I promise not to dwell on eating leafy vegetables, smoking, being obese, avoiding sugars and other similar platitudes. I even promise not to broach the subjects of good-for-you foods, exercise, vitamins and nutritional supplements. I feel readers know enough already about omega-3 fats and the merits of a daily 15-minute walk.
Awareness – “The road less traveled”
Instead, I will take the road less traveled and discuss our modern-day preoccupation with slowing down the natural slide of aging. I will try to do that from the perspective of awareness, highlighting the constantly adaptive, evolving and vulnerable ecosystem inside our bodies. When there are a thousand parts performing different functions to keep the body in harmonic balance, disorders ensue the moment a blockage occurs anywhere in the system. My point of view is that it behooves us to understand how some of those blockages can develop.
Want to live to 100? 53,364 Americans did in 2010
You surely know that there is no silver bullet to longevity. You start by getting into an all-encompassing homeostatic frame of mind, and then you live a lifestyle that is energized by balance across the board. Interestingly, your chances are better if you are a woman (women make up 82% of all those who live to 100 or over in the U.S.). Your chances are also better if you were to migrate to Japan, France, the U.K. or Canada. In fact, the U.S. ranked 5th of 5 in the following chart:
Number of People who live to 100+ (Centenarians)
Centenarians per 100,000
Source: The Population Division of the United Nations
The genetic factor
This is a given that none of us can do much about, and yet it is critical to our longevity. Thomas Perls, Associate Professor of medicine at Boston University manages a study of nearly 1,600 centenarians¹, the largest in the world. His findings reveal that approximately 50% of those who make it to 100+ have parents or grandparents who also lived to old age. The figure to remember for those of us who don’t have centenarian parents or grandparents is 50%. That is the ratio of people who made it to old age who were not given the gift of parents who lived to very old age.
Having the right genes was further emphasized by Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine². He conducted a study of 500 healthy Ashkenazi Jews (inhabitants of central Europe with ancestries that go back to biblical times) between the ages of 95 and 112. He said: “The fact is we have plenty of overweight centenarians, plenty who smoke, plenty who drink,” says Barzilai. “With the right genes, the body can put up with all sorts of abuse.”
Natural wear and tear – free radical agents at work
Our bodies have to contend with wear and tear much like a car engine. In our case, it’s driven by oxidative stress (OS). To understand OS, slice open an apple and observe its color rapidly darkening. Those are “free radical agents” causing that change, and they come from the oxygen in the environment. They are volatile atoms that create corrosive chain reactions that are continually attacking the cellular building blocks in our body. To visualize that, think of a piece of metal that rests in a corner of your yard. The rust you will observe eating away at the metal consists of unremitting free radical agents.
It’s not all gloom and doom however. Take the apple that is oxidizing and put some lemon drops on it. It will temporarily stop corroding, the lemon acting as an antioxidant. There are many antioxidants in the food we consume, and they are like quality oil that you put in an engine: they slow down OS. In the end, the balance between oxidants and antioxidants unfortunately tips in favor of oxidants, at which point our biochemical systems will surrender to the aging process –but that can be after we’ve reached 100 years of age or more, so keep hope alive!
Our cellular building blocks
When our cells age, our organs succumb to aging as well, and they end up declining in both function and appearance. Cells get damaged and die because of external factors such as oxidative stress (or sunlight, ultraviolet rays, pharmaceuticals, trauma). Older cells also wither and make room for new cells, except that sometimes no new cells come up –again as part of the aging process. When no cells come up to replace dead or damaged cells, the organs they were destined to invigorate have to do with fewer cells. They in turn start weakening.
The brain is the last organ to age
The organs that are vulnerable to aging first include the kidneys, liver, and ovaries, and they start declining in performance with age. Most organs weaken in function as the cells in them decline in number and vitality. Interestingly, the brain does not lose many cells, and it is the last organ to age, as confirmed by many centenarians who remain sound of mind and memory. It is indeed heartwarming to know that the last stand made by a healthy person against the aging process is with the brain. When cells are lost in the brain, nerve cells connect in new ways, and nerve cells may form in new areas of the brain. Furthermore, the brain enjoys a condition called “redundancy”: more cells than it needs. In addition, although some mental faculties slow down with age, older people function and react to tasks in an accurate manner.
