Vail Daily health: We are the architects of our aging |

Vail Daily health: We are the architects of our aging

Dr. Elina Chernyak
Ask Dr. Elina
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –Modern medicine has made many vital contributions to the improvement of our lives, including how long we actually live. People born today will live on average 20 years longer than those born in 1900.

But does longevity by itself translate to absolute success in medicine? Not really. Rather, we should measure medical success by the quality of our health as we grow older. Will we be held together with the equivalent of baling wire and bubble gum, popping a handful of pills each day or will we be naturally vital, functioning human beings well into our golden years?

We often assume that we are going to get ill as we age. We tend to believe that illness is a natural consequence of our bodies wearing out or that we are somehow genetically programmed to get heart disease, arthritis or diabetes as we age. So many older people are afflicted with illness these days that we think its normal to have a quiver of prescriptions in our medicine cabinet.

It is normal to expect some degree of age-related illness, but no definitive study exists in any of the world’s medical literature that indicates degenerative disease is an inevitable consequence of aging.

A recent article in the British Medical Journal refers to a study by James Fries at Stanford University’s School of Medicine that showed individuals who chose a life of non-smoking, controlled body weight-to-height ratio, regular exercise and good nutrition had a longer life expectancy of 6.7 years on average.

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More importantly, these individuals were not chronically ill or disabled until the very last phase of their lives. The results of the controlled study, although somewhat predictable, serve as an important reminder that we are in fact, to a degree, our own architects at healthy aging.

I have heard many in the medical field say that if people live longer, they are just going to be sicker longer and it’s going to cost the health care system more. As Fries showed, and as most intelligent people would agree, practicing the right things didn’t result in people getting sicker. Rather, they were able to promote healthy aging and extend their lives in the process.

Indeed, a campaign of healthy aging through better lifestyle choices would bode well for the health care system by simply reducing the number of people needing it.

Although maximum life span may be in part genetically determined, there is evidence that heredity is not everything. In a study of identical twins from twin registries in the Swedish Census Bureau, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that only 20 percent to 30 percent of susceptibility to common forms of cancer, a major cause of death, is determined directly by our genes.

In other words, the concept that we inherit our potential for disease from our parents in “the luck of the draw” is only 20 percent to 30 percent true. Seventy percent to 80 percent of that chance depends on what we do to the genes we inherited throughout the course of living, according to this study.

We must realize and respect the power we hold to change our individual destinies. It’s good to know that health-based sciences are starting to pay more attention to a relatively new concept: the matching of a person’s lifestyle and environment to his or her genes in order to ‘design’ better outcomes. I

n my opinion, medical practitioners should continue to take this idea mainstream by constructing personalized, overall health programs for individuals that will lead to healthy aging. If modern medicine studied ‘health’ just as much as ‘disease,’ we would be in much better shape physically, mentally and economically.

Today, “anti-aging medicine” has become a buzzword phrase. It may be inaccurate to say we are trying to achieve “anti-aging,” because some characteristics of the aging process may actually be desirable. The accrual of wisdom over the course of living, for example, is a positive aspect of aging.

Senescence, which is the physical process of aging on a cellular level, is what leads to the actual deterioration of health. Perhaps “anti-senescence” rather than “anti-aging” should be our objective. After all, it’s not how old we grow, but how well we grow old.

Dr. Elina Chernyak is an osteopathic doctor specializing in integrative medicine in Edwards. For more information, call 970-306-2737 or visit If you have a question you’d like to ask Dr. Elina, please e-mail

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