Most of you think that getting older means aging, or at least aging in the way we commonly see it in our society, which is having less function, becoming forgetful, maybe incontinent, tired, just not being able to tie your shoes anymore or cut your toenails. And I think that this is really a misconception, that most of the aging we see in this country is really abnormal aging. It’s not normal aging. It’s really the result of the five forces of illness becoming active and causing breakdown long before it’s necessary.
Many, many, many people actually can achieve a life span that is equal to their health span. And what we’re talking about is really creating a period of your life when you’re healthy that goes right up until the time you die. We call this the rectangularization of the survival curve. In other words, rather than going slowly downhill for the last 20 or 30 years of your life, you go full steam right to the end, then, and boom, it’s over.
Getting older means aging. Does it? No. What we see as aging in our society is really abnormal aging. We have the capacity for remaining vital, and the potential is there for people to become younger at any age. In fact, a gentleman I’m taking care of who’s about 70 years old, he had a bypass and was just feeling very tired and just lethargic, and his cognitive function was declining, and he really tried to take care of himself and ate well and did pretty good things for himself but just couldn’t quite get to be feeling good. And the usual response from the doctors, “What do you expect? You’re 70 years old.” You know, “There’s nothing wrong with you; just sort of live with it.”
The reality is he had mercury toxicity. And I talked to him yesterday, after six months of treatment, he says, “I can’t believe how much energy I feel. I feel 10 or 15 years younger,” and his mercury level came down to normal. So the potential is there for us to really live well and age well.
We want our health span to equal our life span, right? Our health span is the amount of years we’re healthy; our life span is the amount of years we’re alive. So if you end up with the last 20 years of your life spent in a nursing home and you die at 80, you have a life span of 80 and you have a health span of 60. You want them to be the same. You want them to be equal.
There’s a gentleman named James Fries who said that if we actually took care of ourselves, if we remained an ideal body weight and we didn’t smoke and we exercised vigorously on a regular basis throughout our life, not only would we live longer, but we wouldn’t get sick when we’re older. And of course, this was a highly debated issue for many years, and he eventually had to do a 20-year study, spend millions of dollars proving the fact that if you kept your ideal body weight, didn’t smoke, and exercised vigorously, you would live longer and you would live healthier. This is what I call one of those “Duh!” studies. Everybody in the room knows that’s obvious. But it was really vigorously argued because it was felt that if you just extended the life span, we’re going to end up with a lot of sick old people, and that’s not going to be good and it’s going to cost us more. But when he did the study, he actually found this not to be true.
In fact, when you look at the healthcare expenditures in relation to life span, people who live longer and die very old, like in their 90s and so on, live well and also die very quickly, painlessly, and cheaply, whereas people who die when they’re young, 50s, 60s, 70s, die long, expensive, and painful deaths. So it’s better to die old. You want to end up going to a little cabin on the lake with your spouse when you’re maybe 96 or 97 and having a wonderful meal, skinny dipping, having a nice, very expensive bottle of wine, making love, and then just checking out. Wouldn’t that be nice? That’s possible. I’ll give you the name of the cabin when—afterwards.
Have a health span that’s equal to your life span. This is something most of us can actually achieve, because, as I’ve been saying, our lifestyle determines the aging process. And a lot of the things that we think of in terms of the aging process are really the result of subclinical or disease or actually these five forces of illness being active.
It’s not surprising that we think that getting older is not that attractive, because when we look around us, 85 percent of people who are 65 have one or more degenerative illnesses. For example, they might have heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure. You know, these are common things that result from the process of aging but are not direct results of aging. They’re results of abnormal aging.
What we’re discovering is actually that for the first time we are understanding the process of aging so that we can actually do something about it. And it really has to do with understanding these five forces of illness. There are many things that we actually can do to help correct these imbalances. In fact, what happens as we get older is we lose resiliency; we lose our metabolic complexity. We lose the ability to bounce back from stresses and illnesses. When you’re a child, you get a cold or the flu, boom, you’re right back going, playing on the playground a few days later. If you’re 80 years old, it’ll knock you down for three months. If you stay in bed with an illness for a week or so when you’re young, you can manage to get out and recover pretty quickly, but when you’re older, you lose a lot of muscle very quickly; you can’t function. So our resiliency isn’t just at that level, but it’s also at the biochemical and metabolic level.
And there are fascinating studies that have been done by Dr. Bruce Ames, who’s a researcher, probably one of the most quoted researchers in medical science. And he’s very well respected, from the University of California at Berkeley. And he’s studying aging now. He has studied diet and cancer and many other things throughout his life, but he’s actually studying aging. And he said that he took a bunch of old rats that were just lying around the cage. They didn’t like to get up in the treadmill anymore—you know how that is. They couldn’t find the cheese in the maze, they couldn’t remember where things were anymore, couldn’t swim very far, and they’d get tired easily. And that’s something probably most of us are familiar with as we’re getting older.
But he hypothesized that it wasn’t just because they were older, that it was because there was some metabolic problem, that their reserve was gone. And so they were less resilient and had less reserve, what we call organ reserve. And he suggested that if he gave them a few little ingredients that actually you can find in a health food store, that are really just part of our normal biology, if you gave these to these rats, that they would act younger. In fact, that’s exactly what he found. He gave them something called carnitine. Carnitine is an amino acid, and it helps transport fat into the part of the cell that makes energy, called the mitochondria, which we’ll talk about later. And this energy factor requires fats as well as other things in order to produce energy. Well, if the fat can’t get in there because there’s not enough carnitine, you may not be able to produce enough energy, hence, not wanting to be on the treadmill, not finding the cheese, not remembering things, not being able to swim very far.
