Wine & Aging
by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station
This week's article will focus on the benefit of wine consumption on aging and the ageless nature of the island. Recently I was reading in Time an article on aging which discussed the huge difference in today’s’ current aging population, which is living longer and living much more healthy and active lifestyles, as opposed to traditions in aging from the past few decades. The article’s author, Catherine Mayer, called this phenomenon amortality.
A fascinating part of the article recounted a famous experiment conducted by noted Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and a team of psychologists in 1979 called the Counterclockwise Study. Her team took two small groups of elderly men and set them up in living quarters with the accoutrements of a 1959 home with items and memorabilia from the late 1950s scattered about strategically. Every detail was designed to recreate the time period from music to news to fashion. One group was told to view this as a time machine experiment in which they were literally plunked down in 1959; the other group was encouraged to enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere, but were not instructed to perceive it as actually 1959. Within a week, both groups experienced improvements in hearing and memory recall. Both groups also reported feeling reinvigorated and younger and their mobility improved. The group that most benefited from the experiment were the gentlemen told to most inhabitant the 1959 time period. They not only looked younger in “before and after” pictures as judged by impartial observers, but their fingers were longer and they performed better on IQ and dexterity tests. I assume this means all Elvis impersonators not only look younger but feel younger! Essentially just believing or perceiving oneself as younger led to actual measurable positive effects. Dr. Langer has distilled this study and the 40 years of research she and other scientists have conducted through a variety of experiments designed to determine the influence human perception has on quality of life in a 2009 book entitled “Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.” Jennifer Aniston is said to be working on adapting Ellen Langer’s experiment into a movie called appropriately, “Counterclockwise” www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/02/21/mind_power/.
So what does the topic of aging have to do with the Wine Festival? As a chemical oceanographer, I am always interested in chemicals we find in nature and a powerful antioxidant profile linked to anti-aging effects can be found in one of our native plants, the fox grape or vitis labrusca grape. You might recall a Yesterday’s Island article I wrote in May of 2008 about our local grape varietal (www.yesterdaysisland.com/2008/features/foxgrape.php), which grows on hardy vines that thrive in sandy soils and covers large portions of the entire island of Nantucket. “Vitis” is Latin for “vine” and “Labrusca” is the early Latin name for "wild vine.” Fox grapes are extremely hearty and able to survive our cold winters and the salt spray. They are also some of the most aromatic of grape species. The majority of Vitis labrusca grape varieties are red with dark colored berries high in phenolic compounds that produced strongly flavored wines. As the berries near harvest and become fully ripe, they separate easily from the pedicel (berry stem). If the berry is squeezed gently between two fingers, the thick skin will slip easily off leaving the pulp intact as a ball. This trait gives Vitis labrusca the name of "slip skin" grapes. Another trait of labrusca that aids ampelographers (a beautiful word derived from the Greek words for “vine” and “writing” that describes the field of botany concerned with the classification and identification of grapevines) in determining whether vines and hybrid varieties are descended from the species is the presence of large, thick leaves with a hairy underside with dense brown or white hairs.
The enjoyment of wine and the Wine Festival is greatly aided by celebrating the nature of things that are both ageless and related to the soil. Both “terroir” (which can be defined as a “specificity of place” including soil, climate, vines themselves) and age are important factors in the many complex characteristics associated with fine wines. If you had to pick a metaphor for the appreciation of Nantucket, a decent choice would be wine. Not only is Nantucket ageless, but its existential nature is intrinsic to the soil and geology that created this little spit of sand 26 miles from the mainland. And of course the preservation of many historical aspects of the island and of its land also lends one to occupying a space that is timeless in many ways.
One of the many constituents of wine and other grape related products is resveratrol, which is a polyphenolic chemical that has been linked to slowing the aging process in humans. While present in other plants, such as eucalyptus, spruce, and lily, and in other foods such as mulberries and peanuts, resveratrol's most abundant natural sources are Vitis vinifera, labrusca, and muscadine grapes, which are used to make wines. It occurs in the vines, roots, seeds, and stalks, but its highest concentration is in the skin. Resveratrol is a phytoalexin, a class of antibiotic compounds produced as a part of a plant's defense system against disease. Since fungal infections are more common in cooler climates, grapes grown in cooler climates have a higher concentration of reveratrol. The resveratrol content of wine is related to the length of time the grape skins are present during the fermentation process. Thus the concentration is significantly higher in red wine than in white wine, because the skins are removed earlier during white-wine production, lessening the amount that is extracted.
A Mayo Clinic article (www.mayoclinic.com/health/red-wine/HB00089) includes an important caveat regarding these studies (specifically with resveratrol) which is that the majority of research trials have been conducted on mice and not through human clinical studies. It has been well documented in several clinical tests that alcohol in moderation (approximately one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men) does have a variety of measurable and significant medical benefits. This Yale New Haven Hospital link (www.ynhh.org/about-us/red_wine.aspx) details the coronary benefits that come from drinking red wine including that it: reduces low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) also known as the bad cholesterol; that it boosts the high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, a.k.a., the good cholesterol; and that it reduces blood clotting and hence thins the blood. Additional research has shown that regular moderate use can lessen one’s risk of stroke and heart attack as long as counteractive behaviors and diet are not indulged (doesn’t let you get away with excess saturated fats for instance – so put down that bacon). Another study found that it helped nerve cells regrow and could be linked to improvements in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients. Hopefully those reading this remember to savor wine and don’t run out right now for the largest jug they can find. Remember that word “moderation”? We’ll see below that it’s not all “wine and roses” for some folks.
Which wine should you choose if you are looking for health benefits? The article Yale/New Haven article elaborates: “Researchers at the University of California at Davis tested a variety of wines to determine which types have the highest concentrations of flavonoids. Their results concluded that the flavonoid favorite is Cabernet Sauvignon, followed closely by Petit Syrah and Pinot Noir. Both Merlots and red zinfandels have fewer flavonoids than their more potent predecessors. White wine had significantly smaller amounts than the red wine varieties. The bottom line is the sweeter the wine, the fewer the flavonoids. Dryer red wines are your best bet for a flavonoid boost.” I am pretty sure that is what the movie “Sideways” was trying to tell us.
There are some medical conditions that are aggravated or triggered by the consumption of red wine or other alcohols such as higher incidences of migraines and slightly higher breast cancer risk ratios, higher levels of triglycerides and weight gain and addiction, so care should be taken when imbibing any alcohol. WebMD (search term “wine” under vitamins and supplements) warns us that using alcohol can make chest pain and congestive heart failure worse and that it can also trigger asthma attacks and worsen pancreatis and gout.
All in all, I think you can feel pretty safe and maybe even a tiny bit virtuous at the various tasting dinners and events this week. Make sure to get out there and walk some of our beautiful trails and get that heart pumping. Here on the ageless beauty that is Nantucket, where areas of the island have not changed much in over 400 years and surrounded by wonderful grapes that are close relatives of the ones you’re enjoying at the Wine Festival, if you can't feel young here, then you can't feel young anywhere!