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Keeping Baby Boomers Healthier Longer

By: Kayt Sukel

Baby boomers are susceptible to a range of health problems as they age, but the combination of regular exercise and a balanced diet can help them live longer and better lives.

In a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge, MA), researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) found that Americans in their mid-50s reported themselves to be in poorer health and in more pain than those approaching retirement in previous generations. Given the fact that members of the so-called baby boomer set made up more than 20% of the United States population in 2000, their increased health issues are not only a concern to economists and healthcare providers looking to quantify the resources needed to handle the aging-related concerns of this large population, but also to friends and family members who would like to see them live longer, higher-quality lives.

Baby boomers are susceptible to a myriad of health problems as they age. Some of this risk is due simply to the body aging.

“Every major disease that you can think of has oxidative and inflammatory stress components. As we age, we get less able to deal with stuff like that,” says James A. Joseph, PhD, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (Boston). “When you are younger, you can handle the hit. You have nice endogenous antioxidants to help. But as you get older, for whatever reason, they become less effective and their repair capability goes down.”

Baby boomers over the age of 55 are at high risk for specific conditions such as metabolic syndrome, arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. But luckily, some of that risk can be mitigated with proper attention to diet.

METABOLIC SYNDROME

Although recent studies show a slight drop in the rate of overall cardiovascular disease (CVD), coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes are still very common in baby boomers, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; Atlanta) reporting that CVD was diagnosed in approximately 36% of those in the 45–54 age range. Diabetes is also a common diagnosis, with the CDC’s National Diabetes Surveillance System reporting approximately 10 out of 100 diagnosed with the condition in those aged 45–64. Both CVD and diabetes, however, are connected by initial metabolic syndrome.

“I think that a lot of disease like heart disease and diabetes are really secondary to other things,” says Andrew Shao, PhD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (Washington, DC). “They are the manifestation of other problems and issues. The root cause is the metabolic syndrome.”

Metabolic syndrome is a precursory condition characterized by abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, as well as the inability of the body to properly use insulin and glucose.

“Metabolic syndrome affects an ever-increasing percentage of people in our country, up to maybe a quarter,” says Leonard P. Guarente, PhD, a Novartis Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA) who studies the molecular mechanisms of aging. “It’s a serious condition, and a serious challenge to us, because it predisposes people to so many diseases.”

But the good news is that metabolic syndrome can be fairly easy to avoid with diet.

“To cut back on metabolic syndrome, to eliminate it before it turns into disease, the best thing that people can do is lose weight,” says Shao. “And, of course, that is achieved mainly through diet and exercise.” Research has consistently shown that individuals who eat a diet high in anti­oxidant fruits and vegetables are less likely to be obese and suffer from the related metabolic syndrome.

But several compounds are also gaining interest as a way to combat metabolic syndrome. The first are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish oil.

“Inflammation is a root cause of a lot of problems, and the metabolic syndrome seems to act as a proinflammatory,” says Shao. “Omega-3s can help reduce that proinflammatory state by lowering triglyceride levels and lowering the risk for heart disease.”

A second area of interest is a group of compounds called polyphenols that are found in natural products such as berries, grapes, and nuts. A specific polyphenol, resveratrol, has received unparalleled attention in the past few years.

Guarente, who also cofounded Elixir Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA), a biopharmaceutical company specializing in the development of drugs for metabolic disease and aging, believes that resveratrol, partnered with a healthy lifestyle, can help keep metabolic syndrome and its follow-on conditions at bay. He argues that research shows that calorie-restricted diets lead to good health with extended life span by activating a class of genes called sirtuins. Sirtuins seem to be responsible for regulating the aging of cells as well as helping those cells fight off stressors that could cause damage.

“Resveratrol seems to activate these sirtuins much like calorie restriction does,” says Guarente. “It really mimics calorie restriction, and tricks the body into thinking it’s calorie restricting so that some of the benefits are induced.” Guarente and his team at Elixir are working on drugs that can activate these sirtuins to promote better health.

But Shao cautions that the research on resveratrol as an individual supplement, though extremely promising, is not yet complete. “For now, to get the benefits, the best thing is to eat a diet filled with lots of berries and to drink red wine moderately,” he says.

ARTHRITIS

Osteoarthritis is also a common condition in the baby boomer group. A September 2005 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that the rate of chronic inflammation of joint tissue increased along with obesity in baby boomers, with obesity-related arthritis rising more than 15% between 1971 and 2002.

“It’s been stated by some fairly intelligent people that in the modern Western world, osteoarthritis is perhaps the most serious health crisis we face,” says Michael Yatcilla, PhD, vice president of research and development at Natrol (Chatsworth, CA). “Once we lose our ability to partake in physical activity, all sorts of things go bad—the heart doesn’t get enough exercise, we gain weight—and that all leads to more-serious conditions.”

Once again, the best way to ease arthritis is to lose weight by maintaining a sensible diet and exercise plan.

“Obesity just makes arthritis more painful,” says Robert N. Butler, MD, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center (New York City). “Every extra pound is hard on the joints.”

But baby boomers suffering from arthritis may also find some relief from compounds such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM).

