Going Gently into the Golden Years
In this, the year Paul McCartney turns 64, a new wave of senior citizens is upon us. Don’t use that term, though. "Seasoned citizens," is the new label du jour for aging Baby Boomers and members of the "Silent Generation." And it’s true: look at Madonna, who has fewer crow’s feet and fat rolls than a 20-year-old club hopper. And what about Mick Jagger, prancing around on stage at the Superbowl with more vitality than a sex-starved teenager?
The natural health industry anticipates robust sales, since many aging Boomers prefer herbal hair-loss remedies and organic face creams in their quest to look and feel as good as Mick and Madonna. The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) estimates that 60 million adults now turn to herbal supplements as part of their anti-aging strategy. So where to start?
It makes sense to begin with something basic: food. Simple changes can make a big impact on health, says Karen Collins, a spokesperson for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). For example, eat five fruits and vegetables every day and cut your cancer risk by 20 percent. Grains, fruits and vegetables should cover two-thirds of the plate, according to the organization’s brochure, "Nutrition After 50." The other third should be protein (preferably not red meat).
Collins does not believe in low-carb, fat flush or any other special type of diet, and she’s not partial to enemas, either. It doesn’t make sense to eliminate one entire category of food, she says. And the human body is extremely well-designed for eliminating toxins on its own.
"People lose sight of the big picture," Collins adds. "How about if we simply move to a healthier way of eating?"
AICR believes in "energy balance." In other words, try to burn off the same amount of calories you eat. That means 60 minutes of moderate exercise per day (vacuum, pull weeds or stroll around the block). You also need 60 minutes more intense exercise once a week (tennis, basketball or a fast bike ride). Luckily, you can split it up through the day. "People think they don’t have an hour to exercise, so what’s the point," Collins says. "It doesn’t have to be all or nothing."
Part of what’s driving the trend toward herbal supplements is an overall distrust of the government and pharmaceutical companies. One by one, we watch as regulators issue warnings for everything from anti-inflammatory drugs (like Vioxx) to hormone replacement therapy.
Botanist James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy and Anti-aging Prescriptions from Rodale, avoids mainstream medicine by growing nearly everything he needs on his property in Fulton, Maryland. Most consumers, however, will need help from a qualified herbalist or naturopath to get the right dosage. Duke recommends using organic ingredients whenever possible.
For his own health, Duke relies on capsicum, celery seed and chamomile for arthritis, along with daily doses of garlic and fish oil. He also sings the praises of Zyflamend, an herbal anti-inflammatory sold by the Brattleboro, Vermont-based company New Chapter (www.new-chapter.com).
Researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston are studying Zyflamend as prevention for breast, lung and prostate cancer. Cleveland Clinic is looking into it for brain cancer. New Chapter founder and CEO Paul Schulich says the compound can ease arthritis and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Other popular anti-aging compounds on the company’s shelves include cinnamon for diabetes prevention; reishi, a revered Chinese longevity mushroom that fights high blood pressure and high cholesterol (avoid this one if taking blood thinners like Coumadin); and coffee berry, which has potent antioxidant properties.
Along with Mick and Madonna, 53-year-old Schulich might be a shining example for Baby Boomers who want to do the age thing right. He cut sugar and caffeine from his diet and does yoga, tai chi, meditation and breathing exercises each day. In addition, he bikes or walks for an hour and plays a round of basketball once a week. How does he fit it all in? "I don’t watch TV," Schulich says.
Blueberries might be another good secret to know about. When fed to rats, blueberries appear to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, according to studies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University.
Phytochemicals in blueberries shut down signals in the brain that lead to inflammation, explains James Joseph, director of the HNRCA’s neuroscience lab. "Old neurons are like old married people," Joseph explains. "My lab is like the Dr. Phil of old neurons—we get them talking to each other again."
Joseph suggests adding more blue and red fruits and veggies, such as berries, purple grape juice and beets to the diet for Alzheimer’s prevention. You need about a cup a day of blueberries or a large spinach salad or a pint of strawberries, he says. Other age-busting foods include wild salmon, avocado, pomegranate and sweet potatoes. "Put as many colors into your diet as you can each day," Joseph says.
Joseph points to a study that shows eating a Mediterranean diet (full of olive oil, fruits and vegetables) can cut your Alzheimer’s risk by 40 percent.
Meanwhile, you have to get your grey matter moving. "You’ve got to treat your brain like a muscle—you want to really work it," Joseph says. "My advice is do crossword puzzles and read."
Women in mid-life and older are increasingly turning to complementary and alternative medicine to cope with menopause symptoms. Recent studies showed traditional hormone therapy increases the risk of stroke, heart attacks and breast cancer.
"The Women’s Health Initiative is scaring people away," says Fredi Kronenberg, director of Columbia University’s Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "There’s been a resurgence of interest in using herbal remedies to reduce symptoms and maintain health going forward."
Black cohosh is one of the most widely studied herbs for menopause symptoms, and one of the safest, according to the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). Women who took the brand Remifemin at 400 milligrams per day for eight to 12 weeks had good results. Black cohosh’s long-term safety record is unknown, however. Its impact on breast cancer risk also is not well known, NAMS reports.
Progesterone cream may ease hot flashes, but it pays to be a savvy consumer. One study tested different creams on the market and found some of the products had absolutely no progesterone in the tube. One NAMS report verified that a well-known brand of progesterone cream, Pro-Gest, did have 450 milligrams of the hormone. Side effects include skin problems, heavy bleeding and mood issues, so it pays to consult a health provider first.
The NAMS report encouraged women to stay away from the following herbal remedies:
" DHEA, which can cause depression, birth defects and the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors.
" Dong quai and ginseng, which can cause heavy bleeding as well as problems for people on Coumadin.
" Kava, which may cause liver damage.
"A lot of these herbal remedies have not been tested for effectiveness and some of them do interfere with other medical problems," says Celia Esther Dominguez, an Emory University reproductive endocrinologist. "Everything that’s natural is not safe."
In the wake of the WHI results, some pharmacies are marketing "bio-identical hormones" as a more natural alternative to traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Once again, medical experts urge caution because compounding pharmacies (which mix raw ingredients for specific patients) are not regulated. And the hormones they offer may cause the same long-term health risks as a mainstream hormone drug like Prempro.
It pays to check safety data through the National Clearinghouse for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Other helpful resources include www.herbmed.org or www.consumerlab.com. "The best study goes head to head with a placebo," Dominguez says. The length of a study also counts—four to six weeks isn’t as good as five years.
MELISSA KNOPPER is a Colorado-based freelance writer.