Two years ago, one of my best friends went through treatment for breast cancer.
She said she thought the worst thing she would ever face was the day she was given her diagnosis. That was until she started chemotherapy and radiation and went from an active, vibrant woman to a sick, exhausted shell of her former self.
What scared her most, she said, was that even after treatment was over and she was proclaimed cancer-free, she still didn’t feel like herself.
She was still tired and noticed her memory was worse, her thinking wasn’t as clear and things that used to come easily were much more difficult.
In her words, she felt “old.”
And she’s not alone…
Every year, men and women just like her survive cancer only to be left with long-term side-effects from the treatment that saved their lives. In fact, 75 percent of people who go through chemotherapy experience memory loss and other mental impairments. For some, these never go away.
Thanks to a new study, we know why and how you might be able to find help.
Accelerated aging to blame
Certain treatments for cancer, including radiation and some chemotherapeutic drugs, work by damaging the DNA of cancer cells. That’s how they kill the cancer to keep you alive.
Unfortunately, they can also cause damage to the DNA of the normal cells in your body, which can contribute to accelerated biological aging. In other words, cancer treatment causes you to age far faster than you normally would, making you old before your time.
This got scientists at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior wondering whether this accelerated aging was behind the cognitive problems so many cancer survivors experience.
The researchers evaluated a group of 94 women who had been treated for breast cancer three to six years earlier. The indicators of biological aging they were looking for included elevated levels of DNA damage, reduced telomerase enzymatic activity and shorter telomere length in certain blood cells.
Telomerase is an enzyme that is important for maintaining the length of telomeres, which are repeat sequences of DNA at the ends of your chromosomes that help maintain the health of your cells and serve as a marker of cell age.
The team found that women who had previously been treated for breast cancer and had both higher DNA damage and lower telomerase activity had lower executive function scores. (Basically, executive function is how well you can take care of yourself and manage your resources in order to get things done.)
To top it off, lower telomerase activity was associated with worse attention and motor speed.
To sum it up, cancer treatment had aged the women beyond their years, leaving them less able to care for themselves, unfocused and slow.
Worth it to save lives, yes of course! But it certainly impacted quality of life.
Fortunately, with the study showing the effects of accelerated aging to blame, it also tells us that if we can be proactive against these forces, perhaps we could put an end to those long-term side effects of cancer treatments — or premature aging in general, whether it’s due to chemo or toxins or stress.
But how do we do that?
According to Mark Houston M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Director of the Hypertension Institute and Vascular Biology, and the Director of the Life Extension Institute and Human Nutrition, at Saint Thomas Medical Group and Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, “Resveratrol shows the most promise as an anti-aging nutrient.”
If you haven’t heard of it before, resveratrol is a polyphenol (a compound that gives fruits and veggies their bright colors) found in the skin of red grapes. And it’s the reason red wine has been studied for possible health benefits.
As Dr. Houston says, the power of resveratrol when it comes to anti-aging is “impressive.”
In fact, studies have shown that resveratrol extends life in yeast by 80 percent. In mice and other animal models, it’s been shown to be anti-aging and promote weight loss.
Other anti-aging steps Dr. Houston recommends include:
• Exercise — An hour a day four days a week is your target, but you can split it into smaller “mini sessions” and feel free to start slow.
• Hydrate — Drink at least 100 ounces of water each day.
• Eat anti-inflammatory — Avoid foods that cause inflammation like fried and processed foods and sugars and instead eat lots of green leafy veggies, fruits, nuts and fatty fish.
• Add in other important supplements — In addition to resveratrol, Dr. Houston also notes that other supplements that have been shown to extend life expectancy in animal studies and could boast anti-aging properties include vitamins D and C, grape seed extract and CoQ10.