“Glucosamine is a well-established supplement for joint health,” says Shao. “It can reduce the risk of osteoarthritis and help maintain cartilage. But it’s more potent in supplements than in any food form. After all, how many people regularly eat crab shells or cow trachea, which are things that have a lot of natural glucosamine?”

Chondroitin sulfate is thought to help maintain cartilage elasticity while MSM is used for pain relief. Both chemicals contain sulfur.

“There’s lots of sulfur in cartilage,” says Shao. “And since these are sulfur-containing ingredients, they seem to help.”

Finally, vitamin D also is thought to help slow arthritis’ progression.

“Results from a recent Wake Forest University study suggest that older Americans should consider supplementing with vitamin D to help ensure optimal mobility,” says Deralee Scanlon, RD, manager of professional and consumer education at Pharmavite (Northridge, CA), which manufactures the Nature Made brand of dietary supplements. “Researchers found that participants with low levels of vitamin D weren’t able to get out of a chair as easily, walk as quickly, or maintain balance as well as those with higher levels.”

CANCER

A recent report by the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results program at the National Institutes of Health’s (Bethesda, MD) National Cancer Institute estimates that one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States. The report further projected that the number of new cancer cases will likely double to almost 3 million by the year 2050, due to aging baby boomers.

Cancer, simply put, is the growth of abnormal cells in the body. The disease begins when those abnormal cells grow and replicate, interfering with the function of normal cells.

Some laboratory studies have shown that an antioxidant-rich diet may have a role in slowing or potentially preventing the development of some types of cancer.

“Increasing the number of fruits and vegetables in your diet has an effect on health—we know that,” says USDA’s Joseph. “There is a lot of data showing that people who eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables, high in antioxidants, can avoid major killers.”

But others are looking toward other compounds to help stem the rise of cancers. One of those is NDGA, a compound found in desert creosote shrubs, plants that have been used for centuries as a traditional healing remedy by Native Americans.

Richard A. Miller, MD, PhD, a researcher from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), discussed preliminary results from a mice study using NDGA at the recent American Aging Association (Media, PA) meeting in San Antonio, TX, in June. His research team demonstrated that mice given NDGA along with a normal diet lived significantly longer than mice that were not given the compound.

“NDGA is known to have a lot of interesting effects in other studies,” says Miller. “It slows the rate of cancer cells, inhibits inflammatory damage and oxidation damage, and can change hormone levels. Any of those could be in the extended life span result we’re seeing.”

Miller emphasizes that the work is preliminary but believes that it holds great promise. “With the data we have six months from now, we can figure out whether inflammation, oxidation, or something else is behind this,” he says. “We’d then know to focus on this chemical and others like it.”

Yatcilla also believes that a mix of vitamin D and calcium citrate may work as a cancer preventative. “A study just came out, a multiyear follow-up study, that showed that postmenopausal women taking high doses of vitamin D and calcium showed a lower risk of getting cancer,” he says.

Yatcilla also cites other studies that show green tea, and its antioxidant component epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), as having cancer-fighting properties.

“Historically, the greatest incidence in long-term controlled studies is green tea, EGCG,” Yatcilla says. “High consumption of it over time [in] people who drink lots of green tea [may lead to] lower instances of cancer.”

ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE AND COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT

According to the Alzheimer’s Association (Chicago), there are currently more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder resulting in the permanent loss of memory and higher cognitive function. But a recent Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) study estimates that by 2050, that number will quadruple, resulting in one in 85 persons being diagnosed with the debilitating disorder.

Despite the fact that Alzheimer’s seems to be a remarkably different kind of disease from the others discussed above, many of the same compounds have been shown to possibly help prevent cognitive decline.

“There is a good body of research suggesting that B vitamins and long-chain omega-3s may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and help people maintain their cognitive function longer,” says Shao.

Scanlon agrees that omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful. “According to several studies, high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids may help preserve cognitive function in the elderly,” she says.

Polyphenols also have been shown to help. A 2005 study published by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine (St. Louis), Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, CA), and the University of California School of Medicine demonstrated that pomegranate juice, a substance rich in polyphenols, decreased the signature amyloid-beta plaques and improved behavior in mice models of the disorder. Guarente is not surprised by this finding.

“I would certainly predict that the polyphenols would help against a variety of diseases,” says Guarente. “But it’s going to take testing to know more, before we can expect some real benefit.”

THE TAKE-HOME MESSAGE

Joseph argues that baby boomers are at the perfect crossroads of life to be diagnosed with diseases. “People are living longer, so naturally there will be a higher incidence,” he says. “But they also have a terrible diet.”

He, like his contemporaries, argues that one’s best bet to live longer and healthier is to keep the weight down, exercise regularly, and consume a diet with healthy portions of fruits, vegetables, and fish.

“You can’t outrun your genes,” says Joseph. “My feeling is that the genes control the clock, but you do have some control. You can start early and hold it at bay by eating right—that’s the value of a good diet.”

Yatcilla agrees. “It’s important that baby boomers, perhaps for the first time, take their nutrition seriously,” he says. “They need to consider their individual needs combined with their dietary habits, and supplement as needed.”