Age spots were the last things Linda Walsh
wanted to see developing on her feet and legs three years ago. Just 42 years
old, her hair was also beginning to fall out, her joints were increasingly
stiff and she was constantly fatigued.
Today the Southern California resident's skin
is blemish-free, and her hair is as lustrous and full as it has ever been.
She's healthy and active, running her growing business. Walsh said that she
owes the turnaround to antioxidant supplements and the specialized skincare
products she religiously lathers all over her face and body.
Hannah Kalil is 83 years old, and lives by herself in upstate New York. She
has aides who help with her caregiving throughout the day. But the
responsibility of managing her finances, health care -- both mental and
physical -- and long-term living situation falls to one person: her daughter --
and my mother -- Eleanor.
It's almost a full-time job. Making sure my grandmother is happy and not
feeling lonely means daily visits. Her never-ending stream of medical issues
means weekly -- if not...
As more Americans such as Walsh join the
ranks of the aging population, they're finding that staying forever young isn't
always as simple as taking a few pills and smearing on special lotions.
Geneticists say that's because the cause of aging goes much deeper, all the way
into the core of the body's cells -- the genes -- the blueprint of human life,
which dictates how people grow, develop and age.
With the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention this summer reporting that Americans are now living an average of 30
years longer than they did in 1900, the thought of increasing human life
expectancy may no longer be a fantasy.
"There are lots and lots of genes that
can make a difference in how we age and how long we live," said Dr. George
Martin, adjunct professor of genetics at the University of Washington School of
Medicine in Seattle.
For the last 10 years, Martin has been
studying Werner's syndrome, a disease that causes people to develop symptoms of
aging as early as age 20. Persons with the syndrome develop gray hair,
osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes, symptoms that mirror the health of an
In 1996, Martin and his colleagues in
laboratories around the world isolated the cause: a gene they call recQ,
mutated so that it no longer works to support the cell's gene-maintenance
machinery. When the machine slows down, the person affected begins to display
the signs of premature aging.
Martin points out that because an alteration
in a gene causes symptoms of aging, physicians might someday be able to target
certain genes to slow the aging process.
The Antioxidant Connection
What's offering more clues, however, is the
study of animals whose genes can be very similar to human genes. University of
Colorado scientists have found several genes in roundworms, for example, that,
when mutated, allow the worms to live twice as long.
One of these genes controls how much
antioxidant the body produces, said lead researcher Thomas Johnson, professor
of behavioral genetics at the university's Boulder campus. When the gene is
mutated, more antioxidant is produced to fight free radicals, byproducts of the
body's energy-making process that cause aging by damaging tissues and cells.
Roundworms that have more of the antioxidant live twice as long as worms that
have the normal amount of antioxidant.
However, while antioxidant supplements may
have rid Walsh of age spots, the supplements, including vitamins A, E and C,
don't necessarily increase the body's ability to fight free radicals, Johnson
added, explaining that some studies are showing that the body produces less
antioxidant if it's already supplied through the diet.