Making Sense of Anti-Aging Fads

By Mia James

There are a lot of promises out there when it comes to slowing or reversing the aging process. Whether you look to nutrition, cosmetics and dermatology, or fitness, each industry pitches a product, procedure, or age-defying method. Much of this, as you’d probably guess, is hype—ineffective approaches that will do little, if anything, to help you look or feel younger and may even put your long-term health at risk. But not to be overlooked are the legitimate measures: longevity- and health-promoting choices, products, and procedures that deliver genuine results. To get the most out of any anti-aging plan, it’s essential that you understand how to separate the real remedies from the media hype.

According to experts from the California Health & Longevity Institute (CHLI) (chli.com), there are measures you can take, both inside and out, that not only may help you look younger but, more importantly, can help ensure good health and quality of life as you age. Because while few of us would turn down diminished lines and wrinkles or a slimmer waistline, we don’t want to overlook the signs of youth that run more than skin deep—health, strength, and energy.

Nutrition

According to Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, director of nutrition at CHLI, a few sound and scientifically proven guidelines can help you see through the latest diet craze to make choices that support long-term health. The key, she says, is balance among nutrients. “It’s really important to understand that no one nutrient in excessive amounts is healthy, nor does it promote longevity,” she explains.

The Hype

As an example of a current craze that’s unlikely to help you age gracefully, Paulette cites the trend in recent years toward weight-loss diets that emphasize protein, some of which drastically reduce or exclude other food groups. Excessive protein, she says, can increase your risk of heart disease; so even though your goal may be a youthful, slim figure, a high-protein diet may actually be speeding the clock forward rather than turning it back. Furthermore, a diet that stresses certain food groups while avoiding others can cause you to miss out on important nutrients. For instance, a high-protein, low-sugar diet that discourages fruit means that you’ll forgo important protective and health-promoting nutrients.

“The other big misconception is about carbohydrates—that carbs are bad for you,” Paulette says. Though refined carbohydrates (such white breads, pasta, and rice) aren’t a healthy choice due to their high glycemic index (which may contribute to chronic disease and cause weight-gain), “whole grains have the benefit of fiber, which slows down glycemic response.” This process, she says, lowers blood pressure and LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol), which can help prevent chronic disease—in other words, help us maintain the health of our younger years. Paulette adds, however, that when it comes to carbohydrates, “it’s all about quantity and quality”—carbs can be beneficial when you consume appropriate (moderate) amounts based on your individual needs and choose high-quality sources such as whole grains.

The Real Remedies

A diet plan that supports a level of health associated with youth will emphasize fruits and vegetables and include high-quality protein and carbohydrates in moderate amounts. “A plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to be vegetarian or vegan,” Paulette explains, “but it does mean that you have more plants on your plate than animal protein. In other words, fruits and vegetables constitute the volume of your diet, with high-quality proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats rounding out your nutritional needs.

Variety is another essential component of a plant-based diet, as you’ll need to consume a wide range of fruits and vegetables to get adequate vitamins and minerals. Antioxidants (available in produce) in particular may deliver protective benefits but work best when they come from many sources. “There’s no study that shows that one particular antioxidant alone is greatly beneficial,” Paulette explains. The bottom line: eat a variety of fruits and vegetables in generous amounts.

Skin Care Products and Procedures

No discussion of anti-aging fads is complete that doesn’t include a cosmetic angle. According to Ronald Moy, MD, director of dermatology at CHLI, certain anti-aging skin care products and procedures offer real benefits; others, however, are unlikely to be effective.

The Hype

When it comes to whether antioxidants, a component of many popular anti-aging products, are effective, Dr. Moy says “absolutely not”—that there’s “no good evidence” to support that they can help skin look younger. He credits their popularity to advertising and, with the exception of prescription retinoids (discussed following), a lack of genuinely effective new anti-aging agents. “There aren’t a whole lot of new products with good science behind them,” he says.

Another popular product that Dr. Moy is skeptical of is hydroxy acid (such as glycolic acid). He explains that its benefit is modest at best. “Glycolic acid exfoliates, which might help to a minor degree” he says, “but it doesn’t really work against what aging is, which is thinning of the skin.” As well, glycolic acid won’t really remove brown spots, as many consumers hope it will.

The Real Remedies

Prescription retinoids, derivatives of vitamin A that prompt cell turnover and inhibit the breakdown of collagen, are proven to help skin look younger, Dr. Moy says. “Prescription retinoids work well,” he explains, and compared with other popular products, “there’s more scientific literature on [them] working for anti-aging.”

On the other hand, rentinols, the milder form of retinoids that are available in over-the-counter creams, are less effective. “They don’t work as well, and there are limited studies on them,” Dr. Moy explains. Retinols do tend to be less irritating than retinoids, however, which may make them more appealing to some consumers.

