The Facts About Anti-Aging: Science or Scam?
September 16, 2009
September for those of you who weren’t aware is Healthy Aging Month. This brings to mind my father who just turned 77 this August even though my wife says that he looks like he’s 10 years younger. Everyone who knows him agrees. But the funny thing is my father is the antithesis of what most would consider “Anti-Aging”. He doesn’t take any supplements or vitamins, nor does he undergo cleanses or detox regimens. Yet he looks and acts like a man who’s in his 50s or 60s, and not someone who’s in his 70s.
So why doesn’t my father look and act more like his age? He’s living the life of his dreams.
Live, Not Strive
It’s widely known that the longest living people are in Japan, and I’m willing to bet that these 90 and 100 year olds aren’t taking multiple vitamins, detoxing, cleansing, or paying lots of money for the latest exercise trend.
Similarly, my father, as far as I can see, doesn’t do anything special to maintain his youthful exuberance. He simply eats a healthy diet (mostly vegetables), is physically active, and has a very health-promoting lifestyle.
Take for instance my father’s routine weekly schedule: He takes courses with undergraduates at Hunter college, plays tennis, performs in musicals and plays, sings in his church choir, hikes some very challenging trails in the Catskills, and regularly takes in the opera and the symphony on the weekends. He also jokes that when he wears his baseball cap on the subway or on the bus, no one offers him a seat. But when he takes off his hat, he’s offered a seat instantly. Much to the chagrin of his peers, who are confined to walkers, and need the aid of home health aids to get by, my father is one of the most active people I know even amongst my peers.
The only thing that my father has that would be considered “typical” for a man his age is that he has prostate cancer. Since 10 years ago when he was first diagnosed with the disease, he has had a persistently elevated PSA. And after multiple treatments for prostate cancer, for which no source can be found, he has received estrogen-like hormone treatments once in a while, but his youthful appearance is more pronounced now than when he was on a more intensive anti-testosterone regimens in the past.
Also, despite his cancer, his blood pressure and his glucose levels are better than most of his doctors and he doesn’t take any prescription medications.
Your Age Is A Matter of Chronology Not Biology
If you read the magazines or surf the internet, you’ll see various buzz words such as anti-aging, youth-promoting, regeneration, and age-reversal. It seems that the search for the fountain of youth is still alive and the secret is out. It’s not about how old you are that matters. It’s more a matter of how young you want to look and feel.
There’s even a medical specialty called Anti-Aging Medicine to assist people in their quest for agelessness. It’s almost as if we’re engaged in some sort of mythical battle for immortality. Yet unlike most battles of this sort, our enemies don’t have three heads, or turn you into stone. It just makes you look and feel that way.
Anti-Aging or Anti-Living?
The word Anti-aging to me is an oxymoron since you can’t literally change your chronological age. This also implies that the deterioration in the way you feel or the way you look can be slowed, or even sometimes reversed. There’s definitely value in looking and feeling younger (even for me), but what most of these programs tout is that one pill or supplement that can make you look and feel younger, without addressing the big picture. Yes, there are programs out there that are more “holistic,” but essentially, you’re told you have to replenish what your body is missing in order so that you don’t miss out on all that life has to offer.
The problem is, no one seems to have figured out what that missing ingredient is. Who do you believe if you want to stay healthy or maintain your vitality? Are you not drinking enough water, or are you eating nutritionally deficient foods, or is your water laced with toxins and chemicals? Is it a vitamin B12 deficiency or lack of calcium? Are you eating too many acidic foods or too much alkaline foods? How can you figure out if you’re allergic or sensitive to nuts, gluten, or milk?
Recent studies are now suggesting that vigorous exercise doesn’t really help you lose weight, since you’ll eat more. More confusion. Studies are published almost routinely giving conflicting results on any potential benefits of herbal or nutritional supplements, including valerian for sleep, echinacea for colds, and multi-vitamins for health in general.
With all the different opinions on how to stay young and healthy, it can be a maddening process that can actually make you age faster. Honestly, I don’t have a good answer for you. Even as a physician, I’m stuck in the same conundrum within the medical fields as well, with conflicting studies and vastly differing opinions.
But here’s my personal advice – do what feels right. If you truly believe in something, do it with all your might. Science actually invalidates one individual’s experiences and can only generalize based on large population studies. Since everyone responds differently, your only way to know whether or not it’s going to work is to try it (within reason, of course). Rather than trying to exclude the placebo effect that most studies try to do, take advantage of your body’s natural ability to heal itself, no matter which option you choose.
However, realize that that one pill, supplement or exercise regimen is not going to make you younger. Eventually, something will work for you, but without changing your mindset and daily habits, your health problems will return and you’ll be back to square one.
One plausible explanation to why people who take vitamins feel healthier is that they are naturally health conscious, eating the right foods and making healthy lifestyle choices. But when vitamins were tested in a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded study, no benefit is found. Not too surprising. Rather than using the vitamin as the cure-all for all their ailments, healthy people use vitamins as part of a well-balanced, nutritionally smart, and stress free lifestyle, where youth and vitality is a state of mind as well as a continuing process, rather than an end point.
After all, you can draw infinite possibilities in the finite period of time that you have if you want it to. Take my 77 year old father as an example. Perhaps the best secret to living a long life is just this: Just live.