Aging in Today’s Modern World
Aging has always been a fact of life. Most people, as they get older, experience many of the classic signs of aging – another wrinkle, another pain or ache, another illness. But, there are others, and we all know them, who seem to defy the aging process. These people appear younger than they are, healthier and more fit than others and generally seem to thrive over time with a zest and vitality that others just don’t have. Why does this happen? What is it about those people who “age well” that enables them to simply get better with age? Is it all genetics? Are they doing something dramatically different from the rest of us?
Throughout my conventional medical training, I often wondered about these questions. But the amount of information we were required to learn about the human body was such that there was no time to take on these seemingly esoteric topics. I was originally taught how to identify and treat symptoms and diseases. If you have this problem, you treat with that medicine. If you were in menopause, you got hormones (i.e., PremPro®). If you had osteoporosis, you got bisphosphonates (i.e., Fosamax®). Some lifestyle changes were suggested, of course – but the mainstay of therapy was medication.
I began to realize that the human body is much more complex than that – an integrated network of systems designed to keep us in a state of equilibrium. Many symptoms and diseases are just a result of these systems falling out of step, and the body’s often misguided attempt to bring them back into balance. For example, autoimmune diseases, like lupus or some thyroid disorders, are the body’s immune system trying, and failing, to protect the body from a perceived threat. The immune system is doing what it is supposed to do – just going about it in the wrong way.
“Rather than covering up the symptoms or chasing diseases, Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of symptoms and disease, using a systems-oriented approach to engage both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership.”
The aging process is no different. The symptoms and signs of aging are, in large part, a result of our body’s reaction to deficiencies and imbalances that our system just doesn’t know how to deal with appropriately. All systems are affected. In the Women’s Health arena, where I have dedicated all of my career, hormone imbalance is the single largest factor contributing to the symptoms of aging. How did I learn this? It all started with my patients.
About 8 years ago, I began to see women in my office, who I had known for years, who had started hormone therapy. Not the hormone therapy options I had been trained to use, which were created and supplied by pharmaceutical companies and distributed from the corner pharmacy. But rather hormones compounded by specialized pharmacies into a variety of forms – creams, pills, suppositories, pellets (which go under the skin). Often these prescriptions were written by doctors calling themselves “Anti-Aging Physicians”. At first, I thought to myself, “What is this? And why is my patient seeing another doctor for hormones? That’s MY specialty!” I quickly realized that these patients were getting a very different kind of care from these other doctors. They weren’t just treating symptoms and diseases – they were addressing the root causes of those symptoms and diseases. Patients were feeling better, were healthier and happier, and weren’t going to give up their “Anti-Aging” treatments.
So in order to continue meeting my patients’ needs, I went back to school. I studied Functional Medicine (I’ll explain what this is a little later on), and became board-certified in Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, with a specialization in Advanced Metabolic Endocrinology. Now armed with a completely different set of tools, I am able to help provide my patients with what they are looking for – a holistic, integrated approach to women’s healthcare. A physician who better understands what it means to be one of those people I talked about earlier who appear “ageless”.
But the term “Anti-Aging”, in my opinion, is an unfortunate misnomer. Aging refers to the passage of time, anti-aging refers to stopping or reversing the course of natural events. Not possible. To my knowledge and dismay, nobody has yet found a way to stop or reverse time. The only known alternative to aging is death. Not a good option.
“We often forget that a major factor in the aging process is the steady decline of hormones which maintain vitality…I see multiple patients, every day, who suffer from symptoms and disorders which have hormone imbalance as the primary cause of the problem.”
The most important factor to consider with respect to aging is your health as you age. We are, as human beings, living longer on average, and spending many more years in retirement than ever in recent history. I alluded to this above, but what good is living until we’re 100 years old if we spend the last 20-30 years of that unable to enjoy life fully. We develop arthritis, and can’t use our hands as well. Our bones get weaker, leading to hip or spine fractures and the dreaded “walker” that so many of the elderly end up relying upon. Prone to depression already, due to hormonal changes with menopause and andropause (yes, it happens to men too), the physical changes which keep us from the activities we enjoy only worsen the problem. Dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease, steals our lives from us.
A better term than “Anti-Aging”, and one which I make every effort to substitute when I can, is “Healthy Aging”. This is really at the heart of what “anti-aging” specialists are doing. The goal, put simply, is to spend those years we are forced to age in as good a condition both physically and mentally as possible. In other words, we should be striving not to stop the process of aging, but rather to improve our health as we age – to try to prevent the adverse health consequences we all associate with aging.
How can we do that?
We’ve all heard the mantra, say it with me – “diet and exercise”. And yes, that is a very important part of healthy aging. Without appropriate nutrition and exercise (both physical AND mental), we are surely doomed to live our “less than optimal” selves. Finding a doctor who recognizes and understands the role nutrition plays in our health is vital.
We often forget that a major factor in the aging process is the steady decline of hormones which maintain vitality. As an ob/gyn, I see multiple patients, every day, who suffer from symptoms and disorders which have hormone imbalance as the primary cause of the problem. Yet I was originally trained to look not at the hormones themselves, but to try to mask the symptoms with prescription medications. Birth control pills for abnormal bleeding, antidepressants for depression, Fosamax (et al) for osteoporosis.
Here is where my training in Functional Medicine comes in. Functional Medicine views the body as one integrated system, not a collection of independent organs divided up by medical specialties. Rather than covering up the symptoms or chasing diseases, Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of symptoms and disease, using a systems-oriented approach to engage both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. It makes much more sense to address the nutritional and hormone deficiencies that may be responsible, to assist our bodies in recovering natural processes which are no longer functioning well, than to add a prescription medication that was never created in any natural process (i.e., nobody has ever had a “deficiency” of antidepressants!).
Often, prescription medications can be useful. But what these medications usually don’t do is address the root cause of the problem. Abnormal bleeding is often due to a deficiency of progesterone. Hot flashes are usually due to estrogen deficiency. Depression is frequently due to low testosterone or bowel dysfunction. (In fact, the majority of the neurochemical Serotonin, responsible for maintaining our mood, is created in the gut!) All of these are normally produced by our bodies, naturally. When those processes fail us, we experience symptoms. There are ways to support the body’s production of the good hormones, and of keeping check on the bad ones. One only needs to commit to nutrition and lifestyle changes, and be willing to consider replacement of hormones that are deficient. Once those changes are made, the health benefits are astounding.
It all starts by first making a choice to partner with the right physician, and to commit to working together to achieve optimal wellness. Not sure how to get started? Feel free to call me with your questions and get back on track to experience Healthy Aging!