Throughout life, old or damaged cells are broken down and replaced. However, after about age twenty-seven, the rate of cell damage begins to outpace the body's natural repair processes. With poor nutrition, this shift toward greater cellular breakdown may begin at an earlier age. Old cells are not as efficient as new ones, and the accumulation of old cells is what is recognized as aging.
Wear and tear is a normal part of living and aging. Much of it results from damage by free radicals, according to Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. In the 1950s Harman proposed the free-radical theory of aging—that these hazardous molecules chip away at the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), proteins, and fats in cells. The cumulative effect is less efficient cell performance and decreased activity of organs, reflected in a weaker heart and weaker lungs, as but two examples. Sometimes free-radical mutations of DNA lead to vastly different cell behavior, such as that of cancer cells.
Most of these free radicals are generated by normal metabolic processes in the body, such as the burning of glucose for energy or the detoxification of dangerous chemicals, such as cigarette smoke. Normally, most of these free radicals are contained in specific chemical reactions, but some do leak out—and additional free radicals may be formed when a person consumes inadequate levels of antioxidants.
Some people seem to age faster than others, a process strongly linked to excessive levels of free radicals. A good example is a woman who maintains a beautiful tan in her twenties and thirties, either by sunning herself on the beach or by using tanning booths. By the time she turns fifty, she will likely have far more facial wrinkles and tougher skin than a person who has minimized exposure to the sun. That's because tanning increases exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which creates free radicals and speeds the aging of skin cells. Athletic injuries also can accelerate the aging process, particularly of joints and bones, and injuries have been documented to create free radicals. The chemicals in cigarette smoke are dangerous in part because they stress the body's ability to detoxify them, generating still more free radicals in the process.
In addition, poor nutrition and leading a hard life increase wear and tear. For example, malnourished people often look ten to fifteen years older than their chronological age. Good nutrition should provide compounds that maintain a normal aging process or, ideally, even slow it down. Inadequate nutrition hurts our natural defenses against a variety of stresses, such as UV radiation, air pollution, and noxious chemicals.
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