The Basics of Pro-Aging: The Best Actions You Can Take
You can’t prevent the passage of time, but when you’re proactive about your
life choices, you can control some of the risk factors in your life associated
with illness and disease. Being proactive doesn’t automatically guarantee you
won’t develop a chronic disease or illness, but not doing anything or actively
taking part in known risk factors that are linked to chronic disease or illness
may lead to health problems.
You may not realize just how much control you have over how long you live —
and we don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. Seemingly casual choices
you make every day may have the most profound impact on your health. In
fact, it’s estimated that if everyone in the United States led a healthy lifestyle
(outlined in the list below), more than 50 percent of the cases of cardiovascular
disease and diabetes could be avoided, and more than 50 percent of all cases
of cancer prevented.
The earlier in life you choose to follow a lifestyle of disease prevention, the
more you can lower your risks of developing chronic disease. Chronic disease
and illness come from many different factors, some of which you can control —
such as lifestyle choices — and others you can’t — like your age and genetics.
The following tips show you how to avoid the most damaging and pre-
ventable threats to your health and aging:
Don’t smoke — and if you already do, stop. Really
Smoking increases the risks for the top three killers: heart disease, cancer, and cardiovascular
ailments, including strokes. It also damages your lungs and other parts
of your respiratory system. At least 60 chemicals in cigarette smoke cause
cancer, and as a cigarette burns, it produces the poisons carbon monoxide,
ammonia, formaldehyde, arsenic, and cyanide.
Smoking raises your blood pressure and decreases the flow of oxygen to
your brain and body. It’s also a significant risk factor for other health
concerns, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, stroke, and osteo-
porosis. In the year 2006, smoking resulted in 435,000 deaths or
18.1 percent of the total deaths (includes 35,000 deaths from second-
hand smoke and 1,000 infant deaths due to maternal smoking).
Limit alcohol consumption.
If you drink alcohol, no more than two drinks a day are safe for men,
and one or fewer drinks a day for women.
(A standard drink is one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5-
ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.) Women
are more likely to have liver damage from drinking two or more drinks a
day than men are, so it’s especially important for women to keep alcohol
consumption to one or fewer drinks a day.
The high cost of free radicals
Free radicals can come from internal reactions
or can be caused by external sources such as
exposure to X-rays, cigarette smoking, air pol-
lutants, pesticides, and other industrial chemi-
cals. To understand free radicals, it helps to
understand cell structure.
The human body is made up of cells. Cells are
made up of molecules. Molecules consist of
elements (water, calcium, iron), and elements
are composed of atoms (made of a nucleus,
neutrons, protons, and electrons). Atoms are
bound by a chemical bond created by pairs of
electrons that surround the atom. The number
of protons (positive charge) in the atom’s
nucleus (center) determines the number of
electrons (negative charge) that surround the
atom. Electrons by nature are unstable and
have a tendency to break away from the atom,
leaving it with an unpaired electron. This
unpaired electron turns the atom into a free rad-
ical, which becomes a scavenger looking for an
available electron to stabilize itself. Free radi-
cals steal electrons from other atoms, making
these atoms, with missing electrons, become
free radicals, and this sets off an ugly chain
reaction (see the following figure). With time,
free radicals cause damage to the cell structure
and the cells die. Tissue that’s continuously
assaulted by free radicals leads to cell death,
which leads to more rapid aging. Free radicals
are known to be linked to cancer, heart disease,
arthritis, and other disease.
Antioxidants work by targeting free radicals and
donating one of their electrons to each free rad-
ical (a process called oxidation), neutralizing it,
and preventing damage to the body’s tissues
(see the following figure).
Alcohol is a depressant and can exacerbate the symptoms of depression
and other mental disturbances. Alcohol intoxication causes problems
with coordination, speech, and decision making, leading to risky behaviors.
At toxic levels of alcohol intake, vomiting, difficult breathing, seizures,
and even death can occur. Alcohol has an addiction potential, with
around 8 percent of adults having an alcohol use disorder. With addiction
and chronic alcohol consumption, disease in the liver, pancreas, nervous
system, and gastrointestinal system can occur. If you’ve had any history
of addiction to alcohol or any other substance, you shouldn’t drink at all.
Many studies have found that consumption of alcohol at these quantities
can have protective measures in cardiovascular disease. Consumption of
red wine may be particularly favorable, since red wine contains certain
polyphenol antioxidants associated with cardiovascular health.
If you’re pregnant, you should avoid alcohol altogether because
researchers don’t know how much alcohol will harm a fetus, but they do
know that a certain amount can be extremely harmful.
Maintain a healthy, balanced diet
We can’t overstate the importance of
a balanced and healthy diet as you age. A poor diet can lead to an increased
risk of many health problems, including osteoporosis, heart disease, and
impaired memory. Eating well, on the other hand, makes you feel and
look better, keeps your body functioning optimally, wards off colds and
sickness, and contributes to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol
levels, which in turn helps protect you against heart disease and stroke.
Over time, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to obesity, a
preventable yet dangerous epidemic that poses a threat to people’s
longevity. And it’s on the rise. As you age, regular exercise should be a
cornerstone of healthy living. As your body slows down, you may be
tempted to skip the exercise because it’s harder to do, you feel challenged
physically, or you accept that being less active is part of normal aging.
Don’t fall prey to this thinking!
As you get older, exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous, it just needs to
be consistent. Regular physical activity helps your body function more
Manage your stress and develop healthy coping mechanisms
Stress causes the release of the hormones cortisol, norepinephrine, and epi-
nephrine, which under acute stress have a protective effect on the body.
But chronic stress allows hormones to hang around longer than usual
and cause the formation of free radicals. Although these little buggers don’t
cause death directly, they do contribute to aging. Check out the nearby
sidebar, “The high cost of free radicals.”
Get enough sleep regularly.
You need sleep, both psychologically and physiologically
The body uses this time for healing and growth, and
your body produces many hormones essential for proper functioning
during the deepest sleep stages. Sleep irregularity can have a direct
impact on some disorders, such as epilepsy and migraines, and has been
associated with diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, clinical
depression, diabetes, and other serious conditions.
Visit your doctor for the recommended screening tests for your age
Several important tests can help protect against cancer, heart disease,
stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Some of these tests find diseases
early, when they’re most treatable, while others can actually help keep a
disease from developing in the first place.