For all of us, aging is inevitable. As the years go by, we are all affected differently, some of us appearing to age much faster than others. We are the sum of our life experiences, which we can see written all over our faces. So, what exactly is aging? Aging is the natural life progression that reflects the biological changes that occur over the course of our lives.
What affects the rate at which we age? Many factors, such as lifestyle, diet, exposure to environmental toxins, emotions, can all affect the rate at which we age. At the biological level, these factors all affect the cells of our bodies, and more specifically, the DNA contained within those cells. Our DNA, or genes, are what tell the cells of our bodies how to function, and these genes can become damaged over time. Basically, the functioning of our cells becomes a little bit less effective each year that we are alive. Some scientists theorize that humans, like all other animals, are programmed by their genes to live to a certain age. Whether we actually live to be that old depends on our lifestyle, how well we care for our bodies, and on any number of unforeseen circumstances.
Each of our cells normally has a total of 23 pairs of chromosomes, or a total of 46 chromosomes. On the ends of each chromosome, there is a section of repetitive genetic code called a telomere. The DNA of a telomere does not serve the same function as the rest of the chromosome. Think of telomeres as similar to the plastic ends of a shoe lace. They serve a protective function and prevent the chromosomes from unraveling, or deteriorating. Most types of cells are constantly dying and reproducing. Each time a cell reproduces, or divides, a little bit of the telomere is naturally lost. Telomere shortening may also lead to some genetically-influenced diseases, such as cancer, and numerous other diseases.
What causes telomeres to shorten? Besides the normal process of cell division, damage from free radicals is to blame. What are free radicals? No, they are not out of control political extremists. In this case, a free radical is an atom or group of atoms with an unpaired electron that, because of their instability, can set off a chain reaction of damage to DNA and the cells of the body. Free radicals occur as a normal result of our metabolism. The immune system also creates them to ward off invaders such as bacteria or viruses. They are also created as a result of environmental pollution and radiation, and from poor diet, lifestyle, and stress. There are certain substances that can counteract them, however. These substances are known as antioxidants, and include Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Beta Carotene, and many others. Usually they are found in the diet, but if your diet is not so great, you may not be getting enough.
The good news is, the damage to telomeres can actually be reversed. In addition to antioxidants, stress reduction, and mindfulness meditation in particular, has been shown to actually lengthen the telomeres, and thus hopefully extend the person’s lifespan.
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