As a wise old woman once said, “Getting old sucks.” Skin wrinkles and sags as it loses all traces of collagen, that blessed protein that keeps skin plump and taut. Dark circles and spots come along for the ride. Hair dulls and thins. Eyes lose their focus. Fat accumulates around the midsection, as the rest of the body sheds muscle mass.

Internally, the body looks even worse. As hormone levels change, and time and stress take their toll, the body’s well-being diminishes. A build-up of fat and loss of energy leads to higher blood pressure and cholesterol. The heart grows weaker, and even the brain loses its function. Bones get brittle and dowager’s humps form. And the risk for diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes skyrockets. Ugh.

The good news is that science is making the aging process a lot easier to deal with, inside and out. Americans spend billions of dollars each year fighting the effects of getting old — whether it’s combating wrinkling skin and sagging cheek jowls or fighting high cholesterol and increasing rolls of fat.

Solutions can be as easy as incorporating a good skin care regimen, eating healthily, and getting lots of exercise (did we say easy?). Or they can be as extreme as hormone injections and cosmetic surgery. The question is, what’s your plan? That twentysomething bloom won’t always be on the rose, if you get our drift. The time to start worrying about old age is before you’re old, when prevention can make a difference.

Yes, We Did Say Easy

Skin, being the biggest organ of the body, is also the biggest betrayer of age. Skin tanned for countless hours on the beaches and tanning beds will look years older than skin shielded from the sun by hats and sunscreen. A healthy glow on a 25-year-old body becomes weather-beaten naugahyde sooner than you’d think.

We’ve all heard this before, right? But the thing is, nobody seems to be listening. Skin cancer is on the rise and dermatologists are seeing more and more patients interested in reversing sun damage, whether that means lasering off sunspots or using chemical peels to remove dull skin, because people refuse to heed the advice.

Dr. Michael Maynor, director of Charleston Medical Spa in West Ashley, wants to reiterate that old sunscreen message, just to make sure you heard it. Everyone should wear at least 30 SPF every day, even when you don’t expect to be outside for more than a walk to and from your car. This includes winter, spring … every single day.

“Taking care of your skin from an early age is the best thing you can do,” he says. “Cancers of the skin set on early if not prevented.”

Once you’ve got the whole sunscreen thing down, you can incorporate some more advanced skin care products with collagen to help keep your skin plump and wrinkle free. And collagen won’t do much for you if you insist on tanning your skin.

Kelly Brown, a representative for the skin care and makeup line Aloette, says that skin ages because of dehydration, free radical damage caused by elements such as sun, wind, smoke, and smog, and a change in the body’s hormone levels. A good skin care line such as Aloette will help lessen the effects of these factors.

The skin is made up of 28 layers. Brown says that the first five or six layers are dead skin cells, while way down in the bottom three layers lies the collagen. The layers of skin rejuvenate approximately every 60 days — the bottom layers rise to the top and fall off while new bottom layers grow. Brown says Aloette’s products deliver nutrients all the way down to the collagen layers of the skin. “Unless you can get to that layer, you’re not doing any good,” she says, pointing out that regular soap will leave a dull finish on the top layer of the skin, much like a layer of soap scum in your bathtub. Over time, this film gives the face a very dull and pallid skin tone. Brown counsels you to remove that layer of film if you want your skin (or bathtub) to shine like it’s new.

Whether products with collagen do indeed fight aging is up for debate, but a regular skin care regimen that includes protection and nourishment surely can’t hurt.

Just Jump In, Already!

If we’ve learned one thing from the medical community, it’s that the best way to fight aging is through prevention, prevention, prevention, something that personal trainers such as Jeremy Jacobs can help with. Jacobs fights anti-aging without expensive injections, pills, or skin cream. But he does require some old-fashioned hard work. He recommends meeting with a personal trainer and finding a workout specifically designed to regulate insulin and cortisol, two hormones that contribute to aging and disease. Jacobs often prescribes exercises using large muscle groups, such as squats, leg lifts, and bench presses. These exercises keep your cortisol and insulin levels in check, leading to more weight loss and muscle and bone gain. Doing these exercises now could mean less chance of osteoporosis later.

