As the Baby Boomer generation continues to get older, people born between 1946 and 1964 are understandably concerned about fighting the ravaging effects of aging: wrinkles, creaky joints, and memory loss.
Hormones responsible for relaying neurochemical messages, causing reactions, and protecting tissue throughout the body also change as the years advance. Hormones are very important because they regulate metabolism and growth, control the immune function, and reproductive systems.
Estrogen, DHEA, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol are all involved in aging. Imbalances in any of these hormones can result in negative health issues.
I still remember the day my doctor said that, based on my upcoming birthday, it was time to talk about hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I won’t tell you exactly how old I was at the time but I can say that the average age for menopause (“the Change”) is 51.4 years.
My mother had encouraged me to follow her suit and opt-in for either supplemental estrogen or estrogen combined with progestin (a synthetic form of progesterone), another female hormone. HRT was effective against hot flashes, vaginal dryness, insomnia and other delightful – NOT! – symptoms of menopause.
Estrogen is the blanket term used for the hormones estradiol, estrone and estriol. Estrogen’s main job in the female body is to stimulate growth and development of sexual characteristics and reproduction such as breasts during the teen years and pregnancy. Estrogen protects women from heart disease and colon cancer while maintaining several metabolic processes, including cholesterol levels and bone growth.
But, I had read articles cautioning against estrogen therapies which were linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, stroke, and other serious health problems such as breast cancer. This then-new information contradicted the prevailing wisdom that estrogen lowered the risk of cardiac disease in older women.
Today, HRT is recommended only for short-term use to relieve menopausal symptoms. Estrogen does help protect a younger woman’s body from heart disease.
The known benefits of HRT in post-menopausal women – those who haven’t had a monthly period (vaginal bleeding) in for one year – include:
- Increased elasticity of the blood vessels, allowing them to dilate (expand) which increases blood flow throughout the body
- Improved short-term symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and mood swings, vaginal dryness, dry skin, insomnia, and irritable bladder symptoms
- Decreased risk of osteoporosis and fractures (broken bones)
- Lowered incidence of colon cancer
Since the health risks of HRT include increased risk of endometrial cancer (only when estrogen is taken without progestin), breast cancer (with long-term use), cardiovascular disease (including heart attack), inflammatory markers (such as C-reactive protein), blood clots, and stroke (especially during the first year of use by susceptible women), many women are shying away from the once-popular aging therapy.
DHEA is a hormone derived from cholesterol by the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) that is key in forming the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. From the middle to late 20s, DHEA levels begin to decline gradually, contributing to aging. By age 70, people typically have less than 10 percent of their DHEA levels during their 20s.
DHEA can help treat auto-immune disorders, obesity, dementia, osteoporosis, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Progesterone regulates the sleep cycle, builds immunity, and boosts brain function. It is an essential hormone of the female reproductive process. Poor sleep, mood swings, and “brain fog” are all signs of a progesterone imbalance.
Low progesterone levels can produce raised levels of cortisol and low levels of the sex hormones, triggering faulty immune function and many other health issues linked to hormonal imbalances.
Although we think of testosterone as “the man’s hormone,” women have it, too. Testosterone plays a part in energy, memory, moods, muscle mass and strength, and sexual stamina and performance. In women, this hormone influences weight, energy, mood, and sex drive.
Low levels of testosterone can make gaining and sustaining lean body mass difficult. Not surprisingly, then, naturally declining levels of this hormone impact managing weight and the sexual urge.
Cortisol is unique: it is the only hormone whose levels rise with age. You may have used cortisone, derived from cortisol, to heal wounds. Cortisol is critical for the internal systems to remain stable and balanced during acute forms of stress (fear, physical trauma, and extreme physical exertion, for example).
During periods of stress, the body produces as much cortisol as it needs to help neutralize the stress. In younger people, cortisol levels drop quickly after the stress has passed. But cortisol levels in older people take longer (days) to fall back to normal. Since cortisol levels increase with age, a 65-year-old has far higher levels of cortisol than does a 25-year-old.
High levels of cortisol that circulate for long periods of time in the elderly are toxic. Brain cells are especially susceptible and die off. This explains why cortisol is called the “death hormone,” leading to brain shrinkage and senility. High cortisol levels can destroy the immune system, shrink the brain and other vital organs, decrease muscle mass, and cause the skin to thin, which eventually causes more prominent blood vessels.
A medical specialist can advise people concerned with hormone reductions on suitable replacement therapies after conducting laboratory blood tests.
If you are no longer a spring chicken and the “boom” has gone out of your “baby” body, you might benefit from getting your hormone levels checked. Resolving chemical imbalances in the body can do everyone (especially us oldsters) a world of good.