Around the world, researchers are testing all sorts of agents, some of which already exist as drugs to treat human conditions and some of which are purely experimental. Scientists are also toying with ways to manipulate genes and pull out aging cells, all in a race to find a way to extend longevity to its outer limits.
The basic mechanisms of ageing are being examined to find ways to counteract – or “cure” – them. The argument used to be a fantasy, but now is seen as scientific strategy.
Nobody is talking about living forever, but aging is the single most powerful factor in the diseases that are most likely to cut our lives short: cancer, heart problems, immune disorders and degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s. The main risk factors for heart disease are high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but even stronger is just being 70 years old. That’s wHy staving off aging – or at least slowing it – has become such a central focus of research
Rapamycin is a compound that seems to slow aging and the damage it can do, at least to certain cells. It has been given to a mouse – the average life span for a mouse is 2.5 years – and at age 3, he is still going strong. He has a shot at beating the record for longest-lived, which stands at about 4. Translated to a human life span, he’s hovering around the 100-year mark, but looks not different from his younger brethren. His liver and heart function are as if they were far younger, and his tendons have more spring and flexibility than they should at his age. There’s less evidence of tumors in his organs than is considered normal. Alongside other mice his age, the contrast is unmistakable.
Rapamycin is neat as it works in a wide range of species, from yeast, worms and flies to mice. It also works even when you start quite late in life, even in the 60s or 70s. It interrupts the function of the gene called mTOR that acts as a traffic signal for directing how cells take in and use energy. If there’s lots of food, the gene is active but when food gets scarce, the gene becomes less active, halting the cell-growing machinery until the next feeding time. This may explain the phenomenon of calorie restriction and its ability to prolong life. When cells are processing nutrients and growing, cells age considerably as they spew out toxic free radicals.
It is not the fountain of youth however. In mice, it results in a body size about 30% smaller than average, animals are more likely to develop cataracts and are more prone to diabetes, and males have a gradual loss of testicular function. In humans (where it is used in kidney transplants to lower the chance of organ rejection), it slightly increased the risk of diabetes.
Reseratrol. Found in grapes and red wine, it showed early promise in mice that gorged on high-fat diets, extending their lives, but wasn’t as impressive in helping animals on normal diets live longer. GlaxoSmithKline are still studying it.
Genes and Telomeres. Each time a cell divides, it copies its chromosomes’ DNA, and telomeres signal the end of the copying process. With each cell division, these final segments of DNA at the ends of chromosomes shorten – eventually disappearing altogether. An enzyme called telomerase lengthens them a little bit, to restore some of the DNA that’s lost. That doesn’t happen in people with telomere-syndrome conditions who develop bone disorders, liver failure and immune-system disorders. One form is dyskeratosis congenital (cosmetically, they also develop grey hair). It is important that with treatments that lengthen telomeres, that they not develop uncontrolled growth, as occurs in cancer.
GD11. This is a protein abundant in young animal’s blood but scarcer in older ones. Blood of young mice given to an aging animal causes more new nerve-cell gowht in the brains, their muscles were stronger and enlarging of the heart was reversed.
Klotho. Increasing the level in mice helps them live 30% longer. One in five people carries a version of the klotho gene that boosts its amount and these individual live an extra 3-4 years longer.
Removing Aging Cells. By seeking and pulling out dying cells in muscle, fat and eyes of mice helps them live longer.
Many questions remain. Are the cells of treated mice living longer because their cells are actually functioning like younger ones or because they’re simply delaying aging conditions? Research is not just about extending life indefinitely but rather extending a healthy life for a little bit longer.
WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO BE AN OLD PERSON?
Cities. Even though many people relocate in retirement, it may be best for you just to age in place. And for most, in 2015, that means growing old in a city. Today more than 80% of Americans and 54% of the population worldwide live in urban areas.
Factors that are important include: access to health and wellness services, crime rates, weather, housing job opportunities, transportation and suitability in terms of supporting social factors – including living arrangements, rates of volunteerism and availability of group enrichment programs, such as a at a library or university or YMCA.
