How Canadians are living longer

Research is showing that you can slow down’and maybe even reverse’the aging process. Here’s how

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Increased life expectancy

We’re living longer-and longer. In Canada, the average female life expectancy, now 83, will rise to 90 by the year 2100, to 97 by 2200 and to 102 by 2300, according to United Nations projections. Many of those additional years will be thanks to better medical care.

But those extra years won’t mean much if the quality doesn’t match the quantity. Right now, our increasing longevity is often plagued with chronic disease and disability. Researchers around the world are studying the best ways to turn that into extra years of glowing, vigorous health.

Today’s hottest area of research is epigenetics: the study of the interplay between genes (which we’re born with) and our environment (which can include lifestyle behaviours, toxins such as cigarette smoke, and chronic stress). Genes-until a generation ago thought to be the sole determinants of how long or healthy our lives will be-likely account for only 10 percent, says Dr. Woodson Merrell, head of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Most of the remaining 90 percent depends on us. “There’s very little that’s set in stone, because the body is so malleable,” says Merrell, who first brought international epigenetics research to the general public in his 2008 book The Source: Beat Fatigue, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger, and is now working on a new book on the role of environmental toxins in aging and health. “Research is now showing that we can significantly slow down the aging process.”

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Telomeres: the keys to a long life

The key to anti-aging may involve telomeres, which are the protective ends of the 46 thread-like chromosomes in every cell that hold our DNA. Like the plastic tips on a shoelace, telomeres help prevent chromosomes from fraying or clumping. Every time a cell divides, which it must do when it grows too big to be efficient, the telomeres tend to shorten slightly. Eventually they become too short to protect the chromosomes. And this can pave the way for a host of age-related diseases.

Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and a Nobel prizewinner for her telomere research, has found links between shorter telomeres and risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia and some cancers. People with longer telomeres appear to live longer, healthier lives. For a few years now-and for a cost of several hundred dollars-some clinics in the U.S. and Europe have been offering a blood test that gauges the length of your telomeres and purportedly tells you how long you’ll live.

But the latest research suggests that telomere shortening isn’t always inevitable. It can be slowed down and may even reverse, depending on lifestyle choices. Blackburn, along with Dean Ornish from the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, and colleagues asked 30 men with low-risk prostate cancer to adopt lifestyle changes, including a plant-based, whole-foods diet; a moderate exercise program; and relaxation techniques. After three months, their levels of telomerase (the enzyme that helps lengthen telomeres) had increased by 29 percent. Although the study was on only a small number of men, the authors commented: “The implications of this study are not limited to men with prostate cancer. Comprehensive lifestyle changes may cause improvement in telomerase and telomeres that may be beneficial to the general population as well.”

Building on those findings, in 2010 Blackburn and colleagues found that among 608 men and women with heart disease, there was a significant association between abdominal obesity and shortened telomeres. Another study by Blackburn and colleagues found that, for 63 women studied, while chronic stress was linked with shortened telomeres, vigorous exercise had a protective effect.

Telomeres, and cells in general, appear to have three major enemies. Read on to find out what they are, and how you can prevent them.

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1. Inflammation

This is the immune system’s response to trauma; for example, when you bump your knee, your immune system sends out a SWAT team of white blood cells as part of the healing process. They temporarily turn the affected area red, warm, swollen and sore. Then, when the knee has had time to heal, your immune system sends out anti-inflammatory cells to reduce the redness and swelling. But if you continually assault your body with a poor diet or tobacco smoke, that inflammatory machinery doesn’t get turned off and chronic inflammation develops. Some scientists have started to call this “inflam-aging.”

“Chronic inflammation is believed to be the primary pathway to disease,” says Merrell, adding that heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, gum disease, Alzheimer’s and many other conditions are linked to chronic inflammation. Being overweight or obese is also characterized by systemic inflammation, but a 2012 study found that when overweight or obese people lost fat around their belly through either a low-carb or low-fat diet, their inflammation profiles improved.

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2. Oxidative stress

The oxygen that we take in with every breath interacts with our cells in a necessary process called oxidation. But the process creates the notorious free radicals, which are natural by-products of energy creation that can damage a cell’s DNA. Adding to the cumulative burden of free radicals are cigarette smoke, charred meats, refined sugar, trans fats and fried foods, says Merrell. Eating plant foods builds up antioxidants that can destroy free radicals. But trouble happens when these free radicals outnumber antioxidants, resulting in a state of oxidative stress. This condition, according to Merrell, is linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other illnesses.

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3. Glycation

This happens when the body has too much circulating dietary sugar, causing the excess sugar molecules to latch onto proteins or fats. The resulting abnormal molecules are called advanced glycation end-products, fittingly shortened to the acronym AGEs. They’re a factor in diabetes, heart disease, and eye conditions such as cataracts and macular degeneration.

Glycation is a growing problem, according to Merrell. He says glucose is increasingly being added to everything from low-fat salad dressings and corn chips to stuffing mixes and frozen entrées. “When they took out the fat they added sugar, which turns out to be much worse.”

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