Aging

Definition

Starting at what is commonly called middle age, operations of the human body begin to be more vulnerable to daily wear and tear; there is a general decline in physical, and possibly mental, functioning. The length of life is often into the 70s. The upward limit of the life span, however, can be as high as 120 years. During the latter half of life, an individual is more prone to having problems with the various functions of the body and to develop any number of chronic or fatal diseases. The cardiovascular, digestive, excretory, nervous, reproductive and urinary systems are particularly affected. The most common diseases of aging include Alzheimer's, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, depression, and heart disease.


Description

Human beings reach a peak of growth and development around the time of their mid 20s. Aging is the normal transition time after that flurry of activity. Although there are quite a few age-related changes that tax the body, disability is not necessarily a part of aging. Health and lifestyle factors together with the genetic makeup of the individual, and determines the response to these changes. Body functions that are most often affected by age include:

  • Hearing, which declines especially in relation to the highest pitched tones
  • The proportion of fat to muscle, which may increase by as much as 30%. Typically, the total padding of body fat directly under the skin thins out and accumulates around the stomach. The ability to excrete fats is impaired, and therefore the storage of fats increases, including cholesterol and fat-soluble nutrients
  • The amount of water in the body decreases, which therefore decreases the absorption of water-soluble nutrients. Also, there is less saliva and other lubricating fluids
  • The liver and the kidneys cannot function as efficiently, thus affecting the elimination of wastes
  • A decrease in the ease of digestion, with a decrease in stomach acid production
  • A loss of muscle strength and coordination, with an accompanying loss of mobility, agility, and flexibility
  • A decline in sexual hormones and sexual functioning
  • A decrease in the sensations of taste and smell
  • Changes in the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, leading to decreased oxygen and nutrients throughout the body
  • Decreased functioning of the nervous system so that nerve impulses are not transmitted as efficiently, reflexes are not as sharp, and memory and learning are diminished
  • A decrease in bone strength and density
  • Hormone levels, which gradually decline. The thyroid and sexual hormones are particularly affected
  • Declining visual abilities. Age-related changes may lead to diseases such as macular degeneration
  • A compromised ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight
  • A reduction in protein formation leading to shrinkage in muscle mass and decreased bone formation, possibly leading to osteoporosis


Causes and symptoms

There are several theories as to why the aging body loses functioning. It may be that several factors work together or that one particular factor is at work more than others in a given individual.

  • Programmed senescence, or aging clock, theory. The aging of the cells of each individual is programmed into the genes, and there is a preset number of possible rejuvenations in the life of a given cell. When cells die at a rate faster than they are replaced, organs do not function properly, and they are soon unable to maintain the functions necessary for life.
  • Genetic theory. Human cells maintain their own seed of destruction at the level of the chromosomes.
  • Connective tissue, or cross-linking theory. Changes in the make-up of the connective tissue alter the stability of body structures, causing a loss of elasticity and functioning, and leading to symptoms of aging.
  • Free-radical theory. The most commonly held theory of aging, it is based on the fact that ongoing chemical reactions of the cells produce free radicals. In the presence of oxygen, these free radicals cause the cells of the body to break down. As time goes on, more cells die or lose the ability to function, and the body soon ceases to function as a whole.
  • Immunological theory. There are changes in the immune system as it begins to wear out, and the body is more prone to infections and tissue damage, which may finally cause death. Also, as the system breaks down, the body is more apt to have autoimmune reactions, in which the body's own cells are mistaken for foreign material and are destroyed or damaged by the immune system.

Diagnosis

Many problems can arise due to age-related changes in the body. Although there is no one test to be given, a thorough physical exam and a basic blood screening and blood chemistry panel can point to areas in need of further attention. When older people become ill, the first signs of disease are often nonspecific. Further exams should be conducted if any of the following occur:

  • diminished or lack of desire for food
  • increasing confusion
  • failure to thrive
  • urinary incontinence
  • dizziness
  • weight loss
  • falling

Treatment

For the most part, doctors prescribe medications to control the symptoms and diseases of aging. In the United States, about two-thirds of people 65 and older take medications for various complaints. More women than men use these medications. The most common drugs used by the elderly are painkillers, diuretics or water pills, sedatives, cardiac drugs, antibiotics, and mental health drugs.

Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) is commonly prescribed to postmenopausal women for symptoms of aging. It is often used in conjunction with progesterone. ERT functions to help keep bones strong, reduce risk of heart disease, restore vaginal lubrication, and improve skin elasticity. Evidence suggests that it may also help maintain mental functions.

