Important Evidence: Antioxidants Do Not Slow Aging

Antioxidants slow aging, repeated faithfully without question is not holding up well in numerous studies. Antioxidants may actually cause aging, or trouble, in some cases.

“The free radical theory has filled a knowledge vacuum for over 50 years now, but it does not stand up to evidence” said Dr. David Gems to BBC News on December 1, 2008. David Gems breakthrough study was written up in Medical News Today, also on December 1, 2008. Google search does not show it appearing in other mainstream media as one would expect considerable attention to this work. The study then became the foundation for ‘The Myth of Antioxidants” by Melinda Wenner Moyer in Scientific American, February 2013–five years later.

What is the free radical theory and hypothesis?

According Wikipedia:

The free radical theory of aging (FRTA) states that organisms age because cells accumulate  free radical damage over time. A free radical is any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell…. (Electrons normally exist in pairs.) Most biologically relevant free radicals are highly reactive…. For most biological structures, free radical damage is closely associated with oxidative damage. Antioxidants are reducing agents, and limit oxidative damage to biological structures by passivating them from free radicals.

The man who came up with this theory in the 1950s was a chemist by the name of David Denham. It is because of this hypothesis that we are told by our doctors, nutritionists, the media, and advertisements about the wonders of antioxidants taken as multivitamins. They are available to us in supplements, in fortified foods, in cosmetics, in soaps and hair products.  We spend billions on these products.

Then came David Gems’ experiment and he was trying to prove the FRTA hypothesis. Much to his surprise, his experiment challenged it and did not support it. Thinking he had made an error he asked a colleague to repeat the experiment. The result was the same.

David Gems Experiment: Gems uses a certain type of round worm in his aging studies. Certain enzymes in these worms are the organism’s naturally produced antioxidants.  Gems bio-engineered the worms so they no longer produced these enzymes, no antioxidants. As expected, without antioxidants the free radical levels in the worms shot up. Now according to FRTA, the worms should have died prematurely. But they did not die prematurely.

Gems is Professor of Biogerontology, Department of Ageing (spelled the British way), at the University College of London.  The link to his profile will lead to some of his papers for further reading.

Arlan Richardson Experiments:  This information was gleaned from the Scientific American article. In Richardson’s experiments, 18 strains of mice were genetically engineered in two ways–some to produce more than normal levels of certain antioxidant enzymes and some to produce less than normal levels. According to FRTA, the group with higher levels of antioxidants would outlive those with lower levels. But the lifespan curves demonstrated no difference in the life spans.

Richardson is the Founding Director of the Barshop Institute; Professor of Cellular & Structural Biology at the University of Texas Health Science Center,  Cellular & Structural Biology and the Barshop Institute.  The link to his name will take readers to further links to a PBS interview with Richardson and the lecture  “Can we slow down aging, should we?”

Rochelle Buffenstein experiments: Again this is sourced from the Scientific American article.  Buffenstein’s research demonstrates that the naked mole rats have lower levels of natural antioxidants than similar sized mice. Consequently they  have more oxidative damage, and at an earlier age, than mice. But they live eight to 10 times longer, virtually disease free.

Buffenstein is a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center and her work can be viewed via the link.

Free radicals clearly accumulate in the aging process. They may not be the cause, but the byproduct, of aging. In small amounts, they may possibly boost the body’s ability to repair cellular damage. However, in large amounts they can create damage and lead to various diseases.

Interestingly, Moyer writes about a study comparing a group that exercised and took antioxidants with a group that exercised but used no vitamins. Paradoxically, exercise produces free radicals but is beneficial. The group that did not take any supplements was healthier and showed fewer indications of developing type 2 diabetes than the group that took antioxidant supplements.

There is clearly a lot more to learn about aging and antioxidants. But do we have to take all these antioxidants? Beta carotene and retinol may actually increase the odds of developing lung cancer and heart disease (see article link for charts). The article concludes that taking antioxidants may do us more harm than good. It must be noted though there is a difference in the way an organism may react to naturally found antioxidants in food versus manufactured antioxidant supplements.

For more, please refer to the Scientific American article (link above) and visit ScientificAmerican.com/feb2013/aging

National Institute of Aging concludes:

Antioxidants protect the body from the harmful effects of by-products known as free radicals, made normally when the body changes oxygen and food into energy. The discovery of antioxidants raised hopes that people could slow aging simply by adding them to the diet. So far, studies of antioxidant-laden foods and supplements in humans have yielded little support for this conclusion. Further research, including large-scale epidemiological studies, might clarify whether dietary antioxidants can help people live longer, healthier lives. For now, although the effectiveness of dietary antioxidant supplementation remains controversial, there is positive evidence for the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.

http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/can-we-prevent-aging

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