The hardest thing for me when I’m speaking at events and coaching clients is explaining the science of ageing: what’s happening in our bodies at a cellular level is complex and it’s taken me years to grasp it. But it’s critical that we do get our heads round this. Only then can we understand the relevance of our lifestyle choices to how we age. For me, understanding the science of ageing is empowering, and it’s helped to keep me on track with my own Age-Well plan. I sometimes use a few props to (hopefully) make things clearer. They’re rather unusual for a talk about science: a basket of unpaired socks, a packet of batteries, several pairs of shoe laces and a large fluffy Pac-Man! To explain:
As our cells metabolise oxygen (and digest food) they produce waste in the form of unpaired electrons, known as free radicals. These unstable atoms bomb around our bodies trying to find another atom to pair up with – causing havoc, and ageing. Like a basket of unpaired socks (in my house at least) they build up, causing oxidative damage in our bodies. This free radical theory of ageing has been linked to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
Every cell in our bodies runs on ‘batteries’ called mitochondria. These are structures within cells which convert energy from food into a form that cells can use. As we age, they become less efficient. They’re damaged by free radicals, and they start to leak, just as old batteries do.
DNA, the instruction manual for every cell in our body, is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. If our chromosomes were a shoe lace, telomeres would be the tip which stops it fraying. As we age, telomeres become shorter, causing cells to stop functioning properly and eventually die off. The shorter our telomeres, the older we are – short telomeres have been linked to Alzheimer’s, lung disease, heart disease.
Inflammation is both our body’s best friend and worst enemy. If we cut ourselves the body sends an acute inflammatory response and our skin is red and swollen as a cut heals. But as we age the body is in an almost permanent ‘threat’ state, behaving as if there’s a problem it needs to deal with. This is called ‘low-grade inflammation’ and is a hallmark of ageing – so much so that doctors have coined the term ‘inflamm-ageing’. High levels of inflammation are found in people who become frail in old age. Why does it happen? It’s probably linked to the failure of our telomeres as they wear away and the leaking of our battery-like mitochondria.
As we get older our bodies are less good at cleaning up all this mess and our autophagy processes start to fail. This is the clean-up process whereby our bodies gobble up old, damaged cells – rather like Pac-Man eating the coloured dots he encounters. (In my mind, anyway!)