“Keep the body active, and it will stay young,” says Jacobs. Staying active is the key to fighting off aging because it regulates key hormone levels and builds important muscle and bone mass.

Dr. Jerry Reves, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine at MUSC, agrees. “Nothing else comes close to being as effective as regular exercise,” he says. Having and maintaining a regular exercise regimen, whether it be bench pressing or walking around the neighborhood every other day, has been medically proven time and time again to decrease depression, hypertension, cholesterol … all of those nasty words associated with getting older.

Reves recommends starting exercising today. “Start as soon as you can. Five, six, seven years old … start now.”

Reves has a theory about why exercise helps lengthen and improve the quality of life. “Man was not meant to be sedentary,” he says. “We’ve evolved with inventions that let us be that way … it’s not the natural state of our species.” Therefore, when we put ourselves to our full potential and act the way nature meant us to act, we live a longer, fuller life. Hormone levels balance out, bones and muscles grow stronger, and blood flow improves. In turn, skin and body shape remain youthful and the propensity for disease drops.

One of the most effective workouts to fight aging is swimming, a low-impact exercise that gradually increases muscle strength and lung capacity. Dr. Joel Stager, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University Bloomington (and assistant to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps), completed a study in 2005 that found that middle-aged men and women who swim laps on a regular basis might actually have the physical capacity of much younger people.

Stager and his team of “Master Swimmers” have bodies that defy all of the normal signs of aging. Muscle mass? Impressive. Heart? Strong as ever. Lungs? Clear as the water that the swimmers dive into every day.

Swimming, Stager says, “can virtually retard aging.” The evidence lies in the health and strength of his older swimmers, who have lower body fat and higher muscle, lung, and heart strength, leading to lower rates of disease and more body strength. Muscle mass, lung power, upper body strength, blood pressure, and ideal blood chemistry typically begin to decline by 1/2 to 1 percent after age 35, but swimmers who study with Stager don’t seem to have a problem. He coaches swimmers up to age 90 who have the physiques of people decades younger.

Stager says that his patients come tremendous distances, both literally and figuratively, while completing his training regimen. “You can’t just jump in and swim with the sharks,” Stager warns, and he recommends a preliminary physical evaluation and a slow build-up to a comfortable workout. “Start slow and set a goal,” he says.

His group of master swimmers get in the pool at least four to five days a week for an hour a day, and many have the physical capacity of the Indiana University students swimming in the lanes next to them. Now in his mid-50s, Stager says that he is often mistaken for an “old geezer” by those college swimmers, but he never hesitates to jump in and literally leave them in his wake.

Slow Down There

Despite rigorous skin care regimens and exercise programs, the fact is, you’re still going to grow older. And sometimes additional measures are needed. One local doctor says she has found the secret of youth. Dr. Michale “Mickey” Barber’s practice, RenewYou, The Barber Medical Institute, is dedicated to keeping people looking and feeling as young as possible by adjusting their hormone levels through injections, pills, or creams.

The secret, Barber says, is to slow the aging process early. She doesn’t even like the term “anti-aging.” She prefers “age management” because she’s not against the aging process. “That’s a fact of life. We manage the way you proceed through the aging process.”

Barber is her own best advertisement. At 50 years old, she has the body of someone 20 years younger. Her skin glows, her hair shines, and she even has a few bodybuilding trophies on her shelf. Her secret is that she follows the same treatment plan as her patients. The work has paid off. “I’m 50 and I feel better than I felt when I was 40, definitely.” Since starting treatment, her cholesterol has plummeted from 353 to 154. Her blood pressure has fallen from 240/130 to 100/60.

Besides high cholesterol and blood pressure, there are a few other age markers that Barber attributes to hormone levels. As the aging process continues, men and women naturally begin to see changes in their body shape, hair thickness, skin tone, bone mass, muscle mass, sexual function, mood, and disease propensity.

