Your Legal Versus Biological Age and What Causes True Aging

While your legal age indicates the number of trips you have taken around the sun, it’s not necessarily the best indicator of your overall health.

For instance, you might know a number of 75-year-olds, each of whom have different qualities of life. One might live a dependency-based lifestyle in a nursing facility while another might still be highly active and living on their own.

These discrepancies reflect the idea that a person’s biological—or cellular—age is what really counts. Different lifestyle choices can affect health at the cellular level and is reflected in the length of our telomeres. (If you’ve checked out one of our many blog posts on telomere science, you’ll know that recent scientific research has found that longer telomeres—aka DNA end caps—indicate longer lifespan.)

Below, we will explore one of these lifestyle factors—environmental toxins—and how it contributes to processes that accelerate aging and degenerative conditions most of us associate with getting older.

Telomeres: How Scientists Can Measure a Cell’s Age

“We know that, in general, people with shorter telomeres die sooner and are more likely to develop many of our chronic diseases,” explains Larry Tucker, professor of exercise science at Brigham Young University. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a very good index of biological aging.”

Yella Hewings-Martin, PhD notes that shortened telomeres are not the cause of premature aging, but a reliable indicator of it. That’s why it’s important to limit the factors that affect telomere length if you wish to live a long, active life, she writes.

While factors such as emotional stress and lack of exercise can shorten your telomeres over time, one that we want to focus on here is environmental toxins. A mounting body of evidence supports the idea that pollution in the air and toxins in our food can shorten human telomeres—and life spans.

Cellular Age and Oxidative Stress

To understand how cellular aging can be accelerated, it’s important to understand what free radicals are and what they do.

This is more than just a catchy term for toxins—free radicals can seriously affect your health. A free radical is any molecule that contains oxygen and has at least one unpaired electron. This creates opportunities for it to react with your body’s cells.

Ananya Mandal, MD explains that an imbalance of free radicals in the body causes what is known as oxidative stress. “Oxidative stress is essentially an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants,” she writes.

If you don’t combat the oxidative stress that free radicals create, your body can sustain serious damage. Gabriele Pizzino and her team of researchers at the University of Messina in Italy write that oxidative stress can cause damage to a body’s cell structures, including “membranes, lipids, proteins, lipoproteins, and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).” This damage can lead to chronic conditions and accelerate the aging process. Similarly, Dr. Debra Rose Wilson writes at Medical News Today that oxidative stress has been linked to a variety of conditions, including the following:

  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer’s, dementia and other diseases of the central nervous system
  • Clogged arteries
  • Diabetes
  • Wrinkles
  • Hair loss & gray hair
  • Autoimmune diseases

Oxidative stress may even be to blame for the degeneration of our eyesight. Linda J. Dobberstein, a chiropractor who is board certified in clinical nutrition, writes about this connection: “Compelling evidence strongly suggests that oxidative stress within the eye is the primary reason for vision breakdown, the development of nearsightedness, and potential complications like cataracts, retinal tears, and macular degeneration.”

Environmental Toxins, Oxidative Stress and Inflammation

So, where do free radicals come from? Researcher Smilin Bell Aseervatham, PhD, from Bharathidasan University in India, led a study that found environmental toxins may be one of the main causes. Smoke, UV rays, pollution, heavy metals and other toxins in our environment can introduce free radicals in the body, in essence fueling the processes behind oxidative stress.

Likewise, chronic inflammation is another factor that can potentially speed up the aging process. Researchers Claudio Franceschi and Judith Campisiexplain that constant, low-grade inflammation is one of the ways we characterize aging. This process is often called “inflammaging.” As Franceschi and Campisi write, “Inflammaging is a highly significant risk factor for both morbidity and mortality in the elderly people, as most if not all age-related diseases share an inflammatory pathogenesis.”

Because inflammation plays a role in the most prevalent diseases in our society today, those who wish to slow the aging process and live long, healthy lives should focus on stopping inflammation when possible. Some of the main causes of chronic inflammation are environmental toxins that many people face every day.

One way toxins can cause inflammatory disease is by disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researcher Kayla D. Coldsnow and her colleagues found that certain toxins can cause organisms to stop sleeping properly, which causes inflammatory disease in the long run.

Another of the study’s researchers, Jennifer Hurley, explains the significance of this study: "This research shows that exposure to environmental toxins may be depressing the function of our circadian clock, the disruption of which is linked to increased rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression…This is the first time anyone has shown this happening at the level of the core clock, which we had considered to be heavily buffered against these types of environmental effects."

Toxins Age Your Whole Body

Through both oxidative stress and chronic inflammation, environmental toxins can shorten your telomeres and wreak havoc on your body. Unfortunately, these toxins seem to affect just about any part of the body that researchers study.

Brandon Pearson from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases explains that environmental chemicals used in today’s agriculture can rapidly age a person’s brain. “Collectively, the research reviewed briefly here highlight chemicals with the true potential to accelerate aging, particularly in the brain, by eliciting elevated free radical stress and mitochondrial dysfunction,” he explains.

In addition to causing neurological problems, certain environmental toxins can interfere with hormones, causing early menopause in some women. These toxins can come from a variety of sources, Charles W. Schmidt explains at Environmental Health Perspectives.

Going through menopause early is much more serious than just getting hot flashes earlier than you wanted. Natalia Grindler, a reproductive and endocrinology fellow at the University of Colorado’s Advanced Reproductive Medicine Division, tells Schmidt that early menopause increases a woman’s risk to develop osteoporosis, heart disease and more.

Furthermore, toxins in the environment can make your skin age earlier than it otherwise would. Dr. Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical in the UK, explains that people who live in polluted and busy areas need to take immediate steps to guard their skin against pollution.

“With traffic pollution emerging as the single most toxic substance for skin, the dream of perfect skin is over for those living and working in traffic-polluted areas unless they take steps to protect their skin right now,” Dr. Patterson says.

Antioxidants are one of the most popular ways to fight the effects of free radicals on the skin. If you want to fight aging as Dr. Patterson suggests, consider using skin care products designed to provide antioxidants. Additionally, you can take steps to limit other signs of aging, too.

Smart Choices Now Can Still Add Life to Your Years

If you have had decades of exposure to environmental toxins in the food you eat and the air you breathe, you don’t have to panic. If you take steps to protect and heal your body now, you can slow this cell-level aging process and even reverse some of the effects.

First, you can limit the number of environmental toxins you consume. Steer clear of foods that have been treated with pesticides or, at the very least, consider purchasing organic versions of produce that falls on the “Dirty Dozen” list (these are the 12 fruits and vegetables that tend to be treated with the most pesticides).

You may also consider doing the following:

  • Avoid smoking tobacco and second-hand smoke.
  • Circulate fresh air in your home whenever possible.
  • Avoid areas known for heavy air pollution.
  • Avoid toxic household goods.
  • Ditch plastic bottles.
  • Try non-toxic cosmetics.

Consider a Supplement to Help You in the Fight Against the Aging Process

Reclaiming your vitality takes work. While avoiding toxins is one piece of the puzzle, there are further nutritional and lifestyle choices you can make to reverse the damage of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.

Vitamere™ Anti-Aging Multivitamins are one item that can help you return to feeling energetic and healthy. These supplements were specially formulated to help you extend your telomeres after years of damage from oxidative stress and inflammation. When taken in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle based on eating whole foods, exercising regularly, sleeping well and keeping emotional stress levels in check, our Multivitamin can help restore the vitality you crave.

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