What is longevity? What brings on the glow of robust health? And, are we able to extend or even rebuild good health in our later years? Longevity is often defined as the extension of life or simply as long life, but we all know many older individuals who are living longer lives yet suffer many ailments, some very debilitating. Too often, a long life produces a body riddled with one to five chronic illnesses such as heart or lung, obesity or diabetes. Many of us will develop nerve and brain disorders and most of us will be troubled by arthritis, osteoporosis, or poor vision. Some will live with various types of cancer. Complications from drugs to treat these chronic illness are common as are difficulties related to other forms of treatment.
Globally, chronic illnesses are responsible for about 35 million deaths each year. In the United States, 85% of people who are over 65 years of age suffer from one or two chronic illnesses, and even more staggering, nearly a quarter of children that are under 17 years old experience one or more chronic conditions. Nearly half of young to mature adults (18 to 64 years old) have been diagnosed with one or more chronic illnesses (see Judy and Dori’s Living Well, Dying Well).
In fact, younger or older, and almost everywhere, chronic diseases are so rampant that scientists all over the world are earnestly researching the root causes of these illnesses. This is the field and science of longevity. And thankfully, there are many things we can do to live longer and with better health.
According to the US National Institute of Aging (NIA), in order for us to achieve healthy longevity we need the correct lifestyle and dietary strategies to extend the healthy functioning of our body. These strategies aim to prevent diseases, especially the top chronic illnesses like cardiovascular (heart, diabetes, obesity) and cancers, among others. Old age causes a variety of biological and cognitive challenges yet with the correct diet and lifestyle approach we can achieve healthy longevity.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has an excellent group of scientists who have focused their efforts for a long time on finding preventative methods for non-communicable diseases (chronic illnesses). In particular, they have addressed cancer, ischemic heart diseases, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. The WHO’s lifestyle and dietary recommendations are a guiding light for many people globally because their dietary and lifestyle modifications do not only promote healthy long life, but also produce more sustainable ways of food production and agriculture. Keeping people healthy is dependent upon building and sustaining a healthy environment worldwide.
In the past, longevity was thought of as an anti-aging approach that emphasized high energy and how we look, rather than whether we have robust health. Skin care, makeup, supplements, and medicines were created to hide our age and stimulate our bodies into producing more of everything. Merchandise was fused with procedures to tighten or erase wrinkles and skin discolorations, sucking away or adding fat, injecting or orally taking hormones. Mostly, the anti-aging movement was focused on making women look younger and men more virile. Since that failed miserably, and our bodies got even more tired, we clearly needed a different approach.
The new science of longevity is one of the most complex fields of study and research since it combines several scientific fields in the quest for the root causes of chronic illnesses. In order for us to know how to we can prevent, reverse, or heal our bodies, we need to find the root causes of these chronic conditions. Scientists have now discovered that one of the most important keys to longevity and anti-aging is balancing inflammation in our body. Calming and reducing both micro and macro inflammation allows the body to repair and rejuvenate naturally. Inflammation is known by researchers as the intrinsic aging clock. As we age, our body wears down, instigating a complex process that causes more inflammation, which in itself causes more cells to die or behave improperly. This spiraling inflammation causes disease. Death comes when cells and different systems in the body slowly wear out and cease to function until all systems shut down. Inflammation is a central actor in this process.
Scientists have known about inflammation for many decades, yet only now do we understand more fully the implication of this condition on our health and well-being. In 1913, Dr. Arnold Lorand’s seminal work, Health and Longevity through Rational Diet, describes the connection between inflammation and disease:
“The majority of the diseases with which mankind is afflicted usually creep in through the accumulated effects of successive slight irritation, by the operation of apparently insignificant factors which are just sufficient to take part in some chemical reaction.” (p. 115)
In today’s words, we call this successive slight irritation ‘low grade inflammation’ which is a silent condition that can develop into a host of different chronic illnesses.
In 2017, a research team lead by Philip C. Calder correlated chronic disease and aging with an increase in the concentration of inflammatory markers in the blood stream, a phenomenon that has been termed “inflammageing” – low grade inflammation that causes deterioration (or aging) in many systems and functions of our body.
Why do we get this inflammation? And how do we know we have it? Inflammation is natural to the body, when we have a wound or a scratch, the first part of healing is inflammation. But excessive and continual inflammation is quite different. We actually feel macro inflammation when our backs hurt, when our joints are stiff, red, and swollen, or when we eat too many sweet, salty, or fatty foods and feel bloated and sluggish. On the other hand, micro inflammation is deep in our tissues, slowly building into a macro condition that can promote the development of a devastating disease. Doctors see micro inflammation in the pesky numbers of our annual physical that are too high or too low, and if not balanced, can lead to disease.
Along with inflammation (as if that is not bad enough), the aging of the immune system, called immunosenescence, signals the decline and deterioration of the immune system. We know a compromised immune system can lead to a greater frequency and severity of infectious diseases as well as certain chronic illnesses, including various cancers. We have heard about immune therapy for cancer or other diseases as novel therapies, but infectious or chronic, our immune system is at the center of all diseases. The stronger the immune system is, the better for our health.
Immunosenescence is supposed to be a natural process, but not when the decline happens prematurely at a younger age. Scientists have discovered that a continuous chronic antigenic response – toxins inside or outside the body that induce immune response – are responsible for the rapid decline of our immune system. The continual need to respond to invaders (toxins), overloads the ability of the immune system to keep up with the demands to fight off new, unrecognized infections or diseases. In simpler terms, our bodies constantly have to respond to the onslaught of toxins and chemicals found in our typical diet, such as pesticides and herbicides on our foods and chemicals on our lawns and gardens. Office environments often provide no fresh air and release multiple chemicals from carpets, cabinets, and desks. The list is long. And since our body must defend itself against offending molecules of toxins, we see the endless triggering of inflammation and a continual overuse of our immune system.
Longevity is a balanced state between pro- and anti- inflammatory mediators. This means that we achieve good health and longevity with dietary and lifestyle strategies that offer protection against the harmful effects of inflammation and overuse of our immune systems. Remember, activating inflammation and overusing our immune system promotes an assortment of chronic illnesses. The correct nutritional and lifestyle program can mean the difference between suffering with chronic conditions or enjoying better health and living life more fully.
We will continue our discussion in the next article on the science of longevity and what we can do to achieve longevity and good health!
Dohrea Bardell, PhD