Herbs and Helpers ®

Herbal Services and Solutions | Herbalist | Supplier | Herbs

   Sep 22

Why that spare tyre makes you age faster: We all know flabby tums are bad. But a new book has an even more worrying revelation

Author Bill Gifford explains why being overweight is unhealthy

He discusses the different methods of maintaining a healthy weight

Standing up and exercising are ways to prolong life

Belly fat can mean increased risk diabetes and heart disease

Since the dawn of human history, people have shown that they will do just about anything to stave off the physical indignities of ageing and remain forever young.

In centuries past, adventurers scoured far-off lands in search of mythical fountains of eternal youth. Nowadays, there is a burgeoning anti-ageing industry, with adherents busy swallowing pills filled with growth hormones and other biological exotica.

But none of these concoctions has any conclusive scientific proof to back up its claims. As a science journalist on a quest to find the true scientific answers to living longer, I volunteered to spend three nights in hospital in Baltimore in the U.S. – not because I was sick, but because I was healthy.

Research also shows that people with elevated blood sugar look older than they are

As a 40-something man, I’d volunteered for something called the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing, or BLSA, the world’s longest-running study of human ageing.

Since 1958, researchers have been monitoring a growing cohort of people on their ride down the roller coaster of time. The BLSA now follows more than 1,300 people aged between 20 and 105 as their bodies decline in ability to perform tasks such as processing oxygen while exercising (which is what leaves us increasingly puffed out by exertion as we age).

One thing that doesn’t decline, however, is the participants’ weight, which piles on steadily through their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Indeed, when a manila envelope arrived containing the results of my own BLSA tests, they were unremarkable in terms of my physical abilities and characteristics, except for one thing: I, too, was packing on the weight, with my body fat content a staggering lifetime high of nearly 25 per cent.

This puts my body right up against the threshold for obesity. For fit males, normal is 14 to 17 per cent. For athletes (which is what I once considered myself), it’s from 13 per cent down to 6 per cent. It didn’t make sense: I didn’t look fat. Although to be honest, I was a far cry from the 158 lb amateur racing cyclist I once was. I handled the news badly. I emailed the BLSA staff, informing them that their machine was faulty.

They informed me that it was not; and furthermore, that it was far more accurate than the old-school method of measuring fat with pinchy calipers.

A nice lady informed me that, according to the body scan, most of the fat was around my midsection. ‘Welcome to middle age,’ she wrote. Would I need to give up beer?


Everyone knows that being fat is bad for you. Some reasons are obvious: more weight means more stress on your heart. It tends to go hand in hand with type 2 diabetes, itself now thought to speed the ageing process enormously.

The diabetic body becomes unable to process sugar, which ends up rollicking around our bloodstream, inflicting massive amounts of damage on every tissue it touches.

Research also shows that people with elevated blood sugar look older than they are, perhaps because this damage is visible in their skin.

Elevated blood sugar can cause problems such as diabetes. This damage can be visible on a person’s skin

But diabetes is only part of the reason excess fat is a problem. It has also been associated with serious health problems including cancers of the kidneys, colon and liver. New evidence points to the possibility that fat itself may be causing all of this, due to a build-up of what are known as senescent cells.

Cells become senescent (which simply means ‘to grow old’) when they age and stop dividing. It used to be thought that they were benign, sitting there quietly like nice old retirees. Wrong.

In the late Nineties Judith Campisi, a professor at California’s Buck Institute for Research on Aging, began studying these old cells.

‘The big “a-ha” came when we realised that when a cell becomes senescent, it starts to secrete molecules called cytokines that cause chronic inflammation,’ she said. ‘Inflammation causes, or is a major contributor to, virtually every age-related disease we know.’

To test this, a team of researchers created mice that lacked the gene for a key protein. It made them age prematurely due to a pile-up of senescent cells. The mice developed cataracts early in life. In middle age they became frail, shrivelled and wrinkly.


When the investigators used a special drug regimen to rid the mice of their senescent cells, their condition improved drastically; they became much stronger, their cataracts cleared up – even their wrinkles went away.

