What exactly is behind the process of ageing? More importantly, can we slow things down a bit?  The popular science magazine, Scientific American, describes ageing as the result of “the accumulation of random damage to the building blocks of life … that begins early in life and eventually exceeds the body’s self-repair capabilities.”

DNA damage

Ageing can mainly be blamed on damage to our DNA. DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that makes up our genes. It holds the information for making proteins, the basis of our bodies and life processes. When we are young, our DNA is generally healthy and functions smoothly.

However, the DNA molecules in the nucleus of every cell are constantly bombarded by damaging stimuli – autoimmune responses, pollution, ultraviolet radiation, cigarette smoke, trans fatty acids, cytokines, free radicals, bacterial or viral antigens, and many other stressful factors.

Some of these stressors come from the environment and some from our own bodies. Either way, these assaults cause some of the bonds in the DNA molecules to break. Faults can also occur in the process of cell multiplication.

DNA repair mechanisms

Every cell in our bodies has defences to counteract these breaks (or “lesions”) and to repair the DNA.  A powerful set of enzymes (endonucleases, exonucleases, polymerases and ligases) work together to remove lesions in DNA. As long as repairs happen as quickly as damage occurs, no permanent harm is done.

The rate of DNA repair is now known to be a reliable predictor of lifespan. Scientists have shown that an animal’s lifespan is predicted by its ability to carry out DNA repair. Rats, for example, live only a couple of years; humans, who live much longer, have 16 times the DNA repair capacity of rodents.

Accumulating damage

However, when the damage happens at a faster pace than the repair, accumulated harm becomes apparent. With each subsequent cell division, defects are copied to the next generation of cells, and the next, creating a proliferation of faulty DNA.

Even a slight change to the DNA may have a negative effect on the body. Since DNA contains very specific sequences of nucleotides, which code for specific proteins, the loss or addition of a single nucleotide may lead to the non-production of an essential protein or substance. It may even activate malignant cellular processes.

Nuclear factor kappa B

While several factors play a role in DNA damage, Researchers have found that there is a protein complex – called NFkB (Nuclear factor kappa B) – which may be key to controlling it. NFkB regulates a variety of cellular responses, including immune and inflammatory responses, cell survival and cell protection.

It is when the NFkB misfires that things go wrong; it may be implicated in cancer, inflammatory and auto-immune diseases, viral infections and a growing list of other ageing-related disorders. For example, if NFkB in the skin is activated after sun exposure, wrinkles may follow, even melanoma. If it is activated in the lungs after exposure to cigarette smoke, emphysema or lung cancer may develop.

What can you do?

Anti-ageing medicine is a fast-growing discipline. Money is poured into research in an ongoing search for a product to stop the clock and prevent the diseases of ageing. Scientists have accumulated the evidence required to connect many of the dots between random damage, DNA, the body’s self-repair capabilities, degenerative disease and ageing. The ultimate goal, of course, is enhanced DNA repair.

However, the ageing process is not yet fully understood, and scientists may never discover the magic formula to prevent it.

In the meantime, there are measures that can slow the process of ageing:

    • stop smoking,

    • exercise regularly, including both cardio- and resistence-training. Cardio exercise is great for your skin, eyes, brain and heart, whilst resistance training is good for stopping age-related muscle wasteage, has demonstrated benefits for the brain, and improves HGH (human growth hormone) production. HGH has been dubbed by many health experts as life's 'elixir of youth'.

    • take a multivitamin

    • take an omega-3 supplement for brain, heart and eye health

    • use sunblock to protect your skin against UV exposure.

    • moisturise

    • improve your diet. Focus on increasing your intake of antioxidant rich foods such as acai berries, blueberries, dark chocolate, coffee and dark fruit & vegetables. Reduce your intake of processed foods, saturated (bad) fats and eliminate any excessive alcohol use.

Although we cannot stop the creep of time, we can do something about how well we age. It’s important  to focus on extending our “healthspan”, rather than our lifespan: living healthily, with a good quality of life, for as long as possible.

According to Dr Michael Elstein, Australian anti-ageing expert and author of the e-books Eternal Health and You Have the Power, our bodies produce fewer hormones which is thought to be one of the primary causes of ageing.

His tips for staying young include following a healthy diet and exercise plan, supplementing your diet with vitamins, minerals and antioxidant supplements, enrolling in an anti-ageing programme and to have a positive attitude at all times.

Source: Scientific American, June 2002, “No Truth to the Fountain of Youth” by S. J. Olshansky , L. Hayflick, B. A. Carnes

Image via Thinkstock