Disorder and disease
However, we have to concern ourselves with disorders before we give too much thought to old age. When the organs that make up the major systems (cardiovascular, pulmonary, digestive) are weakened, they become unable to cope with pathological stress (disease), trauma (stroke), or other stressors. Alzheimer’s and the other dementias also have to be taken into account for our risk of thus getting impaired increases dramatically as we age over the 75 year mark. Like other disorders, they are the individualized manifestations of the genetic factor, lifestyle, and other environmental and health susceptibilities of each patient.
The homeostasis phenomenon
Homeostasis is such a breathtaking phenomenon that it borders on the supernatural. And yet, it’s at work inside us from the moment we are born. At the heart of a homeostatic system –in this case our body- is this ongoing spectacular multiplicity of functions that are monitored by equally spectacular and symbiotic control mechanisms. Here are a few examples:
- Need a little help to get up in the morning, or to ace an exam or a job interview? Your Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) will discharge a little adrenalin to see you through. If you’re about to speed right through a red light, it will increase the dose so that you are instantly at full alert.
- Your body temperature is maintained at around 98.6º F. A homeostatic control mechanism makes you sweat if your body gets hot and makes you shiver for warmth if it gets cold. It will thus keep you at approximately 98.6º F.
- To ensure that you’re healthy, your body must maintain a certain level of glucose in your bloodstream. Your pancreas, another control mechanism, will release insulin when glucose is high, and if it gets low, your liver will convert glycogen into additional glucose.
- The lymphatic system is another perfect control mechanism: it fights off infections such as bacteria or viruses before you develop an illness or disorder.
- The heart and the brain collaborate to maintain optimal levels of blood pressure. When blood pressure is too high, the heart slows down, and when it is low, the brain tells the heart to speed up a little.
- Hydration is critical for homeostasis –every cell in your body is more than 50% water. Did you ever wonder at how the feeling of being thirsty is generated?
- Because breathing is involuntary, the nervous system ensures that the body is getting sufficient oxygen. Several major systems in the body (digestive, cardiovascular, pulmonary and other) are regulated without asking you for permission.
- The urinary system is the body’s perfect detoxification system. When toxins enter the body through the environment or through food, the urinary system goes to work.
From the above examples of homeostasis in your body, it is easy to extrapolate many other instances of the interdependence of many functions inside your personal ecosystem. An intricate web of a system like that must keep adapting to changes in the environment and in the lifestyle that we provide it with. This is where a healthy lifestyle produces the least blockages and helps remedy environmental blockages. If the system doesn’t evolve, outside forces will soon disrupt it and bring about disorders or disease. That speaks of yet another level of incredible accomplishment on the part of our homeostasis: that it can adapt and evolve while it is maintaining harmonic balance.
Staying Younger – take care of your brain
I never cease to marvel at the human brain. Every time I think I’ve read an awful lot about it, I come across something new –something even more dazzling. This 3-lb. marvel spends 80, 90 100+ years monitoring and fine-tuning everything that is going on in your body, endeavoring to keep all your mechanisms in a state of homeostasis at all times. Whether you’re awake or asleep, alert or daydreaming, it keeps you as safe and healthy as it possibly can. In order to maintain homeostasis, the brain uses billions of neurons -100 billion by many estimates- each connected to thousands of nerve cells known as synapses, so that the communication network of the brain includes trillions of back-and-forth impulse-emitting cells.
In this photo, twin girls are playing catch with a lightweight ball. According to neuroscientist Joe McIntyre of the College de France, “The brain is so accurate because it contains an internal model of gravity. The brain seems able to anticipate, calculate and compensate for gravitational acceleration –naturally.”
Be the kid you once were. See the carefree pleasures the above twins derive from the smallest games? They romp and frolic, their voices loud, their laughter resonant. They create and play countless different games, and they mesh with nature, sucking it in with their hands and feet. And at the end of the day, when their parents holler for them, they go back indoors dirty, exhausted, dripping with sweat and ready for a healthy meal. It couldn’t be more perfect.
The critical nature of laughing out loud
Every aspect of staying young requires a pro-active role on your part, so start by recreating the above scene in your own life. In that photograph, you have all the constituents of health and vitality. Do the girls look stressed out? No. Do they look introverted and reclusive? No. Are they quiet and restrained? No. In fact, their shouting and laughter is the ultimate recipe for health and vitality. This starts in the brain and trickles down to the rest of the body. Laughter is an integral and absolutely necessary constituent of good health. It speaks loudly for the frame of mind, the lack of stressors, and the carefree mentality. He or she who can laugh habitually in big bellows from the gut, they will already be well positioned for health and longevity. We all used to laugh like that, so what happened? Note also how easily kids socialize and make new friends and how we complicate this extremely important process when we grow older.