The study’s co-author Dr James Kirkland, who specialises in the physiology of age-related dysfunction, has concluded that senescent cells drive much of what we recognise as ageing.

He told me: ‘Someday, you might go in and get your senescent cells removed, like changing the oil in your car.’

In the meantime, perhaps the most important thing to do to keep ageing at bay is to lose that spare tyre.

For Dr Kirkland has concluded that the most powerful and malign pockets of senescent cells are found in one particular kind of human tissue: fat.

As we grow older, the distribution of our fat changes, from subcutaneous fat – the fat under the skin that makes young people look ripe and smooth, and which is laid down all over the body – to visceral fat, also known as a belly.

Perhaps the most important thing to do to keep ageing at bay is to lose that spare tyre

Over the past decade, Dr Kirkland and other scientists have discovered how this visceral fat bathes our vital organs in a nasty chemical stew that wreaks havoc throughout the body.

Visceral fat produces cytokines, proteins that cause chronic inflammation, are linked to cancer and which contribute to the insulin resistance that characterises type 2 diabetes.

Dr Kirkland believes senescent cells buried in fat tissue may be the major culprits in the systemic inflammation that accompanies ageing. And the older we get, the more senescent cells lurk in our fat deposits.

Indeed, there is growing evidence to show how fatty tissue may be shortening our lifespans.

In a dramatic 2008 experiment, abdominal fat was surgically removed from obese laboratory rats. The animals lived more than 20 per cent longer than their still-chubby cousins.

The abdominal fat was killing them. In humans visceral fat cannot be safely removed, because it is so deeply entwined with our blood vessels and organs. Liposuction removes only ‘good’ subcutaneous fat, which has health benefits, such as helping us to regulate our blood-sugar levels. This is why several recent studies have linked the procedure with what scientists call ‘poor health outcomes’ – what you and I call death.


In sedentary, inactive people -whether or not they are actually obese – as well as wrapping around the organs, this excess fat actually invades the muscles, slipping in between the fibres like the marbling in fine beef. Even worse, fat ‘droplets’ infiltrate the muscle cells themselves.

But scientific research reveals that we can do something to reverse that process. And the answer is regular, mild exercise.

An MRI scan of the leg muscle of a typical sedentary 70-year-old American man will show it is nearly all fat. It has completely infiltrated his muscle, making it look marbled and rendering it weak. Compare this with the scan taken of another man, a 76-year-old English farmer, whose job required him to stay on his feet most of his life, moving around every day.

He’s got about the same ‘muscle age’ as a 40-year-old; mostly muscle, with a small ring of subcutaneous fat on the outside. This is because his lifestyle is the closest to that of our evolutionary ancestors. We evolved to walk around, not sit on the sofa.

But that is only half the story. It is also becoming clear that moving muscle does something far more profound than simply burning up calories.


Exercise is a way to negate the toxicity of junk food

Dr Nathan LeBrasseur, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. who studies metabolism, has recently finished a novel experiment dramatically illustrating the power of exercise.

In the lab, LeBrasseur fed mice a special diet designed to mimic the nutritional content of a fast food meal: Big Mac, fries and a fizzy drink. The mice had been genetically modified so that any senescent cells would bind to a special fluorescent marker that would make them glow in the dark.

After a few months on the junk food diet, the mice lit up like tiny neon signs because they were filled with many more senescent cells than the mice who had been fed a normal diet.

But he also put some of the Big Mac mice on an exercise regimen. They had developed far fewer senescent cells.

Exercise had negated the toxic effects of the junk food, either by zapping the resultant senescent cells, or by preventing their formation. So it’s OK to go to McDonald’s, as long as you jog there (or better, jog home).


Scientists are discovering that it’s not simply that jogging is cleaning out the junk food from your arteries. Your muscles are somehow communicating with your other organs to optimise their function.

In 2003, Professor Mark Febbraio, head of metabolism and inflammation at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, found that just as fat ‘talks’ to the rest of your body, usually saying terrible things, so does muscle.

