If you’ve been reading my newsletters regularly, you know that I’m very interested in anti-aging strategies. As such, I read every new piece of research that comes across my desk that deals with slowing down aging and/or reversing it. The other day I read something about a study that I think is important for you to know. Researchers out of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill have identified why your molecular age may be much older than your number years. Here’s what they found…
Is Your Environment Prematurely Aging You?
In studying what makes us age; research has identified many “gerontogens” – factors that determine how fast you’ll age. These gerontogens can be lifestyle factors such as the following…
1. Are you overweight? Obesity sets off a cascade of inflammatory hormones in your body that can age your DNA faster and put you at risk for developing the life-threatening diseases of old age like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, even cancer.
2. Do you smoke? Smoking is perhaps the single most aging thing you can do to yourself. It robs your body of life-giving oxygen, deposits numerous toxins and damages DNA.
3. Do you drink? A few drinks here and there are nothing to worry about, but too much alcohol on a chronic basis can prematurely age you. Alcohol gets metabolized as sugar in your blood. Too much sugar can cause chronically high blood sugar levels as well as create highly acidic blood that distributes its inflammatory properties to all the tissues of your body. Inflammation, we’ve come to learn, is the key that opens the door to all the diseases of aging.
4. Do you engage in illicit substances recreationally? Certain recreational drugs (amphetamines, heroin, crystal meth, etc) are highly toxic to your body and can rapidly damage your DNA. As a result, you age much faster.
5. How much exercise do you get? Numerous research studies show that people who don’t exercise regularly age at a faster rate. Exercise helps rid the body of dangerous inflammatory substances, releases stress (another aging factor), helps normalize blood sugar, and protects your heart as well as your brain.
6. What’s your occupation? High stress occupations can cause you to age faster than other easy going, low stress occupations. Just ask our President or an air traffic controller.
7. Are you paired, single, widowed, divorced? Studies show that people who are happily paired – married or not – are likely to stay younger longer than those who are single, widowed or divorced. Loneliness can cause depression, sleeplessness, drinking too much, smoking, etc, and hasten deterioration of cognitive abilities faster.
But the researchers at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill have also revealed some other important gerontogens – those coming from your environment. In fact, in their study recently published in the Cell Press, “Defining the Toxicology of Aging”, these researchers found that your molecular age – i.e. the age of your cells – could be much older than your age in years. They cite 3 environmental factors as significant causal agents:
1. Chemicals: Our environment is rife with chemical pollutants, especially in the air we breathe. One of the most significant pollutants you can be exposed to is benzene. You inhale tine molecules of benzene from automobile exhaust or cigarette smoke. The closer you live to a freeway or busy traffic area, or if you smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke, the higher your exposure is. Other fast-aging chemicals include chemotherapy – something many cancer victims are treated with everyday.
2. Cigarette smoke: Did you know they contain over 4,000 chemical toxins? 4,000! Every time you take a puff from a cigarette, you damage your DNA within minutes, says new research out of the American Chemical Society. Multiply that by number of cigarettes you smoke a day, week, month, or year. The UNC researchers single out smoking as the most important aging factor.
3. Stress: Chronic stress can age you dramatically. Stressful situations cause cortisol – one of your stress hormones – levels to rise. Chronic life stress is like getting a daily injection of cortisol. In turn it can raise your blood sugar levels, boost inflammation, cause you to gain weight around your middle and undermine your cognitive abilities as well as your heart health.
So, even if you’re only 50, being constantly exposed to these environmental toxins could make your actual molecular age much older. I’m sure you’ve seen people in their 80’s and 90’s with lots of energy and spring in their step. They’re full of life and vitality and are the very picture of what healthy aging can be.
On the other hand, I’m sure you’ve also seen younger people in their 50’s who look much older, are fraught with aching joints, pain, fatigue, depression, illness, poor memory. Environmental exposures, say these UNC researchers, can be the culprit in the premature aging of younger people. Their molecular age is much older than their age in years.
The UNC researchers feel, as do I, that finding out more about specific gerontogens – like these environmental factors – will go a long way in slowing down aging. A decade or so ago, no one would have thought it possible, but today, we can send off cell samples (saliva, tissue) to look at our DNA and tell us how short, or long, our telomeres are.
Telomeres are the protective caps at each end of your DNA chromosomal material. They protect your DNA from becoming damaged. As they shorten, and your DNA is exposed to damage, you too age. Preservation of your telomere length figures significantly in how well you’ll age.
Knowing your telomere length can help you target certain lifestyle and/or environmental factors that you’re doing that are putting you at a higher risk for premature aging and disease. Likewise, one of the UNC researchers is currently in the process of establishing a commercial company focused on providing you with specific biomarker tests of how well you’re aging on the molecular level. And, how much older, or younger, you really are.
As we progress further and further into the 21st century, we learn more everyday about what makes us age and/or get sick. I personally am looking forward to the day where doctors can get a complete picture of a patient’s health through molecular aging tests. Knowing this information can help you make changes to your lifestyle, and/or your environment, to enable you to enjoy your life for as long, and as healthy, as you can.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
CDC Facts, Benzene http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/benzene/basics/facts.asp
Environmental Toxins Can Make You Older You’re your Years, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140528133209.htm
Smoking Causes Genetic Damage Within Minutes of Inhaling, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110116144452.htm