FREE RADICALS AND THE THEORY OF AGING: Severe oxidative stress progressively leads to cell dysfunction and ultimately cell death. Oxidative stress is defined as an imbalance between pro-oxidants and/or free radicals on the one hand, and anti-oxidizing systems on the other. The oxygen required for living may indirectly be responsible for negative effects; these deleterious effects are due to the production of free radicals, which are toxic for the cells (superoxide anions, hydroxyl radicals, peroxyl radicals, hydrogen peroxide, hydroperoxides and peroxinitrite anions). Free radical attacks are responsible for cell damage and the targeted cells are represented by the cell membranes, which are particularly rich in unsaturated fatty acids, sensitive to oxidation reactions; DNA is also the target of severe attacks by these reactive oxygen species (ROS).
The defence systems: These are represented by the enzymes and free radical captors. The latter are readily oxidizable composites. The free radical captor or neutralization systems of these ROS use a collection of mechanisms, vitamins (E and C), enzymes [superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathion peroxidase (GPx) and others], and glutathion reductase (GSH), capable of neutralizing peroxinitrite. The efficacy of this system is dependent on the genome for the enzymatic defence systems, and on nutrition for the vitamins. Some strategies aimed at reducing oxidative stress-related alterations have been performed in animals. However, only a few can be used and are efficient in humans, such as avoidance of unfavourable environmental conditions (radiation, dietary carcinogens, smoking...) and antioxidant dietary supplementation.
Dietary supplementation: Epidemiological data suggest that antioxidants may have a beneficial effect on many age-related diseases: atherosclerosis, cancer, some neurodegenerative and ocular diseases. However, the widespread use of supplements is hampered by several factors: the lack of prospective and controlled studies; insufficient knowledge on the pro-oxidant, oxidant and ant-oxidant properties of the various supplements; growing evidence that free radicals are not only by-products, but also play an important role in cell signal transduction, apoptosis and infection control.
Recommendations: Although current data indicate that antioxidants cannot prolong maximal life span, the beneficial impact of antioxidants on various age-related degenerative diseases may forecast an improvement in life span and enhance quality of life. The current lack of sufficient data does not permit the systematic recommendation of anti-oxidants. Nevertheless, antioxidant-rich diets with fruit and vegetables should be recommended.