By the way, we said earlier that 82% of all those in the U.S. who make it to 100+ are women. Want to know why? Researchers tell us that it is –at least in part- because women process problems quickly, brushing them away rather than dwelling on them.
Do not allow stress to linger in your system
We saw how stress can help to wake you up in the morning or prepare you for a big event. That is also referred to as “eustress”. When you are reliving fond memories in your mind, e.g. recollections of your first love, it is eustress that is running in your bloodstream, making your heart melt with feel-young nostalgia. Eustress however turns to “distress” when it lingers. The same hormones –cortizol and adrenalin- that pepped you up become toxic for your immune system as well as your cardiovascular and other systems. Distress is the precursor of disorders and sickness –on top of the depression.
Distress can be of a psychological nature such as, for example, when you harbor a feeling of guilt that you can’t shake. Guilt in turn can originate when you were two or three years old. In other words, it is frequently futile to try to rid yourself of guilt without help. Stress can also be cultural, such as if you feel unfairly stigmatized or stereotyped. It can be environmental, and it certainly can be finance or emplyoment-related. Heaven knows we all have to cope with stress that visits us wearing a variety of garbs. The important thing is to make it stand down, make the flow of detrimental hormones stop.
Short of trauma to the head -or something as impactful- stress interferes with our homeostatic synergies more than anything else. Stress is the monkey wrench that is thrown into the melee, and it makes our homeostatic powers actually have a negative effect.
Imagery – my medicine
We established in the above sections that stress is the enemy, and that it has the capacity –plenty of capacity- to cause us harm at every level of our homeostatic system. When stress rears its ugly head, all our body’s efforts at harmonic balance are thrown out the window. It is the proverbial monkey wrench tossed into the mix, and it always shows up uninvited. There are many stress-relief techniques, some thousands of years old. They make up cherished therapies that one can adopt –and unlike the majority of pharmaceutical drugs, they have no side effects.
As far back as I can remember, and having tried one or two other modalities, imagery has become my medicine. Imagery –aka visualization- is easy to learn, and it can be practiced in 5-minute allotments or over a longer time frame. Start by isolating yourself somewhere that is quiet and with no interruptions, and then just recall a very pleasant period in your past. Now think hard and focus on more and more details of that scene until you feel the pleasures of the past run through your entire body. If that is as detailed as you want, freeze that imagery and bask in the relaxation and pleasure derived.
I particularly like to go back to my childhood when I was playing with friends much like the twin girls in the above photograph. I remember the scenes of romping by the riverbed, images of wild daffodils in bloom, their designs and patterns young and as-yet untarnished, their colors stunning, their scent hovering all around –springtime, glorious and uninhibited.
So practiced I am at this reverie that I can summon back –at will- the sensation of being fused with nature’s pervasive radiance and the sights of spring’s clear blue skies. I can recite the imagery, much like a chant, and I can sense precisely how spirited our laughter was, how lively our stride, how full of grit we were, how unperturbed our play. That is a favored trance of mine that has sustained me over the years, my life frequently intense and void of much playfulness. I simply go back to the riverbed where I pranced barefoot, and I let it fill me up with the joys of days of my youth. I have one or two other visualizations that I revisit every now and then, the main thing being that I can call on each one at a moment’s notice, and I can then let reliving the past soothe my nerves and rid me of that tension that characterizes much of our lives.
Readers – what is your therapy of choice?
I urge readers to try to develop their own imageries as therapies to relieve the stress that accumulates in their lives. Just focus on a particularly joyful episode in your life and try to fine-tune the images until you get down to crisp images. Reap the joys of reliving those moments and teach your mind to go “there” whenever you need a little respite from everyday life. Let imagery be your medicine!
1 and 2) Do You Have What It Takes? By Adam Voiland in U.S. World News & Health Report.
About Mike Takieddine, the author:
Mine has been a privileged life, first for having traveled all over as son of a diplomatic family, then for having had the opportunity to study at Oxford, and finally for a gratifying career in business, in geriatric home care, and in writing about health issues. I look forward to using this wonderful medium to discuss the various aspects of health that are of interest to me.