Supplements may help in slowing ageing

CAN supplements actually slow the ageing process? What if it could? After all, many of the promoters of natural supplements are hitched on the “anti ageing” bandwagon. Many a time, they have been criticised for the lack of evidence behind the “anti-ageing” claims.

All this might change soon. There is quite a breakthrough as far as supplements and natural substances are concerned. It is related to an increasingly important marker of ageing — the telomere length. The new study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama) may change perceptions of anti-ageing quite dramatically.

But first, let us get the basics right.

Scientists refer to telomere as a region of repeating DNA at the end of a chromosome. It protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration and breakdown. Its name comes from the Greek words telos which means “end” and “mer’s” which means “part”. Put together, telemore simply means “the end part”.

The process by which a cell divides is called mitosis. Each time mitosis occurs, the telomeres of the dividing cells get just a bit shorter. Once a cell’s telomeres have reached a critically short length, that cell can no longer divide. As a result, the cell’s structure and function begins to fail. Some cells even die

In laboratory conditions, most human cells can only divide 30 to 50 times before they stop reproducing, At this point, they reach a stage called senescence.

Cells taken from older persons and persons with premature ageing syndromes undergo even fewer divisions before reaching senescence. Scientists know senescence is related to telomere length because adding telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens telomeres, to cells allows them to reproduce indefinitely.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco reveal in the Jan 20, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that heart disease patients who have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids experience a lower rate of reduction in telomere length over time.

In their introduction to the article, Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD and colleagues note that “Multiple epidemiologic studies, including several large randomised controlled trials, have demonstrated higher survival rates among individuals with high dietary intake of marine omega-3 fatty acids and established cardiovascular disease.

“On this basis, the American Heart Association recommends increased oily fish intake and the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements for the primary and secondary prevention of coronary heart disease.

“The mechanisms underlying this protective effect are poorly understood but are thought to include anti-inflammatory, anti-platelet, antihypertensive, anti-arrhythmic, and triglyceride-lowering effects.”

In their investigation, researchers enrolled 608 men and women. They were recruited from the Heart and Soul Study, which assessed the effect of psychosocial factors on cardiovascular events in patients with stable coronary artery disease.

Blood samples obtained upon enrollment between September, 2000 and December, 2002 were analysed for levels of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), in addition to other factors.

White blood cell telomere length was measured at the beginning of the study and after five years of follow up.

Patients whose levels of EPA and DHA were among the top 25 per cent of participants had the slowest rate of telomere shortening over the five year period, while those whose levels were lowest had rates that were the fastest. The authors noted that “each 1-standard deviation increase in DHA + EPA levels was associated with a 32 per cent reduction in the odds of telomere shortening”.

In their discussion of the finding, Dr Farzaneh-Far and colleagues remark that several studies had observed cross-sectional associations between longer telomeres and nutritional supplements, including folic acid, multivitamins and vitamins C, D and E, however, these studies lacked longitudinal data on telomere shortening rates.

Because increased oxidative stress has been identified as a factor in telomere shortening and aging, the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce oxidative stress as previously determined by lower levels of F2-isoprostanes and higher levels of the body’s antioxidant enzymes in response to supplementation could explain the benefit observed in the current research.

Additionally, the authors speculate that omega-3 fatty acids could enhance the activity of telomerase (the enzyme that helps maintain telomere length) in healthy tissue, while suppressing it in cancer cells.

“In this longitudinal study, we observed that baseline levels of marine omega-3 fatty acids were associated with decelerated telomere attrition over five years,” the authors concluded.

“These findings raise the possibility that omega-3 fatty acids may protect against cellular aging in patients with coronary heart disease.”

This study that has found its way to Jama — a journal with high impact factor, will certainly put supplements in a different light. For too long, supplements have been seen as “placebo” or worse still a source of “expensive urine”.

With evidence like this, it would be difficult for even the greatest sceptics to simply dismiss supplements. Clearly, we are see two classes of supplements emerge. One is those that are evidence based and scientifically defensible. The other is the one pushed on “hope and hype.”

Clearly, consumers, prescribers and regulators need to be aware of this as evidence based supplements are valuable “preventive medicine” that can positively impact quality of life and help moderate healthcare costs that are always on the increase.

Datuk Dr Rajen M. is a pharmacist with a doctorate in holistic medicine. Email him at health@po.jari

With evidence like this, it would be difficult for even the greatest sceptics to simply dismiss supplements. Clearly, we are see two classes of supplements emerge. One is those that are evidence based and scientifically defensible. The other is the one pushed on ‘hope and hype’.

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