Turn­ing back the clock

Age is not just a num­ber – life’s not that sim­ple.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - HEALTH - By Dr C.S. FOO

WHEN I grad­u­ated from med­i­cal school, I de­cided I had had enough of books and spent the next two decades in rel­a­tive medi­ocrity treat­ing com­mon ill­nesses while my friends be­came var­i­ous “gists” ... opthal­mol­o­gists, car­di­ol­o­gists, rheuma­tol­o­gists, etc.

I re­mained or­di­nary and was so good at it that I be­came an “or­di­narol­o­gist”. (Please do not bother to check on this spe­cialty from any uni­ver­si­ties ... it is con­ferred by the school of life.)

At age 50, a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence opened my eyes to health and life it­self. Be­ing or­di­nary was a bless­ing as it al­lowed me to see ex­tra­or­di­nary things – how­ever, the trans­for­ma­tion was like the blind gain­ing sight. So I am here to­day shar­ing with you in­for­ma­tion not as a physi­cian or clair­voy­ant, but as an or­di­nary fel­low be­ing who got lost some­where, but found a way out of the wilder­ness.

For the first time, I un­der­stood the dif­fer­ence be­tween health span and life span. One may live to 90 (life span), but if one har­bours a host of mal­adies, fac­ing each day with bleak pes­simism and mori­bund lethargy, he or she would have lost in terms of health span. It would be ideal to have a life span matched by health span.

With the alarm­ing en­croach­ment of chronic de­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases, mod­ern-day liv­ing is trun­cat­ing our health span and we are pay­ing the price for be­ing naive. I know of count­less young ex­ec­u­tives with hy­per­ten­sion, high choles­terol, di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, obe­sity, etc.

Just the other day, a young lady showed me an au­topsy re­port of her hus­band of 37 years, who was in ap­par­ent “good” health but died sud­denly. Ac­cord­ing to the pathol­o­gist, the cause of death was due to an un­usual bleed­ing of one of the in­ter­nal or­gans. What grabbed my at­ten­tion was the find­ing that both the coro­nary ar­ter­ies were in ad­vanced stage of block­age. Had he sur­vived this time, an im­mi­nent heart at­tack would have taken him to­mor­row.

Our blame list in­cludes poor food choices, seden­tary life­style, stress, job dis­sat­is­fac­tion, and so on.

Per­haps we have been a lit­tle care­less of our own health by not know­ing and not do­ing. Worse is not want­ing to know and not want­ing to do ... the group of “couldn’t care less”!

When hor­mones peaked in my early adult­hood, age­ing, dis­eases, and mor­tal­ity was a dis­tant no­tion. In my youth­ful wis­dom, I felt that these only hap­pened to the el­derly and not to some­one at the prime of life. How­ever, in a flash, I was tem­po­rally translo­cated to a no­to­ri­ously tur­bu­lent phase of life, the in­fa­mous midlife, with its at­ten­dant crises.

Very soon I found my­self sucked into a vor­tex of poor health, and at age 40, I felt like a 60-year-old man.

I painfully be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate what it feels like when bi­o­log­i­cal and chrono­log­i­cal age do not match.

Age­ing is the process whereby

The more you ex­er­cise, the higher the like­li­hood that you will have a longer life as well as health span. our bod­ies be­gin to de­te­ri­o­rate (in de­fence, main­tainence and re­pair), with some achiev­ing this mile­stone ear­lier than oth­ers. It is likened to a car that has seen bet­ter days trav­el­ling on a jour­ney that seems more la­bo­ri­ous with each mile.

Chrono­log­i­cal age is our time on Earth in years and is pretty straight­for­ward if there is no mis­take in the doc­u­men­ta­tion of cal­en­der birth. Bi­o­log­i­cal age is more vague and re­flects the state of cel­lu­lar health, which de­ter­mines how our en­gines run for the day. Some say age­ing is a “state of mind” or “you are as old as you think”. To a cer­tain ex­tent, that is true, but there is more to bi­o­log­i­cal age­ing than just “think­ing the age”.

Can we turn back the clock? We cer­tainly can­not change the years, but bi­o­log­i­cal age can def­i­nitely be re­versed.

Geron­tol­ogy (a well es­tab­lished branch of sci­ence), means the “study of old man”. A spe­cific cat­e­gory of sci­en­tists, known as biogeron­tol­o­gists, re­search on the age­ing process and many no­table re­searchers have put for­ward dif­fer­ent pos­tu­la­tions about age­ing. The­o­ries of age­ing abound. How­ever, for our pur­poses, let me high­light two ma­jor schools of thought.

Struc­tural dam­age the­ory

Just like any en­gine ex­posed to wear and tear, the parts are worn off with time, and a lit­tle bit of rust builds up ... usu­ally in places where the sun does not shine, like the un­der­car­riage and ex­haust pipes. Life and death, health and sick­ness, youth­ful­ness and senes­cence, be­gins and end at the cel­lu­lar level. A sin­gle cell in the hu­man body is the ba­sic unit of life. Dam­ag­ing, in­jur­ing or poi­son­ing the cell will lead to cel­lu­lar de­gen­er­a­tion and sets off the age­ing process.

In the sci­en­tific world, new ideas are con­sid­ered bold and some­times sub­ject to ridicule and peer os­tracism. Dr Denham Harman had his share of brick­bats when he pro­posed The Free Rad­i­cal The­ory Of Age­ing in 1954. It took an­other decade be­fore sev­eral stud­ies val­i­dated his find­ings, and an­other 50 years be­fore the med­i­cal com­mu­nity grad­u­ally and grudg­ingly ac­knowl­edged the im­pact of free rad­i­cals on health and age­ing.

