Read an Excerpt
Stop Aging Now!
Cracking the Mystery of Why We Age and How We Can Stop It
If you know how free radicals are born and how to partially tame them, you understand the rules of the aging game and the simple moves you can make to help save yourself from premature and devastating aging.
You age, as does every living creature. It is part of the cosmic plan. Aging is universal, as is death. But how rapidly you age is not. Nor is your own individual life span. Both the rate at which you age and your time on earth are under more control than you may dreamand than scientists envisioned until recently.
Exploding research into aging and related diseases is suddenly producing some awesome prospects. Recent discoveries are enough to take scientists' breath awayand oursas they enter territory never before explored, witnessing at ever closer range the ultimate biological mysteries of life and death. These new investigations, for the first time in human history, promise ways to expand our mortality and avoid the curse of old age, allowing us to live at our fullest capacity until the end of our lives.
Free Radicals Cause Aging
Not surprisingly, the secrets of aging lie deep in the molecular biology of individual cells. There are admittedly several theories of aging, but one has emerged as the most compelling and best supported by impressive new evidence. This does not mean the theory necessarily accounts for all aging changes, but many authorities believe it explains a major part. It is called the free radical theory of aging, and it goes this way: Aging occurs when cells are permanently damaged by continual attacks fromchemical particles called free radicals. Simply, the cellular damage accumulates over the years, until the totality of destruction reaches the point of no returndiseases clustered at the end of life and eventually death. This, thenthe perpetual but futile struggle of individual cells to stay alive and function normally, in the face of chemical disintegrationis the genesis of aging and all its consequences.
This monumental revelation came to pioneering researcher Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D., emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, in a flash of insight in 1954. But, like most bold ideas, it was largely ignored until, after numerous groundbreaking experiments by Dr. Harman, a splurge of new research starting in the late sixties began to overwhelmingly validate it. Now it is heralded as a breakthrough theory in the study of aging. The idea fuels billions of dollars of research not only into aging per se, but into the diseases of aging, such as cancer and heart disease, all of which appear to owe their genesis to one identical sourcefree radicals.
Indeed, the free radical theory of aging is so big it encompasses virtually every disease you can think of that comes with increasing age. That, then, makes aging the primary and only disease most of us ever have to worry about. As Dr. Harman notes, we have pressed the life span about as far as it will go without attacking aging at its origin. We are at the point, he says, where "the major risk of death for anyone over about age twenty-eight in the U.S. is aging!"
In Dr. Harman's view, degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, Lou Gehrig's disease and Alzheimer's are not separate and distinguishable entities. They are merely different forms of expression, influenced by genetics and environment, of the free radical aging process that has caught up with us. Indeed, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of all degenerative diseases involve free radical activity, say some experts. Viewing them separately is like taking an aspirin to relieve the fever of an infection instead of an antibiotic to kill the bacteria. It misses the point. In short, virtually all our maladies are actually "accelerated aging." Slow down the aging and you eliminate or postpone the problems.
The Danger Is in the Air
Oxygen is what it is all about. Ironically, the stuff that gives us life eventually snuffs it out. The ultimate life force lies in tiny cellular factories of energy, called mitochondria, that burn nearly all the oxygen we breathe in. But breathing has a price. The combustion of oxygen that keeps us alive and active spews off by-products called oxygen free radicals. They have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde characteristics. On the one hand, they help guarantee our survival. For example, when the body mobilizes to fight off infectious agents, it generates a burst of free radicals to destroy the invaders very efficiently. On the other hand, free radicals, including the pervasive superoxides created by respiration, careen out of control through the body, attacking cells, turning their fats rancid, rusting their proteins, piercing their membranes and corrupting their genetic code until the cells become dysfunctional and sometimes give up and die. These fierce radicals, built into life as both protectors and avengers, are the potent agents of aging.
Additionally, we hasten our demise by taking in free radicals that originate outside our bodies. Smoking fills the body with free radicals. So do environmental pollutants. So does being in the sunlight and being exposed to radiation. In short, we are bombarded from within and without throughout life with these simultaneously life-preserving and life-erasing free radicals. We could not survive without them, but when they run amok in large forces, they make us old before our time and kill us sooner than later.
Chemically, free radicals are simply molecules that are missing an electron and are desperately trying to snatch one from any other molecule. In so doing, they become molecular terrorists. They can be neutralized by antioxidants, compounds that give up one of their electrons, thus returning the free radicals to normal and stopping their cellular mayhem.
The Antioxidant Answer
Fortunately, the body does not easily knuckle under to these barrages of free radical assaults. It calls forth an arsenal of defenses, made up of enzymes and other chemicals called antioxidants. If the free radicals are the thugs of the body, the antioxidants are the police force. They are chemically designed to defuse the destructive free radicals. They do this by stopping their formation, snuffing them out and repairing their damage, which is ubiquitous and formidable. For example, about a trillion molecules of oxygen go through each cell every day, inflicting about one hundred thousand free radical hits or wounds on your cells' genes or DNA, estimates geneticist Bruce Ames of the University of California at Berkeley. The good news is patrolling antioxidant enzymes rush to snip out and repair the genes, erasing from 99 to 99.9 percent of the damage, Ames has shown. The bad news is, that still leaves one thousand new wounds every day that go unrepaired, and this damage accumulates relentlessly. "So by the time you're old, we find a few million oxygen lesions [wounds] per cell," says Ames. It is this accumulation of cellular damage or rubbish from incomplete repair that fuels the aging process, pushing up your odds of disease and death.
It's been estimated that by age fifty, about 30 percent of your cellular protein has been turned into rusty junk by free radical attacks. Particularly vulnerable also are fatty molecules, which are abundant in the delicate structural membranes of the cells and in the blood. Free radical attacks oxidize such fat, leaving it spoiled, just as butter out of the refrigerator becomes rancid. In a sense, it has been said that as we age, we chemically resemble a piece of meat that has been left too long in the open air and sun.
Through free radical reactions in our body, it's as though we're being irradiated at low levels all the time. They grind us down. Lester Packer, biochemist at University of California at Berkeley, who has been studying free radicals since the 1970s
Why We Can't Live Forever
We can never escape aging because nature's plan builds it into our genes, some say, because nature cares little about us after forty or fifty, when we have performed our duties of reproduction, providing fresh gene pools for evolution. It becomes more difficult with time to fend off the free radicals that are taking away our youth.
In the natural, universal order of things, as we get older, two critical things happen biologically to hasten aging. The rate of increase of cell-damaging free radical reactions accelerates dramatically. Even worse news, your inborn abilities to defuse and repair the damage from the free radicalsyour detoxification systemslose steam also as you age. This means that the older you get, the more damage accumulates in your cells and the more the aging process speeds up.
Thus, getting older puts you in the inevitable position of having to mount ever stronger defenses against free radicals in futile attempts to beat the unbeatable. Eventually, of course, we all lose the battle to one thing or other. Which disease wounds you the deepest and finally mortally depends much on the shake of the genetic dice and your individual vulnerabilities.
As Dr. Harman puts it: "It is almost a matter of chance how life is terminated. If an organism does not die, for example, of cancer, it will soon die from some other rapidly developing disease, such as one of the cardiovascular system."Stop Aging Now!. Copyright (c) by Jean Carper . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.