Slowing the Aging Process—Can it be Done?

A whole generation of baby boomers is re-examining what it means to age—what is inevitable and what is the result of “bad” living. The good news is that research is bearing out what many have suspected all along, that vigorous and sustained exercise and a high quality diet do have an impact in slowing the aging process. In addition, more and more evidence points to the necessity of vitamin, mineral and enzyme supplements for the maintenance of optimal health.

According to research emerging from the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, the usual decline in function as you age may have more to do with an inactive lifestyle and inadequate nutrition than with the aging process itself.

At the conference, Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, Senior Scientist, Antioxidants Lab at HNRCA, reported on the widespread incidence of malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies in the elderly. He also presented evidence that the nutritional requirements of the elderly were well above the official recommended daily allowances for each vitamin and mineral.

Dr. Blumberg also reported on the work of two of his colleagues, Dr. William Evans, Chief of the Human Physiology Lab at the HNRCA, and Dr. Irvin Rosenberg, Director of the HNRCA, and their team of scientists. Based on their research findings, Evans and Rosenberg have devised an exercise and diet program that apparently prolongs vitality by retarding or even reversing the usual biological deterioration process that begins past age 45. Their program aims to postpone disability, reduce the risk for chronic disease, and prevent the loss of muscle mass.

The biomarker program
Since a person’s genetic heritage is a given, Evans and Rosenberg decided to concentrate on those factors that maintained health for the longest possible period of time and that could be altered. What they came up with were ten specific biological predictors or biomarkers of health.

The keystone to Evans and Rosenberg’s program, detailed in their book, Biomarkers, The Ten Keys to Prolonging Vitality (Simon and Shuster, 1991) is regular, vigorous aerobic exercise combined with weight training of the upper and lower body. Ongoing research at Tufts has shown that this type of exercise program, combined with a high fiber, lowfat diet will consistently improve all ten biomarkers.

The loss of mucsle mass
By far, the most important factor affecting the quality of life as a person ages is loss of lean body mass or muscle mass. Lean muscle mass declines with age, and the rate of loss accelerates after age 45.

By their 80s or 90s, women can lose up to 80% of their muscle mass, causing muscle weakness, fatigue, and inability to lift a grocery bag or a pot of water that results in a loss of independence. For example, 75% of women over 75 cannot lift 4.5 kilograms with their arms.

What happens to women and men in their 80s and 90s who start pumping iron? After just eight weeks of weight training, a group of ten men and women between the ages of 87 and 96 had a threefold increase in weight they could lift with their legs; their thigh muscle mass increased by 10 to 15%. In addition, the trainees experienced a marked improvement in their mood and confidence level. As soon as the program was stopped, their muscle mass returned to pre-training levels. The program must be kept up at least three to four days a week for lasting results.

With strength training, muscle tissue is broken down before it is built up. Research to date has shown that antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene protect muscle from excessive breakdown and encourage muscle repair.

According to Dr. Blumberg, both vitamin D and magnesium are critical players in the ability to gain muscle mass as you age. As people age, they are often lacking in both those nutrients.