Immune to the Years #1


As you age, so does your immune system, the system that protects you from diseases. Keeping your immune system young and strong helps keep cancer at bay. Cancer is the second leading killer in the United States and may soon surpass heart disease as number one. It is far easier to prevent cancer than to cure it. This chapter explains how cancer works and discusses strategies for prevention. A normally functioning immune system also helps prevent arthritis and even heart disease. Protecting your immune system can make your RealAge as much as six years younger.

Prostate cancer kills more men than anything but heart disease and lung
cancer: 250,000 new cases are diagnosed a year, and 40,000 men die from
prostate cancer annually. Yet, in the war against prostate cancer, tomato
paste—yes, that red stuff on pizza and pasta—and green tea may be a
winning combination. These two simple substances can make your
RealAge as much as 0.8 years younger.

(Remember  the  stats  are  from  the  year  2000  when  this  book  was  published  -  KEITH HUNT)

Difficulty rating: Moderately easy

Although we read all the time about the risk of cancer from sun exposure,
that doesn't mean we should avoid the sun altogether. To produce an
adequate amount of vitamin D, we need to spend some time catching rays
(or, as suggested in Chapter 7, taking vitamin D as a supplement). Vitamin
D appears to strengthen the immune response and helps prevent certain
kinds of cancers. Learn how to strike a balance between too much sun and
not enough. Just taking simple precautions can make your RealAge 1.7
years younger.

Difficulty rating: Moderately easy

If you thought taking care of your teeth was just cosmetic, think again. By avoiding periodontal disease, you can make your RealAge 6.4 years younger. In contrast, people with acute periodontal disease are 3.4 years older than their chronologic age. Why? Because the bacteria that cause periodontal disease appear to trigger an immune response that causes inflammation, throughout the body. A side effect seems to be inflammation of the arteries, a major precursor to heart disease. Although the exact cause and effect are not well understood yet, people who floss may live younger longer.

Difficulty rating: Quick fix

Now that you've read about how to prevent arterial ageing, I know the next question you're going to ask. I hear it every time I give a lecture. 'If we prevent arterial ageing and lower our risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other forms of cardiovascular disease, won't we just die from something worse?' The Big C? Cancer? We've all got to die from something, don't we?

Yes. We will all die sometime. But then again, why invite it? Although most of us feel that we are helpless in the face of cancer, just remember that 80 to 90 percent of cancers are linked to environmental causes. That means cancer isn't just fate, but something you can do a lot to prevent. How? By controlling your environment. Despite the recent stir about cancer genes, fewer than 10 percent of all cancers are linked to genetic inheritance. Although I can't say that 80 to 90 percent of cancer can be prevented, I can guarantee that by making yourself younger, you can stave off your risk of cancer by as much as twenty RealAge years. By controlling your environment, you can minimize the ageing of the immune system, making your RealAge younger. Think of it this way: Although all of us have to die of something, there is no reason not to reduce your risk of getting cancer at calendar age fifty to that of the typical forty-year-old. You can choose to keep your immune system youthful and, by doing so, greatly reduce your risk of getting a life-threatening cancer or other disorder of the immune system.

If the cardiovascular system is the body's transportation system, the immune system is its security system. The immune system protects the body from outside invasion by locating and destroying potentially harmful bacteria and viruses. It protects the body against insurrection from within by rooting out cells that have become abnormal or malignant. As we age, our immune system begins to fail us. There are two fundamental ways in which your immune system can fail. It can become negligent, allowing abnormal cells— either infectious agents or cancer cells—to grow unchecked. Or it can become overzealous, turning on the body and attacking normal tissues, as occurs in such autoimmune diseases as many forms of arthritis, connective tissue diseases, and allergies. Since the immune system is so complex, it can go in both directions at once. Your immune system can be negligent—as in cancer—and overactive—as in arthritis—at the same time.

Protecting our cardiovascular system is relatively straightforward, but keeping our immune system in working order is more complex. The immune system is made up of millions of free-floating cells that roam the body in search of abnormalities. All these cells need to coordinate with each other to provide adequate protection. And the state of our immune system—the youth of our immune system—depends greatly on how well we care for it.

