Nature vs. Nurture: The Genetics of Aging

If you have ever visited the cosmetic aisle in a drugstore, then you have no doubt been bombarded by the images and slogans on makeup and skin care products promising eternal youth. But with medical research now pointing to certain genetic factors that may be responsible for how we age, just what good are these products? And conversely, if our genes determine the aging process, are we destined to be the picture of our parents? Or is there a cure in the ranks that will guarantee us all a lifetime of good health and good looks?

Aging Genes
Some scientists theorize that aging is all a part of natural selection. That is, once an organism (humans, in this case) is no longer reproductive (as we are after menopause, for example) its organs and tissues become more susceptible to mutations ‘ which in layman terms translates into an increased susceptibility to illness and changes in our body’s appearance. In other words ‘ aging!

Of course, evolutionary explanations about why we age don’t do much to explain the actual genetic causes of aging. And while animal studies have made interesting headway into understanding the linkages between genes and life span, they have yet to prove these conclusions have any bearing on the human species.

However, arguments for why it is in the interests of governments and citizens alike to extend our life’s longevity are being widely debated. And while no scientist is advocating for the prospect of a “fountain of youth”, there are many that seem convinced scientific developments will enable doctors of the future the opportunity to offer their patients a delay in the aging process for a period of up to 10 years (note the use of the word delay and not prevent). But for those already aged 20+, don’t expect any miracles ‘ the technology likely won’t be available until at least 2050.

Looking to Your Parents
So while there remains much progress to be made in terms of determining and manipulating the genes responsible for the aging process, you don’t have to wait a half a century to get a clue into how your genes may affect the way you age.

While the genes we receive from our mothers and fathers are ultimately random (meaning we may not know who we most take after), looking to our parents is still a good way to gain insight into how our own bodies work. Certain diseases, for example, like cystic fibrosis and alcoholism have proven to have a strong genetic component. In this way, the strength of our eyesight and hearing as well as the degree to which our hair may gray or our skin may wrinkle are also influenced by our parents genes.

However, this does not mean you have no say in the matter. Other components such as environment and lifestyle are also strong indicators of how long, and how well, you will age ‘ just like your eating and exercise habits will ultimately determine how much you weigh.

What You Can Do
So now that we know our genes do play a role in aging, does that render anti aging supplements and skin care products totally useless? The answer is no.

While a healthy lifestyle that includes eating right and regular exercise are the most important components of leading a long and healthy life, there is evidence supporting the notion that certain products and treatments may help to keep us looking younger. But just how to tell fact from fiction? Here is a guide to some of the more popular anti-aging techniques:

    • Antioxidants: You may have heard of some popular antioxidants such as vitamin A, B, E, beta carotene and selenium. It is believed that the consumption of antioxidants may be linked to a delay in the aging process since our bodies need them to fight off substances called free radicals, which scientists have linked to the aging process. However, antioxidants are best consumed in food-form (i.e. antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables such as dark green leafy vegetables and berries) rather than pill form. In fact, antioxidant supplements may even pose risks to certain individuals such as smokers. Therefore, it is best to speak with your doctor before taking any supplements.
    • Hormones: Hormones are a relatively common although controversial form of anti-aging therapy. Some common hormone treatments include DHEA, testosterone and melatonin. However, recent studies have shown that although there are no obvious negative side effects linked to these hormone supplements, neither are there any obvious benefits. In fact, in one study, no significant effects on body weight, physical performance or overall quality of life were noted in any of the participants using testosterone or DHEA supplements.
    • “Natural” Supplements: The supposed benefits of anti aging natural supplements has gained popularity due to the claim of them being “natural”. The problem is that natural is often interpreted as risk-free, which is not the case. Again, you should be in consultation with your doctor before beginning any form of medication ‘ natural or otherwise.
    • Skin Care: There are no shortages of wrinkle creams available, and the selection is ever-increasing. So how is one to know which ones have a chance of fulfilling their promises and which ones don’t? The short answer is ‘ you can’t. But there are some clues you can look for that may help determine if the product is right for you.
      Over the counter skin creams, for example, have not undergone the same rigorous testing methods that prescription creams are subjected too. For this reason, they contain less of the active ingredients proven to combat wrinkles. Therefore what effect, if any, they have on your skin is likely to be temporary and easily undone upon discontinuation of the product.

Photofacial treatment can help some of the signs of aging including age spots.

And finally, don’t look to cost to guide you towards better value, either. Costs are a result of marketing, not quality.

The best form of wrinkle free skin care is a preventative one. For best results, start the following habits early:

  • Protect your skin: Exposure to the sun is the number one cause of skin damage, including wrinkles. So protect your skin by always wearing skin cream with a built in sunscreen of at least SPF-15. And wear protective hats and clothing to limit your skins exposure to the suns harmful rays.
  • Moisturize! Fine lines are often brought on by dry skin cells. Therefore, keeping your skin moisturized can help to minimize their appearance.
  • Butt out: Smoking damages natural fibers in your skin that help to maintain its elasticity, thereby prematurely causing the formation of wrinkles.

If you’re looking for more dramatic results consult with a dermatologist, who in addition to skin care products, may recommend certain cosmetic surgeries.

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