The scientist who developed the “free-radical” theory of aging passed away in November 2014. Denham Harman was years ahead of his time when he claimed, in 1954, that aging is just another disease that could be managed and controlled.
A free radical is a waste product, or unstable molecule, created naturally by normal actions that constantly occur in the body. A healthy body is able to keep this waste production under control. However, poor lifestyle practices also create free radicals – often beyond what the body can handle. These unstable molecules can multiply and attack, causing molecular damage to cells, tissues and organs. This can lead to many diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.
Free radicals also speed the aging process.
Harman believed aging could be managed with vitamins and other antioxidants from foods but, unfortunately, his theories didn’t get much attention for almost 30 years. However, it did create a foundation for today’s multimillion-dollar nutritional supplement industry that, sadly, often distorts his work.
Eating a diet rich in nutrients, especially antioxidants (disease fighters) is a wise step to offset the damage of free radicals. Many studies, however, show there isn’t much benefit in taking those nutrients in supplement form.
Equally important to offset free radical damage is to avoid or minimize the things that naturally create free radicals in our bodies. These include sunlight overexposure, smoking, sleep loss, alcohol and highly processed foods (like flour and table sugar), stress (physical and mental), and chemical exposure from the air, water and in our foods.
By the 1990s, researchers were seeing strong connections between free-radical cell damage and the aging process, such as the early stages of atherosclerosis, cancer and conditions like sagging skin, bone breakage and memory loss. The incidence of this type of cell damage was higher in people who ate very few fruits and vegetables; foods which have the highest levels of antioxidants.
Eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day can slow the aging process; we know this from many studies. Fruit and vegetables, particularly those brighter in colour, provide the most antioxidants, polyphenols, and other phytonutrients that contribute to “youthfulness.”
Harmon died at age 98. He followed a diet high in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. And he jogged every day until his mid-80s. Harmon didn’t claim this way of life could make us live forever, but he was confident it could help us live better.