Ageing is a natural, yet complex process that occurs in everyone. In the latest biomedical research, it is revealed that telomere length can be used as an indicator of a person’s biological age (which is different from chronological age). Research has shown that many factors – including exercise, sleep, emotional dysregulation and certain gene mutations – can reduce telomere length and result in premature biological ageing. An example would be a recent study which demonstrated that children who had lost their fathers had significantly shorter telomeres.
According to ‘Shen Nong’, who is venerated as the Father of Chinese Medicine, the process of ageing typically begins after 35 years old and is characterized by a decline in bodily functions. From a TCM perspective, ageing is the process of losing kidney ‘qi’ and essence along the kidney meridian. The meridians are energy channels that allow qi to flow throughout the body. Similar to the concept of shortening telomeres, we believe that both internal and external factors contribute to ageing in TCM.
What will I expect during the process of ageing and why is this a concern?
Typically, once we reach the peak of our lives at the age of 28 and 32 years old respectively for females and males, our bodily functions gradually start to decline. Many people do not see this as a problem since everyone has to go through this phase.
However, chronic diseases and conditions are on a rise worldwide and we now see an increasing trend of younger people having such conditions. This means that people are ageing ahead of their chronological age, due to a variety of reasons.
There is a need to have preventive measures in place before the onset of such conditions and TCM treatments are getting more popular in the prevention and slowing down of disease progression. Some of the signs and symptoms that accompany the process of ageing include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, decreased appetite, poor sleep, fatigue, incontinence, dizziness, gray hair, hair loss, fragile bones, etc. Although this is a natural process, the symptoms that accompany the ageing process can sometimes be very uncomfortable and at times, pose danger to our lives.
If these signs and symptoms are not controlled well, they often develop into chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and stroke. The tendency to succumb to illnesses increases as age progresses due to a decrease in bodily functions, which in turn lowers immunity. A decline in mental ability during the process of ageing could potentially result in dementia or psychiatric disorders such as depression.
What causes the development of ‘ageing’ diseases from a TCM perspective?
From a TCM perspective, age-related changes are mainly due to organ degeneration and exhaustion of fundamental substances (from a functional aspect).  When there is an imbalance of the fundamental substances, pathological changes take place and disease progression occurs.
1) Exhaustion of fundamental substances
The human body is made up of a continuous, dynamic system of fundamental substances such as qi, essence (jing), blood, body fluids and spirit (shen), that interact together to create the activities making up life. In the natural process of ageing, these substances gradually weaken and becomes depleted, slowing down bodily activities. This is reflected in the common signs of ageing, such as loss of hair, fragile bones, and gray hair.
2) Organ degeneration
The kidneys store the essence of life and have the most important role in the process of ageing. With depletion in the essence, the kidneys main function of propelling life and maintaining physiological balances fails and hence leads to a decline in vitality.
Another major organ that contributes to the process of ageing is the spleen, which is a manufacturer of qi, as well as a good storage place for qi. As we age, the function of the spleen in metabolizing nutrients decreases, and it is no longer able to ensure proper nourishment and replenishment of the body. The organs in our body become under-nourished and this contributes to various conditions such as fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite and poor sleep.
3) Accumulation of metabolic wastes
Environmental influences or lifestyle habits such as overeating, straining, inadequate exercise and stress contribute to the accumulation of metabolic wastes. As we age, the function of internal organs slow down and they can no longer remove metabolic wastes as effectively. In TCM, the San Jiao works to help remove metabolic waste and it is important to maintain its optimal function as we age.
How do TCM help patients with chronic diseases?
Fret not, as there is hope. Your biological age can be much younger than your chronological age with proper and timely intervention.
Herbal medication helps in countering chronic diseases by replenishing the fundamental substances. The active ingredients of herbs play a great part in the replenishment process. Herbs such as ginseng contains bio-active metabolites which help to increase lifespan and regulate the function of multiple organ systems, including the cardiovascular and nervous systems, through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Another common herb, gouqi, has been reported to mediate significant anti-ageing effects through anti-oxidant, immunoregulative, and anti-apoptotic activities and reducing DNA damage.
Acupuncture is the insertion of fine, thin needles through the skin at particular acupoints to help stimulate specific functions. Acupuncture typically increases blood circulation to the area, promotes elasticity of muscle fibers and improves muscular contractility. As such, it helps to stimulate collagen production, clear blockages, correct imbalances of Yin and Yang energy and promote self-healing of the body.
Massaging certain acupoints also helps in removal of toxins to improve conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Is TCM for every elderly patient?
Definitely! TCM is generally safe and non-invasive. TCM views the body as a whole and looks into balancing the fundamental substances and nourishing the organs which have deficiencies. TCM treatments have become a popular choice, not just amongst the Chinese community, as it has few or no side effects on the body. TCM targets the root cause of the problems, rather than addressing the symptoms only.
This article is written by Physician Kwek, Oriental Remedies Group.
Place of Practice: Oriental Remedies Group
Founded since 2013, Oriental Remedies Group has attracted a dedicated team of bilingual (English and Mandarin) physicians with combined more than 50 years of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) experience and certified therapists, with the common goal of providing the best patient care to our patients by combining the best of TCM treatments as well as modern integrative protocols.