What role do antioxidants play in preventing age-related diseases? What changes occur in the human body when ageing? A European funded study, co-ordinated by the UK Institute of Food Research in Norwich, is currently trying to tackle these questions.
The ageing process triggers heart disease, cancer, blindness and diseases of the neurological system, such as dementia. The scientists report that although it is known that the family background influences the onset of these through the genes, the importance of lifestyle and environmental factors, such as diet, are of increasing interest and relevance. A diet rich in plant foods is known to reduce the risks of developing certain age-related diseases, claim the researchers, and naturally occurring compounds in cereals, fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of these ageing-associated diseases.
The mechanism underpinning ageing and the initiation of age-related diseases is thought to be due to the production of highly reactive molecules that oxidise or damage components of cells, causing these to malfunction. Antioxidants are a group of substances that have the potential to stop these harmful reactions.
The on-going European project, called 'EUROFEDA', is reviewing the evidence that antioxidants in the diet are beneficial and what intakes, if any, are associated with any beneficial effects. They have looked into substances that are naturally occurring antioxidants and those substances that ensure antioxidant defences in the body are maximised. The effectiveness of present methods to estimate the damage caused by oxidants in body tissues, the information that exists on the biological effects of antioxidants in the body and evaluating what is known about the distribution of antioxidants in the body, particularly at sites where oxidative damage has the potential to cause severe illness.
The co-ordinators of the project are organising a conference from 25-28 September on 'Antioxidants: Benefits and Risks' to present the latest advances in the understanding of the effects of dietary antioxidants on health and age-related disease.