Consumers looking for guaranteed results may want consider cosmetic procedures to address the signs of aging. Dr. Moy explains that anti-aging procedures fall into three categories—resurfacing, filling, and tightening—each of which addresses a specific sign of aging:

  • Laser resurfacing, Dr. Moy says, peels away sun damage, such as brown spots and blotchiness, and is quick and painless. Recovery time is generally short—about three days. Due to these benefits, Dr. Moy explains, resurfacing is popular in his practice—“the number one procedure we do—even before Botox® [Cosmetic (onabotulinumtoxinA)] or fillers,” he says. Potential complications include temporary skin irritation, such as swelling and itching, as well as redness, which may last several weeks or months.
  • Fillers, such as Botox and other injectables, are also popular; they work by filling in lines and wrinkles and plumping up areas that get a hollow appearance with age, such as around the mouth, eyes, and temple and cheek hollows. These procedures can effectively help people look younger, Dr. Moy says. Fillers also carry a risk of side effects, however. Botox, for example, can cause redness, itching, headache, pain and bruising at the injection site, and other complications.
  • Procedures to tighten aging skin can also produce good results. Better yet, there are noninvasive options to the traditional facelift. Dr. Moy explains that Thermage®, a noninvasive procedure that utilizes radiofrequency to tighten the skin, for example, is a popular and effective path to younger-looking skin. Though side effects are rare, possible complications include swelling, redness, blisters, peeling, bumps, and dimpling.

Exercise

The great news about exercise is that it’s likely more real remedy than hype, with proven benefits in many areas of health. To enjoy the most anti-aging benefits, however, it’s prudent to proceed with some direction, says Susan Block, director of fitness at CHLI.

The Hype

Though any type or level of physical activity that’s appropriate for your abilities and medical status might be good for you, Susan says that a nonspecific fitness plan without any real direction may not slow the aging process as much as a more structured program. She likens the nonstructured approach to a ship at sea that sets sail using only an estimated arrival time as its guide. When the ship encounters variables such as changing winds, it begins drifting farther off its course and makes no progress toward its destination. Such fitness “drifting” is unlikely to yield results. “Unfortunately, most people sail through their workouts, exercising by the clock, wondering why they are not getting any new results,” Susan says.

The Real Remedies

On the other hand, customized workouts that use specific measures of intensity, such as heart rate, may help us slow down the body’s aging process. “An effective exercise program can actually assist exercisers in becoming biologically younger than their chronological age,” Susan says. “To be effective, exercisers need to become the airplane pilot of their exercise programs, using the appropriate activity monitors [such as heart rate], to reach their destination in short order.” She explains that the cardiovascular activities performed at specific intensities (determined for each individual by a fitness professional) and carefully monitored can help slow the aging of the heart. So if there is a fountain of youth, exercise—when done correctly—is likely it.

A Lifestyle Choice

As these topics show us, anti-aging isn’t about one aspect of health or beauty, and there is no one particular step you can take to preserve your youth, inside or out. Instead the quest to maintain youth and wellness is a lifestyle that incorporates healthy, prudent choices on every level. And as is the case with any lifestyle or medical choice that affects your health, discuss any potential changes with your healthcare team.  _

Make Aging Well Your Goal

Although you can’t actually turn back the clock, there is plenty you can do in your daily life to remain healthy and youthful through the years. This approach—aging well rather than anti-aging—is based on sound health practices that focus on physical activity and good nutrition, supported by preventive measures such as disease screening. The following recommendations are meant to keep your body and mind strong and reduce your risk of cancer and chronic disease.

  • Say no to smoking. Because cigarette smoking is an established cause of lung cancer and several other cancers as well as of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, staying away from tobacco (and quitting if you are a smoker) is one of the best things you can do to improve your long-term health.
  • Use sunscreen regularly. Protecting your skin from sun damage can help prevent skin cancer as well as wrinkles and other signs of aging. Choose sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater and cover up with clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Keep moving. Even moderate exercise, performed regularly, can have preventive and health-promoting benefits.
  • Know your family medical history. Learn and record the health histories of your immediate family (parents and siblings) as well as of grandparents and other relatives for whom information is available. Family records will help you calculate your own disease risk and guide your lifelong wellness plan.
  • Follow screening recommendations. Important screenings through the years, appropriate for your individual risk and age, include those for cervical, breast, and colorectal cancers and osteoporosis; it is also important to have your blood pressure and cholesterol monitored. Your healthcare team can help you determine which tests are appropriate as you age.
  • Rest up. Adequate sleep is critical to your health, with benefits ranging from protection against certain illnesses, diseases, and disorders to improved mood.

Resources

To further explore guidelines for long-term health and to stay up-to-date with current
recommendations, consult the following resources.

US Department of Health & Human Services’ Agency
for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)   
ahrq.gov

AHRQ sponsors the US Preventive Services Task Force, which assesses a broad range of clinical preventive services, including screening, counseling, and preventive medications. AHRQ provides patient and consumer content about these services, including checklists for staying healthy at any age (ahrq.gov/consumer/healthy.html) and women-specific guidelines.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)  acsm.org

ACSM maintains guidelines for physical activity. These include resources for women, such as recommendations for strength training.

Smokefree.gov    smokefree.gov

This website offers tools to help smokers quit, including guidelines and access to expanded resources.

CancerConnect.com   cancerconnect.com

This website provides current, comprehensive, oncologist-reviewed information on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer as well as daily cancer news updates, an online community, clinical trials, and other valuable resources.

American Heart Association (AHA)    americanheart.org

The mission of this national voluntary health agency is “building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.” The AHA provides information about heart-healthy lifestyle choices and risk assessment.