To age better, you have to give your body the nutritional tools it needs to make your immune system hum, to help your heart stay healthy and to maintain the internal systems that fend off cancer.
Enabling your brain to stay at or near full capacity is also a good idea.
And there’s one particular mineral that’s involved in all of these functions. But many of us are missing out. . .
I’m talking about zinc. Many experts agree that taking a supplement of this mineral is pretty much a requirement for anybody who wants to age better. Since you’re reading a newsletter called Aging Defeated, I assume this includes you.
No one’s really sure how many people are running short of zinc as they age. But research suggests it’s a shockingly high number. The shortage stems from a nutritional double whammy: Not only are our meals and snacks too low in zinc but, with the passing years, our digestive tracts become less and less able to absorb enough zinc to meet the body’s needs.
Zinc and Inflammation
One of the big problems your body faces with age is increased inflammation. An older immune system tends to be an inflamed immune system. That means that the immunological process called inflammation – that’s supposed to take place only when the body is fighting invading microbes – starts revving up when there’s no threat from pathogens.
When that happens, the inflammation starts to damage healthy tissue. The immune system itself becomes the health problem.
And when your zinc runs low, inflammation that can lead to cardiovascular difficulties, cancer and diabetes is more likely.
“Some inflammation is normal, a part of immune defense, wound healing and other functions,” says researcher Emily Ho at Oregon State University. “But in excess, it’s been associated with almost every degenerative disease you can think of, including cancer and heart disease. It appears to be a significant factor in the diseases that most people die from.”
In Dr. Ho’s lab studies, she found that zinc supplements can shrink inflammation linked to aging down to the low levels scientists expect to see in a young person. That’s why she recommends that everyone over the age of 65 take zinc.1
Nearly a Third of These Seniors were Low on Zinc
Meanwhile, researchers at Tufts have found that if you want to fend off potentially fatal infections as you age – and your immune system falters – then taking a zinc supplement can help.2
“Our previous work showed that 30 percent of nursing home residents have low serum zinc levels and those with low serum zinc levels had a significantly higher incidence of pneumonia and (can die) from it,” says researcher Simin Nikbin Meydani.
“Our new finding that serum zinc levels can be improved in older adults with zinc supplementation and that this is associated with enhancement of T-cell numbers (immune cells) and function strongly suggests that ensuring adequate zinc consumption by older adults could have a significant impact on reducing the incidence of and morbidity (death) from infection.”
There’s also evidence that zinc can help your body fight off cancer:
- Low zinc increases the risk of prostate cancer, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin. In their tests, taking the antioxidant resveratrol along with zinc helped get zinc into prostate cells.3
- Research that looked at zinc levels in hair found that women with breast cancer have lower zinc levels even when blood tests did not detect a zinc deficiency. The Asian researchers who conducted this study think that hair levels are a more dependable measure of the body’s available zinc than blood tests. And that having too little zinc increases cancer risk.4
- A study at the University of Texas shows zinc is particularly effective at preventing esophageal cancer.5They found that zinc can stop this type of cancer in its tracks while leaving normal cells unharmed.
Along with these benefits, another reason to take zinc is your brain’s need for it. As tests at the University of Toronto Scarborough demonstrate, the brain’s neurons need zinc to pull off a process called “long-term potentiation.” This is the function that strengthens connections among neurons. It’s crucial for forming memories and learning new information.6
If you decide to take a zinc supplement, experts advise to take no more than 40mg daily. Taking too much zinc can be harmful – impairing your absorption of iron and copper. The best course is to get a blood test to find out your zinc levels, and supplement accordingly. (I don’t think the hair analysis is widely available.)