‘We discovered that muscle, when you contract it, is actually an endocrine (hormonal) organ,’ says Professor Febbraio. It releases factors that ‘talk’ to other tissues – in other words, a muscle doesn’t just get you moving.

The primary factor Professor Febbraio identified was surprising. It is a cytokine called IL-6, which is normally associated with bad things, such as age-accelerating inflammation and early death.

Scientists are discovering that it’s not simply that jogging is cleaning out the junk food from your arteries. Your muscles are somehow communicating with your other organs to optimise their function

Exercise generates huge amounts of IL-6, he found, but in this context it has beneficial effects, such as signalling the liver to convert fat to fuel. ‘When we made this discovery people didn’t believe us, because IL-6 was considered a bad actor in many diseases,’ he says.

‘But in exercise it’s actually anti-inflammatory.’ The difference had to do with time. Obese and elderly patients tend to have constantly elevated levels of IL-6, a sign of chronic inflammation.

Normal-weight and younger patients had lower levels – but when they exercised, their IL-6 would spike to a very high level, then dissipate over a few hours.

These short bursts of IL-6, in effect, send messages to other organs, such as the liver, telling them to switch to ‘exercise’ mode. Since then, dozens more of these muscle-specific messengers, called myokines, have been identified. Professor Febbraio believes that there are hundreds more muscle messengers yet to be discovered, and that they are largely responsible for the myriad and complex benefits of exercise.

Some act on the brain, triggering the release of BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which heals and protects neurons, keeping our cognitive faculties young.

Other myokines appear to work on bone, the pancreas (which secretes insulin), the immune system, and on the muscle itself, promoting growth and healing.

One newly discovered myokine even attempts to convert fat to an energy-burning system, like muscle. In 2012, a Harvard-based team identified a hormone called irisin, secreted by muscle during exercise, which tricks white fat, which is most of our fat, into acting like ‘brown’ fat. This brown fat is a far rarer form of fat tissue that actually burns energy.

Professor Bruce Spiegelman, the Harvard cell biologist who discovered irisin, is now looking for a drug compound that might trigger its release, independent of exercise – effectively creating an elixir of youthfulness.

But Professor Febbraio cautions that the age-defying benefits of ‘exercise in a pill’ are not on the cards. If you want to prevent your body getting older, you’ll have to get off the couch: ‘The benefits of exercise are a multi-factorial thing,’ he says firmly.

‘You could never design a drug that would replace exercise.’

Adapted from Spring Chicken: How To Stay Young (Or Die Trying) by Bill Gifford, published on Thursday by Oneworld at £8.99. To order a copy for £6.74 (valid until 29/9), visit mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0808 272 0808.


Is there a magic bullet for ageing? Not yet, but the following might help improve some aspects of the process…

Alcohol: Red wine is thought to be at the heart of the French Paradox, where French people eat fatty diets yet somehow don’t get fat and unhealthy.

Something in red wine must be good for you. Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red grape skins, has been touted as the magic ingredient, but we now know it probably isn’t, as a large study of wine-swilling Italians showed you don’t get much (if any) resveratrol into your blood from daily red wine consumption.

Metformin: This is the most commonly prescribed diabetes medication and costs just pennies per pill. It is also one of the most promising anti-ageing drugs out there.

A major analysis of British patient data, published in 2014, found that diabetics on metformin seemed to be living even longer than non-diabetics – an astonishing finding, given that diabetes normally shaves five to seven years off one’s lifespan.

Metformin will soon enter U.S. clinical trials that, if successful, could make it the world’s first legitimate anti-ageing drug.

Aspirin and ibuprofen: As scientists increasingly recognise the role of inflammation in ageing and disease, the anti-inflammatories aspirin and ibuprofen are looking better and better. They seem to help with cardiovascular health. This makes sense because inflammation is necessary for forming clots. And in a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, aspirin increased the lifespan of mice.

Coffee: In 2012, a huge study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that coffee drinkers tend to have significantly lower premature mortality risk. Among those who drank four or five cups a day, the risk of early death was reduced by 12 per cent.

Source: Daily Mail

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.