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The Age That Counts

Posted Aug 14 2009 5:34pm

By Barbara Berkeley

Lots has been made of calculating your “real age”…an interesting device for assessing how old you may be on a cellular level. In reality, no one can tell you exactly how much older or younger you are when you change the way you live and eat. Nevertheless, these kinds of quizzes remind us of the fact that our lifestyle choices cause real life consequences and can reap honest-to-goodness rewards.

I am more interested in another kind of age; one you might not have heard of. AGE is an acronym for “advanced glycation endproducts,” a mouthful of a term with the world’s most appropriate initials. In fact, when our bodies accumulate advanced glycation endproducts, they age. AGE’s are result of a process that begins when sugars in the heated environment of our body attach to proteins. Once hooked together, these altered body elements begin to warp the structures that contain them, disrupting their function. This kind of damage can occur in places like cells and the walls of blood vessels. When body elements are damaged, inflammatory reactions often occur in response. Indeed, harmful body Inflammation is an important consequence of AGE formation.

Diabetics have chronically high blood sugars and form lots of AGEs. Most doctors and scientists believe that the complications of diabetes – things like atherosclerosis, kidney failure, retinal damage and nerve problems – are the result of too much sugar in the blood. A knowledge of AGEs takes that understanding one step further. It is likely that the AGEs formed by the availability of sugar are the actual cause of the damage.

If you are diabetic or know someone who is, you probably already know about one type of AGE. The blood test that doctors use to monitor long-term blood sugar control is called a Hemoglobin A1C. Hemoglobin is a protein that lives in our red cells, each of which has a lifespan of about 120 days. As a protein, hemoglobin is one of the body elements which is susceptible to glycation. In other words, when a lot of sugar is around in the blood, it will attach itself to the hemoglobin and get permanently hooked on it. Since any particular red cell will be around for a few months, doctors can get a general idea of how high the sugar has been by looking at how much glycation has occurred. In people with normal blood sugar, there is hardly any sugar hooked onto the hemoglobin protein. In poorly controlled diabetics, there is a large amount. Since Hemoglobin A1C is just one of zillions of potentially glycated elements, we can assume that the rest of the body has suffered similar glycation damage.

AGEs are found in the retinal blood vessels of diabetics and they are known to accumulate in their peripheral nerves as well. AGEs can be seen in the parts of the kidney that become damaged in diabetes. AGEs can also affect the type of “bad” cholesterol you carry, making it more likely to enter vessel walls and start clogs forming. It is also important to note that even healthy people have AGEs. They begin to accumulate in our bodies during our embryonic life and continue to form as we grow older. The process is usually slow, but it is vastly accelerated by having a lot of blood sugar around; thus the greatly increased risk for diabetics.

Recently, researchers have begun to look more intensively at the accumulation of AGEs in healthy people. It is very possible that people who have more AGEs are aging more quickly. In this regard, an interesting theme has emerged. In addition to making AGES, we may be racking up an excess by ingesting them.

AGEs are made when sugars and proteins are heated. The body is warm and essentially contributes to the “cooking” of these two elements. Similarly, the sugars and proteins in foods can form AGEs when cooked at high temperatures. Although it seems hard to believe that eating AGEs could harm us, there is evidence accumulating that this may indeed be the case. A 2007 research article in The Journal of Gerontology (http://biomed.gerontologyjournals.org/cgi/content/full/62/4/427) reported that:

1. Even healthy people had evidence of AGEs in their blood
2. The older you are, the more AGEs
3. The number of AGEs you have is directly correlated to how much harmful inflammation is going on in your body
4. Eating food with a large number of AGEs elevates the AGE level in your blood. This effect is more pronounced in older people, but occurs in everyone.

Cooking foods at high temperatures by broiling, baking, frying and grilling elevates the AGE content. Cooking with liquid lowers the content. At the moment, recommendations for low-AGE eating suggest that foods be cooked by slower, lower heat techniques. Poaching, boiling, steaming and using slow-cookers are suggested methods.

Once again, AGE related research points to the wisdom of eating more ancient diets. Keeping blood sugar low by avoiding large amounts of starch and sugars makes bodily AGE formation more difficult. Eating a diet that is high in uncooked elements like fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy and lower in cooked foods that require high heat is in keeping with the way most maintainers eat. There is also some research that suggests that calorie restriction is effective in lowering the production of AGEs. Because maintainers have learned to eat judiciously, they are already keeping total calories low.

In other words, we’re on the right track! Enjoy your lower body weight with the knowledge that your lifestyle and eating choices may also be protecting you from the premature ravages of AGE and aging.

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