The connection between aging and antioxidants lies in the fact that antioxidants work to prevent the damage caused by a class of molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals are a natural product of many of the body's processes, but may also enter the body from the environment. Once created or inside the body, free radicals can have destructive effects on the body's cells. A theory called the free radical theory of aging holds that many of the effects of aging, including numerous diseases, are caused or made worse by free radicals. If this is so, antioxidants, whether obtained through the diet or supplements, may slow or prevent some aspects of aging.
Free radicals are molecules that have an unpaired electron, which makes them very reactive. Due to their reactive nature, they can damage molecules like cholesterol, possibly turning it into more dangerous forms that can inflame blood vessels. This has led some researchers to suspect that aging and antioxidants may be related to the degree that antioxidants can halt the damage done by free radicals.
The negative effects of free radicals may accumulate over one's lifetime, which could mean that antioxidants prevent a host of progressive diseases and health conditions. For instance, free radicals can damage the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of cells, which could lead to mutations and eventually cancer. Free radicals may contribute to other diseases like atherosclerosis, commonly called hardening of the arteries. Antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins C and E may lower the risks associated with this condition, which has been considered a normal part of aging.
Studies of aging and antioxidants have sometimes come to conflicting results. What is certain, though, is that eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and legumes will insure the intake of many antioxidants. Flavanoids are a class of hundreds of plant molecules that give plants color, and many have antioxidant power. Some more common examples of antioxidant flavanoids include lycopene, beta-carotene, and anthocyanins. These can be found in tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and blueberries, respectively.
A number of other plant-based foods have a place in the aging and antioxidants discussion. Red wine contains a substance called resveratrol, which is known to be a powerful antioxidant. Tea, especially green tea, contains compounds called catechins, which are among the strongest antioxidant flavanoids. Dark chocolate is another good source of antioxidants. Along with such beverages, the best anti-aging diet probably includes a number of daily servings of fresh, brightly colored produce.