He also gave them something called lipoic acid or alpha lipoic acid. Again, these are supplements you could buy in a health food store. And, again, this is part of the normal biology that we have. But as we get older, our needs for these particular ingredients increase. It’s not like a vitamin exactly; it’s what we call a conditionally essential nutrient. So it’s only essential under certain conditions. Let’s say getting older, for example. We may need more vitamins as we get older. We don’t absorb things as well; our digestion might not work as well. So we need extra support.
So, anyway, he gave these two nutrients to these rats, and overnight these rats suddenly became young rats. They jumped up on their treadmill, they started running by themselves, they could find the cheese faster, and they could swim farther. So he really discovered that it’s possible to give people a metabolic tune-up, to tune up these basic biological functions that seemed to degrade with age. And I think it’s true that they break down, but it’s actually possible to stop them.
One of the exciting things about aging research now is that we’ve discovered one thing that actually can extend your life span dramatically. In fact there have been thousands of starving rats in laboratories around the world actually proving that by restricting your calories you can actually extend your life span. You cut your calories by a third, and you can live a third longer. Now of course you’re going to be cranky and irritable and in a bad mood all the time, so that’s not exactly the strategy that I think we should try to look for. But what it tells us is there are certain things that get turned on or off, depending on how much food you’re eating, that relate to aging. And the basic functions that get affected are what we call oxidative stress, which is basically the root cause of all age-related disease. This is the end result of all the insults to your system over years. And we normally see this as wrinkles on our skin, which is basically rusting that comes from the radiation from the sun. If you look at a woman, for example, who’s never gone in the sun her whole life and another woman who’s a sun worshiper and they’re the same age of 70 years old, one’s going to look pretty good and the other’s going to be pretty wrinkled. So it really has a lot to do with the rusting process.
But we don’t just rust on the outside and get wrinkles. We also rust on the inside, so we get wrinkles on the inside. And that’s called oxidative stress. And that’s common to almost all age-related diseases. It’s called rusting. When we rust in the brain, we get Alzheimer’s; when we rust in the joints, we get arthritis; if we rust in the heart, we get heart disease; if we rust in our cells, we get cancer. So oxidative stress produces this rusting process, and it’s really common in aging.
When we eat a lot of calories, we produce a lot of rust, because the body has to produce energy. And in order to produce energy, we run the food we eat and we run the oxygen we breathe through these little factories in our cells that produce energy, and these are called mitochondria. And these mitochondria produce, as a result, energy that runs our body. It’s like the gasoline for our car. And it also produces carbon dioxide that we breathe out in water that comes out as urine.
But as a byproduct, the exhaust pipe, so to speak, are these free radicals, or oxidative stress, or rusting. Now, the more you eat, the more rust you make. If you don’t have a diet rich in antioxidants, if you’re not eating in a way that’s protecting you by eating fruits and vegetables that are very rich in antioxidants, then you increase the rusting in your body and the aging process. In fact, a convention of aging specialists could only agree on one thing in terms of what contributes to prevention of age-related disease, and that was eating more fruits and vegetables. So I always say we should eat eight to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and a serving’s a half a cup.
If we look at the research on the diet restriction, it teaches us that we have to protect our mitochondria from the rusting. Now, we can do that in many ways. We can do that by increasing the levels of these antioxidant nutrients inside the cells, like the carnitine lipoic acid. We can actually eat less food, not necessarily restrict our calories, but most of us overeat. We really talk about this phenomenon of being overfed and undernourished. We eat too many calories, not enough nutrients, and these excessive calories get burned, and as part of the burning process, they produce this rusting. And that leads to a lot of the aging. So people like Bruce Ames are talking about creating a metabolic tune-up that can really change the aging process.
There was actually a large study that was done recently in Europe in which they actually took people who were 70 to 90. And it was a very simple study that was really designed to show the effects of lifestyle and aging. And they were able to reduce deaths in this older group by 70 percent by simply improving their diet, eating a Mediterranean diet, fish, nuts and seeds, beans, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, olive oil. Not a low-fat diet, not a low-carb diet, but a diet that’s rich in real food. I call it the real food diet. It’s food that you don’t have to get off a supermarket shelf that basically is something that grows on the land; it eats stuff that’s grown on the land; it’s real food. The simple rule for the diet, if you want to have a healthy diet, is if it has a label, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
So, the key is to look at the foods that they were eating in this study. They were very simple, basic, healthy Mediterranean high omega-3 fats, high fiber, high fruits and vegetables, and so on. They also exercise a little bit. That was just walking half an hour a day.
And they found that the people who ate the Mediterranean diet—and I think they didn’t smoke either, as well as exercised a little bit—had a 70 percent reduction in their death rate between 70 and 90 years old, which is pretty dramatic. So if you apply that to a younger population, it’s likely that you’ll have an even greater reduction in suffering and death.
So what we’re talking about in terms of changing the aging process is actually not that complicated. It has to do with achieving balance in your life; it has to do with eating a diet that supports your health rather than robs your health; about getting some physical activity every day. In fact, one study showed that simply walking, walking, for older men and women, reduced their risk of dementia and improved their brain function. We’re all worried about losing our marbles. Well, all you have to do is go out and take a walk and your risk is dramatically reduced. It really reduces something like dementia.
This brings up the issue of how inevitable are diseases of aging like dementia or heart disease? Well, they’re not inevitable. In fact, in the Alzheimer’s area, we’re learning that this is not just something that happens by accident or because of genetics, that there are a number of interlocking, competing forces that either rob your health or give you health. And if we understand how to actually provide support for your brain function and take away the things that are hurting your brain, then your brain can age well.