about 240 mg, which is more than most of us should consume in a whole day.
On the other hand, all fats are breeding grounds for free radicals. And the unsaturated fats are more likely to react with oxygen when cooked and form free radicals than the saturated fats. So, the bottomline is: limit all fat consumption. Try the following food swaps:
- Substitute skim milk for whole.
- Substitute egg whites for yolks, in omelets and other dishes.
- If you can't stomach the idea of being a pure vegetarian, substitute skinless chicken and fish for fat-marbled red meats, sausages and cold cuts.
Also, steam, bake or eat foods raw whenever you can. If you must fry, opt for stir-frying with minimal oil in a non-stick skillet, instead of deep frying.
BONE UP ON CALCIUM:
How well you "stand up" to aging is very largely a matter of how adequate your intake of calcium has been. If you've not been getting enough, bone loss can begin in the mid-30's, in women even as early as puberty. The result: osteoporosis, that brittle bone disease that hits elderly people.
Many people don't get enough calcium in their diet (especially hard-core vegetarians who don't even take milk/dairy products). Your daily requirement: 800-1000mg. Good calcium sources are: milk and milk products; fish like sardines (where you can chew on those tiny, edible, calcium-rich bones); green leafy vegetables. But the calcium from plant sources is not as well absorbed as that from animal sources.
Also, unfortunately, aging itself blunts calcium absorption. Certain foods like coffee, tea, colas and chocolates (all of which contain caffeine) as well as tobacco, if taken at the same time as calcium, can inhibit its absorption. So do phosphorus-rich drinks like sodas.
Remember, also, that your body requires Vitamin D for the intestinal absorption of calcium. If your diet is deficient in this vitamin, you can get some of your needs from sunlight. Food sources include: liver, egg yolk, milk, butter.
In the run-up to a healthy old age, there are a few other things you must do:
- Limit salt intake to about one teaspoon a day. Excess salt consumption carries the risk of high blood pressure and its potentially fatal consequences: heart disease, stroke, kidney disease.
- Avoid heavy alcohol consumption. It is associated with liver damage and increased cancer risk.
- Give up smoking. It can cause a whole range of illness, from chronic respiratory ailments like emphysema to cancers of the lung, mouth and esophagus.
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