Free rad­i­cals are un­sta­ble molec­u­lar mis­fits ac­cu­mu­lated by our own metabolism, dis­ease states, tox­ins, poor food choices, pol­lu­tion and stress. Be­ing short of an elec­tron, they par­take in a rob­bing spree by strip­ping elec­trons from healthy cells, ren­der­ing the lat­ter dys­func­tional.

There are at least 60 de­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases at­trib­uted to free rad­i­cal dam­age and these con­di­tions are linked to the age­ing body. How­ever, we are wit­ness­ing an un­ex­plained trend of these same dis­eases in the younger seg­ment of the adult pop­u­la­tion. We must wake up to the fact that we are age­ing bi­o­log­i­cally faster than our chrono­log­i­cal age.

A sim­ple man­i­fes­ta­tion of the free rad­i­cal the­ory can be ob­served in the skin of chronic smok­ers and those ex­posed for long hours in the sun.

The as­sump­tion here is that age­ing is pre-pro­grammed at con­cep­tion and is de­ter­mined by our genes. Ac­cord­ing to this the­ory, the painful truth is that we be­gin age­ing even be­fore our birth, as the clock starts tick­ing in the womb. The bi­o­log­i­cal clock is pre-set and stops when time is up.

In 1962, just as the above free rad­i­cal the­ory was gain­ing mo­men­tum, Leonard Hayflick pro­posed the Hayflick Limit, where cells of a cer­tain species have a fixed num­ber of cell di­vi­sions, lead­ing to a re­stricted du­ra­tion of life span, which for a dog is 20 years and a but­ter­fly only a few weeks. What about us? Is there a ceil­ing? The old­est per­son who lived and died at age 122 was Jeanne Louise Cal­ment, who dec­o­rated her life with wine, olive oil and good hu­mour, and who said on her 120th birth­day, “I’ve got only one wrin­kle, and I’m sit­ting on it.”

Ac­cord­ing to Hayflick’s re­search, the po­ten­tial cy­cles of cell di­vi­sion in hu­man cell cul­ture is 50, cor­re­spond­ing to an up­per limit of 120 years of hu­man life span. Nearer the end, cell di­vi­sion slows down and mor­phol­ogy and cell func­tion be­come dis­torted, en­ter­ing a state of age­ing (senes­cence) and even­tual cell death (apop­to­sis).

Dolly the sheep

In fur­ther sup­port of Hayflick’s the­ory is the sen­sa­tional story of Dolly the sheep. The life span of sheep is about 12 years. Dolly was cloned from a sin­gle cell of a sixyear-old adult fe­male and was born in 1996 and died in 2003. She died young at age six. In her fifth year, she de­vel­oped arthri­tis and lung dis­ease, a sign that Dolly was in a state of ac­cel­er­ated age­ing. This brings forth many eth­i­cal and moral is­sues of cloning.

If Hayflick’s the­ory is true, my cloned baby would be 53 years at birth and will in­herit all my present and fu­ture ill health as well!

Other the­o­ries in­clude toxic cel­lu­lar ac­cu­mu­la­tion, short­en­ing of chro­mo­somes (telom­ere), longevity gene, etc. All these propo­si­tions are co­her­ently in­ter­grated and each ex­plains the other.

The world needs scep­tics or else we would be­lieve ev­ery­thing we hear or read. I would have brushed aside all these the­o­ries as sci­en­tific jar­gon once upon a time. My trans­for­ma­tion came four years ago when I stum­bled upon the fi­nal link which re­versed bi­o­log­i­cal age­ing, lit­er­ally turn­ing back the clock.

With each click of the sec­ond hand, the chrono­log­i­cal nu­meral ad­vances while the bi­o­log­i­cal num­ber can po­ten­tially get smaller. If Jeanne Louise Cal­ment can ride a bi­cy­cle at age 100, it is pos­si­ble for any hu­man be­ing to em­u­late that.

There is how­ever a caveat, which ne­ces­si­tates more than just good wine and hu­mour. Open­ing the door to youth­ful age­ing is not by throw­ing a die and see­ing if luck is on your side. It is a choice that is very spe­cific, much like set­ting the ex­act com­bi­na­tion of a four-digit lock, and not gam­bling on a num­ber.

The first digit is ex­er­cise, the sec­ond is life­style, and the third is healthy food choices. De­spite var­i­ous per­mu­ta­tions of the above that one may at­tempt, there is still one digit short. The missing link is an­tiox­i­dants. Once I dis­cov­ered that, life has never been the same.

Dr Denham Harman, with his bril­liance, fore­sight and guts, was way ahead of his time 56 years ago, and to­day he is known as The Fa­ther Of The Free Rad­i­cal The­ory Of Age­ing, and de­serves my ev­er­last­ing stand­ing ova­tion.

How­ever, be­fore you chew on the bam­boo tree or juice the cac­tus, there is a great deal to un­der­stand about en­doge­nous and ex­oge­nous an­tiox­i­dants, which will be dis­cussed in the com­ing ar­ti­cle.

Life is like a light bulb – when in good health, it il­lu­mi­nates life it­self. In poor health, it flick­ers and al­ter­nates be­tween dim­ness and dark­ness. When a light flick­ers, we dis­card it as it has lost its health span and life span. The key that opens the door to true health al­lows life’s bulb to burn brightly and re­main bi­o­log­i­cally young un­til to­tal re­call, when the timer switch is thrown. n Dr C.S. Foo is a med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner. For queries, e-mail starhealth@ thes­tar.com.my.

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