There are some puzzles in life that medicine may never decode, some holy grails we may never capture. One of these is the possibility of eternal youth. The mystery of longevity intrigues me as much as most people. When I observe elderly patients who have defied statistics and are enthusiastically enjoying long lives, I have to wonder about the biochemical secret of their success. One of the best ways to protect your body for the long haul is including vitamin E supplements in your daily diet.
Good heredity counts for a lot, but so does nutrition. The life of Claire Darwin, a patient of mine who is ninety-three years young and loving it, is a case in point. Claire was born into a different world from ours, in South Carolina, the daughter of a carpenter and his homemaker wife. When Claire graduated from finishing school in the early 1920s, she travelled to New York to visit her older brother. There she met her husband, Todd Darwin, and she has resided in the Big Apple ever since, for seventy-odd years, and counting. Claire taught school for a while and raised two boys, but what’s most remarkable about the latter part of her life is that she has not fallen victim to a single ailment that most women her age suffer. While many of her friends had strokes, heart disease, osteoporosis, or cancer, over the years, Claire remains in the best of health. She takes ballroom dancing lessons twice a week.
When she came to consult with me about a minor backache, I had to shake my head in wonder at her otherwise vigorous good health. She was a small woman, but sat regally in her chair. Ever the Southern debutante, she was beautifully dressed. “Actually, I’ve never felt better in my life than in my last twenty years,” she confided.
Twenty years? Twenty years ago, Claire was seventy-three. But even today, she looked as if she were hardly a day over seventy-five. How could she look so great at ninety-three? “Twenty years ago,” she continued, “I started taking vitamin E 400 units a day.” A huge fan of nutrition, Claire had long taken a complete vitamin supplement regimen including vitamin C, fruit and vegetable juices daily, eaten a good balance of healthy foods, and made sure to consume lots of fibre. She also heard that vitamin E can prevent heart disease. Claire is certain that her excellent health habits have given her that golden old age.
SMOKING: BAD FOR ANTIOXIDANTS
Although free radicals usually cause damage to our tissues in cells, causing complications ranging from cataracts to asthma, there are some situations in which free radicals are beneficial. As I’ve noted, immune system cells often kill invaders with free radicals [such as hydrogen peroxide]. And, chemotherapy drugs actually promote free radical damage to assist the reduction of abnormal cell growth. The problem is when there is an excess of free radicals that the body cannot adequately mop up, or neutralise.
Antioxidants are powerful healers, but they don’t work across the board 100 per cent. For instance, a Finnish study revealed that antioxidants, like vitamin E, may pose additional risk to certain individuals. In the study, smokers with lung cancer who took beta-carotene, an antioxidant, were more likely to die than non-antioxidant users. Unfortunately, the same is likely to be true for vitamin E. The researchers suggest that the excess smoke taken in by these patients may be powerful enough to oxidise the vitamin supplements, causing further free radical damage. We are still learning more about the effects and benefits of antioxidants. So far, their benefits do seem to far outweigh their risks. But, an unhealthy lifestyle may actually accentuate the negative side of antioxidants such as vitamin E, rendering them useless for some and dangerous for others.