Barber, who is certified through the Cenegenics Medical Institute, first analyzes blood work and then diagnoses a combination of diet, exercise, lifestyle changes, and a few select hormone modulations, such as testosterone, estrogen, or progesterone. The right combination of hormones and healthy lifestyle, she says, can halt almost all of the symptoms of aging.

Men are often prescribed testosterone injections. Women may receive estrogen or testosterone cream. The hormone DHEA is given to treat mood swings, stress, heart disease, and sexual dysfunction. Melatonin is prescribed to inhibit cancer and help patients sleep. Combined with a diet and exercise program, adjusting hormone levels can take the edge off of aging.

As we age, our bodies are at a higher risk for inflammation of blood and muscle tissue, which accelerates the aging process and has been linked to heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. These diseases may seem like a lifetime away to the average active 35-year-old, but the truth is that what we do now may be directly related to how we live later.

By analyzing hormone levels in her patients, Barber says she can spot warning signs of inflammation. Detecting and treating a low level of DHEA now, for example, can boost the immune system and lead to a lower propensity for disease later. Prescribing estrogen early can boost thinking, memory, and response, which may lead to a lower susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease.

The treatments are manageable, but they are not without their controversy and consequences. Huge stories have broken in recent months about athletes abusing their bodies by taking too many hormones, but a recent study by Harvard University about testosterone therapy shows no long-term side effects when taken in safe moderation. Dr. Maynor agrees, and has no issue with the procedures. “The new wave of modern medicine is preventative care,” he says. “We all get older and we all want to feel better and look better.”

Suzanne Somers agrees as well. The 60-year-old actress published a book last year about how hormone therapy helped her lose weight and have a better lifestyle. We don’t necessarily advocate jumping into the “Somersize” program, but she does look great. Not a bad advertisement for the program.

Of course, hormone modulations aren’t for everyone. They can be expensive and time-consuming. At home, Barber recommends watching what goes in your mouth. Bad eating habits have been linked to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as cosmetic problems such as weak hair and nails. Cutting out foods that are high in saturated fats and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably those that are organic and high in antioxidants, improves body shape, energy, hair and nail strength, sleep patterns, and skin tone.

Last Ditch Efforts?

So now you’re what, 55? And your skin, despite years of sunscreen and collagen products, is sagging and you’re looking haggard? What do you do? Do you go under the knife to make your exterior reflect how you feel on the interior? Cosmetic surgery is certainly the most invasive anti-aging weapon on the market, but there are other less extreme ways to make you look as good as you feel. At the Charleston Medical Spa, Dr. Maynor specializes in age-managing skin treatments such as microdermabrasion, chemical peels, laser skin therapies, collagen remodeling, vein reduction, and hair removal.

He says that microdermabrasion is one of his more popular treatments. During the procedure, Maynor uses a device much like a sandblaster to shoot tiny aluminum crystals onto his patients’ faces and knock off a dead layer of skin. Gradually, the treatment helps remove fine wrinkles and spots. There is very little recovery time and, Maynor says, very little risk involved.

BOTOX treatments are also popular. During the procedure, the BOTOX protein is injected into facial muscles, preventing them from contracting to form frown lines. The result is a more youthful appearance, lasting three to four months. Not bad, if you don’t mind the fact that an injection has paralyzed your facial muscles.

The most extreme cosmetic procedure Maynor can do is a micro-laser skin peel. The peel rejuvenates skin and treats wrinkles, sun damage, and acne scars, but it takes much longer to heal than the other two because it goes much deeper into the skin layers. You might need a jar of Vaseline and some quality indoor time after this one.

However, it seems much easier to prevent the damage from happening in the first place. Maynor assures that a good skin care line such as Aloette or Obagi, the line he carries, will do the same thing for the skin over time as a laser peel, only for less money and with less pain. Obagi takes dead tissue cells off of the epidermis and adds antioxidants and essential vitamins.

Basically, you’ve got two options when it comes to anti-aging. You can work hard now with good skin care and a wholesome lifestyle and potentially live a long and healthy life. Or you can wait until it’s too late and get some extra help with hormone therapy and a deep laser skin peel. Hey, to each his own.

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