Early puberty, hypertension and diabetes in children, early menopause… The alarming issue of premature ageing points inescapably to our way of living, finds out Sudha Umashanker
Girls as young as seven or eight coming of age, young children being diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, women with plummeting ovarian reserves in their late 20s or early 30s — the ageing clock seems to be ticking differently these days.
Kousalya Nathan, lifestyle and age management consultant, Nova Specialty Surgery, Chennai, points out, “More than ageing and its associated degenerative disorders, the alarming problem is premature ageing, which implies significant functional decline in various organs due to unmanaged lifestyle disorders.”
As the International Journal of Diabetes Care (1999) states, “Although Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus has historically been characterized as an adult onset of diabetes, it has been shown to be on the rise in young people in recent years, comprising some alarming 30 per cent of new cases of diabetes in the second decade of life. The mean age at diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes in young people is 12-14 years.” (Incidentally, Indian ethnicity is at higher risk.)
Listing out the factors suggestive of the prevalence of premature ageing, Dr. Nathan notes, “Early puberty is a pointer. We also live in an environment that favours unhealthy weight gain in children and adolescents. This has reached epidemic proportions in India, with consequences ranging from inability to play or climb stairs, to hypertension, dyslipidemia, back pain and psychosocial problems. Even greying and loss of skin tone, which are signs of middle age, are seen in 10- to 12-year-olds. In the worst-case scenario, deaths due to non-communicable diseases in those in their 30s and 40s are also happening.”
Nandita Palshetkar, infertility specialist, Lilavati Hospitals Mumbai and Fortis Bloom IVF Centres, says, “Nowadays, more and more girls are attaining early puberty. Earlier, puberty which was seen at age 12 is now seen at the age of seven to eight years, in approximately 15 per cent of the girls. There are several reasons for this — such as unhealthy weight gain, stress, estrogens-like hormones such as bisphenol A found in hard plastics, certain metals that act as metalloestrogens, (eg. tin, cadmium, mercury, lead and aluminium, copper), situations in which the father is absent or the child is living with the step-father, Vitamin D deficiency, early exposure to sex-related messages in the media etc. Higher body mass index is associated most often with lifestyle changes that have occurred in the last couple of decades in our society. Early puberty, in turn, is associated with repercussions such as increased risk of heart problem, osteoporosis and early menopause.”
Rapid depletion of ovarian reserves, and therefore early ovarian ageing in young women, is yet another cause of concern. While it could be due to polycystic ovaries, in several cases, the cause is unknown. “Measures must be taken to reduce contamination by Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs) if we want to take steps to decrease reproductive disorders in women of the next generation,” stresses Dr. Palshetkar. EDCs that affect the functioning of the thyroid and ovary are found in pesticides, dioxins (produced when plastic is burnt, certain industrial processes and from improper incineration of waste), bisphenols (found in hard plastics, some baby bottles, water bottles and the insides of some food and beverage cans.) Corroborating the incidence of diabetes in overweight young children, Vijay Viswanathan, head and chief diabetologist, M.V. Hospital for Diabetes, Chennai, says that a recent survey in Chennai done by his institution showed that “many children who were overweight had raised blood pressure levels. These children showed aspects of insulin resistance, which makes them prone to hypertension and also diabetes.”
Asked if this can be considered a form of ageing, Dr. Viswanathan affirms, “Yes, this is a type of ageing, since the blood vessels develop stiffness and lose their elasticity even by the age of 10 or 15 in children who are insulin-resistant. These early blood vessel changes make these children prone to developing hypertension at an early stage, and may also lead to heart blocks by the time they get into their 20s or 30s.”
What are the signs that should alert us before visible changes of ageing happen?
“Weight gain, skin discoloration in underarms, inner thighs, nape of the neck, frequent infections, tiredness, irregular periods in girls, rough skin, overeating and eating disorders, stress and sleeping difficulties in children,” should put us on the alert, says Dr. Nathan.
While there are molecular-level changes of ageing in children, to see the physical and functional decline, it might take a few years. “It is a complex and multi-factorial process. Lifestyle accelerates loss of genetic materials, causing premature ageing,” Dr. Nathan concludes.
- Lifestyle modification is top priority.
- Opt for an anti-ageing diet — 60 per cent complex carbohydrates (legumes, cereals and vegetables), 20 per cent protein (white meat, dal, paneer, tofu, soy protein), 20 per cent fats (nuts, olives, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds)
- Undertake regular physical activity
- Avoid exposure to estrogens-like compounds and environmental toxins
- Consume organically-grown vegetables
- Teach children to bust emotional stress by taking up creative pursuits