For example, we know that people who exercise have higher concentrations of certain immune system cells that identify and destroy potentially hazardous toxins and invading organisms. We know that taking antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, helps improve the immune response. We also know that hazardous chemicals, too much sun, and radioactivity can age your immune system and increase your risk of cancer. Stress clearly weakens our immune response—the death of a loved one, for example, measurably decreases the number of T cells in a person's bloodstream for as long as a year after the event. And, of course, there is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a disease that directly attacks the immune system. Throughout the following chapters, there will be sections that address ageing of the immune system. Pay attention to the sections on this subject in the chapters on environmental hazards (Chapter 6), vitamins and supplements (Chapter 7), food and nutrition (Chapter 8), exercise (Chapter 9), and stress (Chapter 11) and learn how to make your RealAge younger by keeping your immune system younger.

Cancer: An Ounce of Prevention Is Better Than a Whole Lot of Cure

Cancer is the most ironic of diseases. Except in rare cases, it is not caused by an invasion of some external agent, such as a bacterium or virus. Nor is it caused by wear and tear on the body or by parts breaking down. Rather, it is a disease of one's own body gone awry. Cancer begins with one cell that, instead of keeping in line with the cells around it, suddenly begins growing, dividing, and dividing again, forming a mass of malignant cells—a tumor. If the tumor gets large enough or spreads (metastasizes), it can be fatal. Cells are usually subsumed to the good of the organism, but when a cancer appears, the organism becomes subsumed to the cell.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 22 percent of all mortalities annually. More than a million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, and more than half a million die from cancer. Another 800,000 develop small situ (noninvading) cancers and various mild kinds of skin cancers; both types, for the most part, do not spread and can be easily removed. These in situ cancers are not generally counted in the annual cancer statistics, but are cancers nonetheless. For women aged thirty-five to seventy-four, cancer is the leading cause of death. For men of the same age range, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death. Despite the high incidence of cancer and the enormous amount of effort put into fighting it, cancer remains one of the most pernicious human diseases.


Even though newfound cancer genes have been the subject of much speculation, most cancers arise from our interactions with the world around us. Astoundingly, almost one-third of all cancers diagnosed in Europe and in the United States can be linked to tobacco use and account for more than 150,000 deaths in the United States each year. Food choices are thought to contribute to another third of cancers, especially stomach and colon cancers. People who eat diets that are low in saturated fats and rich in nutrients have a significantly lower incidence of cancer. Thinner people are at lower risk of breast, prostate, and uterine cancer, perhaps because such cancers are linked—at least some scientists postulate—to high exposure to the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone, and these hormones are stored in fat. People who drink excessively have higher levels of mouth and liver cancer. And people who have spent too much time in the sun, especially before age thirty, are more likely to develop skin cancer. Occupational hazards—exposure to such toxins in the workplace as asbestos and formaldehyde—account for about 5 percent of all cancers.

In the early 1970s, President Nixon announced a 'War on Cancer,' hoping that a big monetary investment and a redoubled effort by America's scientists would lead to the cure. Twenty-five years later, we are still not much closer to that cure. If a tumor is found early and can be removed surgically, it will not regrow in about 50 percent of the cases. Much of the time, treatment delays the spread of a cancer. Once a cancer has metastasized, the likelihood that radiation or chemotherapy will actually stop the disease is only about 10 percent—not especially promising. Although several new gene-targeting drugs and drugs targeted to stop the blood vessel growth that is necessary for the growth of tumors appear promising in stopping the spread of cancer, they are still in development and years away from being a standard treatment procedure. Indeed, the key words in cancer therapy today are avoidance and early detection. And 'early detection' by no means compares with 'cancer-free.' Although someday there may actually be a cure that works, at present, the best way to fight cancer is to avoid getting it in the first place.

