Are There Anti-Aging Vitamins?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Anti-Aging Vitamins, Vitamins and Health

Could You Live To Be 120 And Beyond?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

anti-aging viataminsRecent headlines suggest that we can slow biological aging just by increasing our consumption of certain vitamins. That sounds wonderful.  After all, everyone is still hoping for that mythical “Fountain of Youth” and anti-aging vitamins could be just the ticket.

But, what did the paper behind the headlines actually show? The paper (J-Y Lee et al, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, DOI: 10.1111/jhn.12403, 2016) reported that people who consumed the most vitamin C and folic acid had the longest telomeres.

You might be wondering how journalists extrapolated from that study to headlines proclaiming that those vitamins could slow biological aging. To understand the answer to that question you need to know two things:

  • What is biological aging?
  • What are telomeres and why are they important?

What Is Biological Aging?

biological agingIn simplest terms, biological aging refers to the aging process on a cellular level. This concept is based on the “Hayflick Limit” first proposed by Leonard Hayflick in 1962. He showed that normal human cells have a maximum lifespan of 40-60 cell divisions. As they approach that upper limit, DNA damage accumulates and cell division slows and eventually stops.

The “Hayflick Limit” is important because our tissues depend on constant cell division to remain young and vital. Our organs are made up of various tissues and depend on those tissues performing at an optimal level. Thus, as more and more cells lose the ability to divide, our tissues and our organs begin to age. This is thought to be associated with disease and eventually death.

Thus, even though biological aging refers to aging at a cellular level, its significance is thought to extend far beyond the cellular level. It is thought to influence aging, disease, and death at a whole-body level. It reminds me of the famous quote “For want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.” If you’ve forgotten that quote, look it up. It is a perfect analogy for how something that seems so inconsequential can have such a profound effect on our health and mortality.

What Are Telomeres And Why Are They Important?

anti-aging vitamins telomeresTelomeres are sequences of repetitive DNA at the ends of our chromosomes that protect their integrity. Telomeres become progressively shorter as we age. As a very simple analogy we can think of telomeres as being similar to the tips of our shoelaces. If you have ever lost the tip of your shoelace, you know that the shoelace is worthless once the tip is gone.

That analogy holds perfectly with respect to our telomeres. As the telomers become progressively shorter, DNA division slows and eventually stops. DNA division is essential for cell division. Telomere shortening is postulated to be responsible for the Hayflick Limit. Thus, it is no surprise that telomere shortening is associated with aging, age-related diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and dementia, and death.

Telomere shortening is a bad news, good news phenomenon. On the “bad” side, telomere shortening is inevitable. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we will all die at some point.

On the “good” side, there is tremendous heterogeneity in telomere length between individuals at any given age. Some of these differences in telomere length may be genetic, but many appear to be lifestyle related (MA Shammas, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 14: 28-34, 2011). For example, short telomers appear to be associated with things like smoking, environmental pollution, stress, meat consumption, and fat consumption. Long telomeres are associated with the lack of those things and with positive lifestyle characteristics such as exercise and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Are Some Vitamins Anti-Aging Vitamins?

slow agingMore recent studies have begun to look at the influence of individual nutrients on telomere length. The study featured this week (J-Y Lee et al, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, DOI: 10.1111/jhn.12403, 2016) is just the latest example.

This study used food frequency questionnaires to assess nutrient intake of 1958 middle-aged and older Koreans between June 2001 and January 2003. They measured intake of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 (folate), C and E plus calcium, phosphorous, potassium iron and zinc.

Ten years later they measured telomere length in the same population and reported that:

  • Telomere length was positively associated with intake of vitamin C, folate, and potassium.
  • No association with telomere length was seen for the other nutrients.

So, are these anti-aging vitamins?  Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of this study.

This study has some notable strengths:

  • It is a fairly large study, so the results are statistically significant.
  • There is a good biochemical rationale for vitamin C and folate being protective for telomeres.
  • Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, and polyphenols protect the DNA from oxidative damage.
  • Folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 are involved in pathways that stabilize and repair DNA.
  • It is consistent with previous studies (See below)

However, this study also has some glaring weaknesses:

  • It only measures associations, not cause and effect.
  • The diet analysis was not repeated at the end of the study. The authors assumed that dietary habits did not change, but we don’t know that.
  • The use of dietary supplements was not assessed, so we don’t know how that might have influenced the outcome.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

If we look at the totality of published studies(MA Shammas, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 14: 28-34, 2011) :

  • There is good evidence that optimal intake of the antioxidants C and E is positively associated with telomere length.
  • There is good evidence that optimal intake of folic acid and vitamin B12 is positively associated with telomere length.
  • There is preliminary evidence that optimal intake of carotenoids, polyphenols, and omega-3 fatty acids is positively associated with telomere length.

However, there is a lot we don’t know about telomeres. We know that short telomeres are associated with aging, age-related diseases and death. What we do not know is whether telomere shortening is the cause of the aging process or merely a marker of aging. Let me rephrase those two possibilities in a more understandable manner.

  • If telomere shortening is the cause of the aging process, anything we can do to decrease the rate of telomere shortening would slow the aging process and delay the onset of age-related diseases.  If the vitamins mentioned above then caused this decrease, they could indeed be considered anti-aging vitamins.
  • If telomere length is simply a marker of aging, we can consider it like the “canary in the coal mine”. That analogy might be particularly apt. The value of the canary is that it can detect toxic gases when they are still undetectable to humans. It turns out that it is virtually impossible to detect the effect of nutrient intake on longevity (We simply live too long), and it has proven very difficult to determine the effect of nutrient intake on age-related diseases. Having a simple marker of the aging process may well give us valuable insight into how we can best delay the aging process.

Either way longer telomeres are probably a good thing. Based on a limit of 40-60 cell divisions for normal human cells, Leonard Hayflick estimated a maximum human lifespan of 120 years. If we could truly decrease the rate of telomere shortening, would that potentially increase maximum human lifespan or would it mean that more of us reach 120 in good health? Most of us would probably be happy with either outcome.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • Telomeres are the tips at the end of our chromosomes that protect the chromosomes from unraveling.
  • Our telomeres get progressively shorter as we get older. Short telomeres are associated with aging, age-related diseases, and death.
  • Recent studies have shown that our lifestyle can influence the rate of telomere shortening. For example:
  • Short telomers are associated with things like smoking, environmental pollution, stress, meat consumption, and fat consumption.
  • Long telomeres are associated with the lack of those things and with positive lifestyle characteristics such as exercise and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Recent studies have also shown that optimal intake of certain nutrients can influence the rate of telomere shortening. For example:
  • There is good evidence that optimal intake of the vitamins C, E, folic acid, and B12 is positively associated with telomere length.
  • There is preliminary evidence that optimal intake of carotenoids, polyphenols, and omega-3 fatty acids is positively associated with telomere length.
  • There is a lot that we do not know about telomere length. In particular,
  • We do not know whether telomere shortening is the cause of the aging process or merely a marker of aging, like the canary in the coal mine.
  • In either case, anything we can do to reduce the rate of telomere shortening is probably a good thing.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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