The traffic, expense and hassle of city life may not sound like the traditional vision of the golden years, but easy access to health care and cultural stimulation help tip the balance in cities’ favor. Being able to walk around a pedestrian-friendly city and an on-demand transportation system designed for those who need it are important. Lots of people are another advantage for cities. Staying connected has benefits. As one ages, worlds tend to shrink, making our immediate neighborhoods all the more important. Micro-relationships and connections (like seeing the people one is used to, the sidewalks you’re used to walking down and the shops you’re used to frequent) are the relationships of reciprocity.
Mayors of cities around the globe have been encouraged to make their cities friendlier to older residents: affordable housing options, more accessible transportation and more ways to engage older people. But some cities may be aging faster than public policy is evolving. Rather than retiring to Florida and the Sun Belt, now 71% of baby boomers want to grow old where they spent most of their adult lives.
STRETCH YOUR TIME LINE
We are all in the throes of aging. But you’re never too old to do something to help maintain the wellness of your body. Different body parts start to falter at different ages:
Eyes – 40. To prevent eye disease, don’t smoke and wear sunglasses to keep out UV radiation to prevent cataract formation.
Muscles – 40. All of us lose muscle and gain fat as we age. Insert exercise in your routine if you want to avoid muscle decline.
Bones – 35. Bone mass declines up to 1% per year after age 35 and faster after menopause. Weight-bearing exercise like simply jumping 20 times twice a day can significantly improve hip-bone mineral density.
Lungs – 30. Lung function drops 1% a year and after 30 declines more rapidly in people who are sedentary. The antidote: exercise.
Skin – 18. Resilient collagen and stretchy elstin decline at about 1% per year. Slow it by not smoking, eating well, and wearing sunscreens every day even if you are indoors. Some compact fluorescent bulbs emit skin-damaging UV light.
Brain – 70. Age-related brain changes speed up at this age. Use activities that engage and stimulate you.
Ears – 60. Age-induced hearing loss happens gradually but is present in 1 in 3 people ages 65-74. Avoid loud music and wear noise protection if working in noisy industries like construction.
Heart – 65. With age, heart-muscle cells shrink in number but expand in size making your heart wall thicker. Arteries tend to get stiffer too. Starting at age 20-30, peak aerobic capacity drops by about 10% per decade and heart disease typically starts at age 65.
Kidneys – 50. Drink plenty of water and realize that thirst decreases with age.
Gut – 60. The villi in your intestine that absorb the nutrients in food, flatten out around age 60 and you absorb fewer nutrients.
HOW OUTLOOK CHANGES HOW YOU AGE
Your moods, feelings and thoughts all influence your physiology. If the mind can heal the body, can it also rejuvenate it? Or at the very least, slow the aging process? Research is showing that your outlook, your personality and frankly, how upbeat you are have a profound impact not just on how you feel but also on how your cells age. Anywhere you put the mind, you also put the body. It coms down to daily behavior and choices we make. Deciding to live better is the same as deciding to live younger.
Thinking is Doing. If it were possible to live as one did 40 years ago, performance can improve dramatically on virtually every metric. If you are 70, and you have the mind-set that you’re falling apart, then you do. If you believe that your work is a vigorous form of calorie-burning exercise, you will lose more weight than if you thought otherwise. Thinking young appears to make the body younger.
Telomeres and Telomerase (see above). Stress reduction is one way to prevent telomere shortening. Even with extra stress, those who practiced good health behaviors – exercise, eat well and sleep well – can maintain their telomere length. Being sedentary is the greatest risk factor. Telomere-shortening stress can start even before you are born. Improvements in exercise increase the amount of telomerase making telomeres grow. But telomerase supplements (synthetic or herbal) have no effect.
Another but: if telomeres never shorten, you get immortal cells (cancer). Some cancers up-regulate telomerase but others lower making telomeres less stable.
Chronic Inflammation. When you are anxious, the autonomic nervous system assumes some life-threatening challenge, the brain signals the adrenal gland to produce more epinephrine and cortisol, that signal the immune system to release proteins called inflammatory cytokines. These prepare white blood cells to fight infections or wounds. That works well when there is something real to fight, but if chronically stimulated, that results in inflammation, a friendlier environment for cancer, brain deterioration and cardiovascular disease, many of the main killers of aging. Battle this with a settled psychic state, through meditation and mindfulness exercises.
Meditation. Down-regulates a gene that codes for inflammation, one of the greatest drivers of aging.