How are we to keep cancer at bay? There are two ways. First, by avoiding exposure to known cancer-causing agents, you can reduce the odds that a cancer will ever develop. Second, by taking steps to strengthen your immune system, you can better prepare your body to fight off any early cancer that does develop, destroying it before it even gets started.

Understanding Cancer: What It Is and How It Works

One of the reasons scientists haven't yet found a cure for cancer is that the causes are often extremely complex. In fact, the term cancer describes the phenomenon—the growth of tumors—and defines a general category that contains a broad range of diseases. Cancers can be caused by radiation, viruses, carcinogens, random mistakes in the cell cycle, an inherited genetic predisposition, or just plain chance. In many cases, cancers can develop because of a combination of factors. For example, although no one doubts that smoking increases the incidence of lung cancer—nearly 90 percent of lung cancers are linked to cigarette smoking—some smokers appear to be even more susceptible to cancer than other smokers. Some people appear to produce higher levels of the enzyme that makes smoke carcinogenic; thus, their genetic predisposition, combined with their behavioral choices, contributes to an even greater risk of lung cancer. This effect is a good example of how cancers can be caused by both environmental factors and inherited tendencies.

The risk posed by smoking can be compounded by other factors as well. For example, asbestos and radon are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). Smoking greatly amplifies the risk of either, since smokers have significantly higher sensitivity levels than nonsmokers to these carcinogens. Although nonsmokers exposed to asbestos are five times more likely to develop lung cancer, smokers exposed to asbestos are ninety times more likely to develop lung cancer! Cigarettes and heavy drinking are another volatile combination, causing more cancers and more ageing when used together than either cause alone.

Now that I have told you that most cancers are brought about by environmental causes, I am going to seem to contradict that statement: All cancers are genetic. When I say that, I do not mean that they are hereditary, although they sometimes are. Five to 10 percent of all cancers are thought to stem from a strong predisposition to the disease inherited in our genes. The other 90 percent are caused by genetic mistakes that develop spontaneously over the course of a lifetime. Although a person can inherit a genetic tendency for a specific kind of cancer, the vast majority of cancers occur because of mutations in our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that occur after we are born. We do not inherit these mutations, we accumulate them.

Cancer is a disease of our DNA, the substance that regulates the growth of the body, and that is contained in every cell we have. Think of DNA as your body's instruction book. It contains information that guides all your growth and physiologic changes from the time you are born until the day you die. Your DNA determines what color eyes you will have, how tall you will be, that you will have an arm where you are supposed to have an arm, and even that you will have arms instead of wings. You inherit your initial set of DNA from your parents—half from your mother and half from your father—when the egg and sperm fuse. Since each of our cells contains an identical set of DNA, as we grow, this DNA is duplicated with every single cell division. Each of us starts out as a single cell, but by the time we are adults, our bodies contain 75 trillion cells. That means trillions and trillions of cell divisions during your lifetime.

Cells fall into one of two basic types: germ line cells and somatic cells. Germ line cells are our reproductive cells—eggs in the female and sperm in the male. All the other cells in the body are somatic cells, which form more than 99 percent of the feody. The somatic cells are living, changing cells; they grow, divide, die. As long as you are alive, your body replaces these cells continuously. During your lifetime, you replace virtually all the somatic cells in your body, except brain and nerve cells, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of times. Your stomach lining, for example, is in an almost continual state of cell division, making new cells every day. Most cancers stem from mutations of somatic cells.

When a cell divides, the DNA in that cell is copied and passed on to the new cell. But the DNA in any one cell can become damaged. Pieces of the instructions on the genes can get knocked out or changed—mutated. If the mutation occurs in the wrong place—in an active gene, for instance—it can disrupt the function of the cell, causing it to die. Or it can cause the cell to begin dividing wildly, becoming a cancer.

We get mutations in two ways. First, mutations can arise through mistakes in the cell-division process. Second, mutations can occur when the DNA in a cell is damaged by an irritant like radiation or free radicals. In either case, these mutations, if they do not kill the cell, get passed on when a cell divides. How many of these mutations will you undergo in your lifetime? Probably millions.