In the 1985 Academy Award-winning film “Cocoon,” three residents in a retirement home discover that swimming in a pool containing the pods of an alien life form allows them to absorb alien energy. They immediately feel younger, stronger and rejuvenated. Great fun ensues. Back in real life, a 1979 study had already shown that it is not necessary to go interplanetary to generate a similar effect:
Harvard University social psychologist Ellen Langer had devised a novel experiment. She enlisted a group of men in their 70s and 80s for a weeklong retreat at an isolated motel redesigned to reflect the decor, feature and music of 1959. Imagine bold floral prints and matching bedding and curtains against walls painted in popular colors of pink, turquoise, mint green, pale yellow and blue. Chrome and vinyl chairs were paired with chrome-legged tables with Formica tops on linoleum floors. A radio blaring Connie Francis singing “Lipstick on Your Collar,” or Bobby Darin crooning “Mack the Knife.”
By week’s end, the men who were all dependent on family members for their care became more independent. They demonstrated significant improvements in hearing, memory, strength and intelligence test scores. Some even ventured outside to toss a football around. One subgroup of men in the experiment were instructed to behave as if they were 20 years younger. By the end of the week, they showed greater flexibility. Based on photos of them at the start and end of the experiment, they even looked younger.
Such studies tell us that, for at least 60 years now, science has known of the potential rejuvenating power of the mind in improving our health. We also now know that strong social connections can benefit longevity and that loneliness can impair it. It has been shown that just the feeling of being disconnected and alone can trigger damaging inflammation and immune-system changes and speed up negative heart health. We are also told by UCLA psychology professor Alan Castel that just the state of being happy can increase our life expectancy by four to 10 years.
“As an added bonus, those additional years are likely to be happy ones,” Castel writes in his book, “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.” According to Castel, successful aging involves being productive and mentally fit and, most importantly, leading a meaningful life.
We are all looking for that pathway to successful aging. It seems we are also constantly looking for shortcuts. Taking vitamin and mineral dietary supplements has now become routine procedure for most Americans. According to U.S. News, more than half of all American adults routinely take some form of dietary supplement in a market that is estimated to generate annual sales of $35 billion. Dietary supplements can be helpful. We know that supplements such as magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, for example, have long been touted as a facilitator of healthy aging. But they should be taken with care.
“Supplements are handled completely different than either prescription medications or over-the-counter drugs,” says Dr. Pieter Cohen, a general internist with the Cambridge Health Alliance and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “Those two categories are carefully vetted by the FDA. Supplements are not vetted by the FDA, and do not require that any evidence of safety or efficacy is presented to the agency before they are sold to consumers.”
According to U.S. News & World Report, health officials have issued more than 700 warnings during the last decade about the sale of dietary supplements that contain unapproved and potentially dangerous drug ingredients. Research shows that a tainted-supplement problem appears to have grown in scope in recent years: 57 percent of all supplement-related warnings have been issued since 2012.
“If your doctor doesn’t advise supplements for your health, then they will likely not help you,” Cohen tells U.S. News. “However, for my patients who still want to use supplements, I advise them to purchase supplements that list only one ingredient on the label and to avoid any supplement that has a health claim on the label, such as improving immunity or strengthening muscles.”
As a society, we are exhausted, sleep-deprived, stressed out and looking for some relief. Enter a class of dietary supplements based on ingredients called adaptogens, substances derived from plants, herbs or mushrooms and that supposedly help the body adapt to stress more efficiently.
According to statistics reported by the American Botanical Council, as reported by Vox News, adaptogens are now a growing sector of the $4 trillion wellness industry, with herbal dietary supplement sales in the range of $8.1 billion. You don’t have to hunt down products containing adaptogenic properties in natural food stores. They are readily available at the most trendy of retail outlets. Just Google “adaptogens” and it will come back with thousands of results for dozens and dozens of supplement brands.
Similar to other dietary supplements, adaptogens are not regulated by the FDA. The labeling of products containing adaptogens is apt to have words like “well-being” and “calming” on the label, drug-like claims are forbidden.
“Most people who are self-medicating willy-nilly with supplements will likely get no real benefit, and could possibly even harm themselves …” says endocrinologist Dr. Rashmi Mullur, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and associate chief of integrative medicine at the VA of Greater Los Angeles. “Whenever you have trends in medicine that are unregulated, it’s a breeding ground for misuse and abuse,” says Mullur.
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