Turning back the clock
Age is not just a number – life’s not that simple.
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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