Expected results

Aging is unavoidable, but major physical impairment is not. People can lead a healthy, disability-free life well through their later years. A well established support system of family, friends, and health care providers, together with focus on good nutrition and lifestyle habits and good stress management, can prevent disease and lessen the impact of chronic conditions.

Nutritional supplements

Consumption of a high quality multivitamin is recommended. Common nutritional deficiencies connected with aging include B vitamins, vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, chromium, and trace minerals. Since stomach acids may be decreased, it is suggested that the use of a powdered multivitamin formula in gelatin capsules be used, as this form is the easiest to digest. Such formulas may also contain enzymes for further help with digestion.

Antioxidants can help to neutralize damage by the free radical actions thought to contribute to problems of aging. They are also helpful in preventing and treating cancer and in treating cataracts and glaucoma. Supplements that serve as antioxidants include:

  • Vitamin E, 400-1,000 IUs daily. Protects cell membranes against damage. It shows promise in prevention against heart disease, and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
  • Selenium, 50 mg taken twice daily. Research suggests that selenium may play a role in reducing the risk of cancer.
  • Beta-carotene, 25,000-40,000 IUs daily. May help in treating cancer, colds and flu, arthritis, and immune support.
  • Vitamin C, 1,000-2,000 mg per day. It may cause diarrhea in large doses. If this occurs, however, all that is needed is a decrease in the dosage.

Other supplements that are helpful in treating agerelated problems including:

  • B12/B-complex vitamins; studies show that B12 may help reduce mental symptoms, such as confusion, memory loss, and depression.
  • Coenzyme Q10 may be helpful in treating heart disease, as up to three-quarters cardiac patients have been found to be lacking in this heart enzyme.

Hormones

The following hormone supplements may be taken to prevent or to treat various age-related problems. However, caution should be taken before beginning treatment, and the patient should consult his or her health care professional. DHEA improves brain functioning and serves as a building block for many other important hormones in the body. It may be helpful in restoring declining hormone levels and in building up muscle mass, strengthening the bones, and maintaining a healthy heart.

Melatonin may be helpful for insomnia. It has also been used to help fight viruses and bacterial infections, reduce the risk of heart disease, improve sexual functioning, and to protect against cancer. Human growth hormone (hGH) has been shown to regulate blood sugar levels and to stimulate bone, cartilage, and muscle growth while reducing fat.

Herbs

Garlic (Allium sativa) is helpful in preventing heart disease, as well as improving the tone and texture of skin. Garlic stimulates liver and digestive system functions, and also helps in dealing with heart disease and high blood pressure. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) supports the adrenal glands and immune functions. It is believed to be helpful in treating problems related to stress. Siberian ginseng also increases mental and physical performance, and may be useful in treating memory loss, chronic fatigue, and immune dysfunction.

Proanthocyanidins, or PCO, are Pycnogenol, derived from grape seeds and skin, and from pine tree bark, and may help in the prevention of cancer and poor vision. In Ayurvedic medicine, aging is described as a process of increased vata, in which there is a tendency to become thinner, drier, more nervous, more restless, and more fearful, while having a loss of appetite as well as sleep. Bananas, almonds, avocados, and coconuts are some of the foods used in correcting such conditions. One of the main herbs used for such conditions is gotu kola (Centella asiatica), which is used to revitalize the nervous system and brain cells and to fortify the immune system. Gotu kola is also used to treat memory loss, anxiety, and insomnia.

In Chinese medicine, most symptoms of aging are regarded as symptoms of a yin deficiency. Moistening foods such as millet, barley soup, tofu, mung beans, wheat germ, spirulina, potatoes, black sesame seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds are recommended. Jing tonics may also be used. These include deer antler, dodder seeds, processed rehmannia, longevity soup, mussels, and chicken.

Prevention

Preventive health practices such as healthy diet, daily exercise, stress management, and control of lifestyle habits such as smoking and drinking, can lengthen the life span and improve the quality of life as people age. Exercise can improve the appetite, the health of the bones, the emotional and mental outlook, and the digestion and circulation.

Drinking plenty of fluids aids in maintaining healthy skin, good digestion, and proper elimination of wastes. Up to eight glasses of water should be consumed daily, along with plenty of herbal teas, diluted fruit and vegetable juices, and fresh fruits and vegetables with high water content.

Because of a decrease in the sense of taste, older people often increase their intake of salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure and nutrient loss. Use of sugar is also increased. Seaweeds and small amounts of honey can be used as replacements. Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine all have potential damaging effects, and should be limited or completely eliminated from consumption.

Adiet high in fiber and low in fat is recommended. Processed foods should be replaced by complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains. If chewing becomes a problem, there should be an increased intake of protein drinks, freshly juiced fruits and vegetables, and creamed cereals.