Aging is not a disease, as it affects everyone. Each day we age, and our risk of developing illnesses increases. By reducing illness, we may enable ourselves to live longer. However, beyond the age of 90, over 70 percent of us are dependent and often in nursing homes. Our goal should not be a longer but rather a better, more independent life.
The key question is: Will we ever find the fountain of youth, prevent aging and prolong life? Scientific breakthroughs have made this elusive goal more understandable and feasible. Knowledge of the aging process and mechanisms leading to the common diseases that occur in late life is increasing rapidly. Scientists firmly believe that someday there will be a discovery offering the promise of significantly prolonging the quality and quantity of our lives.
Recently a study published in the journal Science showed that resveratrol, an antioxidant in red wine, that prolongs life in worms, flies and mice, stimulates the production of a protein called surtuin. This protein prevents disease by speeding up energy production in cells. The research showed that resveratrol stimulates a unique gene that leads to the increased production of surtuin. Dr. David Sinclair, the senior author of the study, suggests that research like this my lead to the development of compounds that can prolong life and prevent disease.
Like resveratrol, many compounds have been shown to prolong life in animals. But of all the approaches to prolonging life, the most successful has been calorie restriction. In the nematode, flies, mice, rats and even monkeys restricting calorie intake by 30 percent prolongs average and maximum life expectancy by as much as 30 percent. These animals remain healthy, do not suffer from many age-related illnesses and almost always the cause of death is “old age.” In other words, an autopsy fails to find any significant disease.
And excitingly, scientists have identified a number of so called “longevity genes” that can be sophisticatly manipulated to create a long-lived species. Increased production of these genes can lead to strains of species that have substantially longer life expectancies. This approach offers the potential of manipulating female eggs or sperm in a way that garauntees longer and more disease-free life.
Each of these breakthroughs in prolonging life has, so far, only been confirmed in animals, whose lives are remarkably different from man. They are very inbred, are all identical to each other, live in sterile, highly controlled environments at a constant temperature, always eat the same food, and every aspect of their existance is rigidly controlled.
Not so for man. We live in the wild. Our genetic profiles vary significantly, making each of us uniquely different from each other. In man, the best predictor of longevity is having long-lived parents. And how we age depends on a complex interaction between the individual with his environment over time. In other words, our genetic composition can predict our life expectancy and susceptability to disease. But this is substantially modified by our diet, the stressors in our lives and our ability to cope, whether we smoke, our socioeconomic status, environmental pollution, the level of public health programs and sanitation.
While we cannot choose our parents, we all have the capacity to live healthier lives. Eat right, exercise and learn how to cope with stress and a longer and better life will be assured. But these benefits are small compared to the dramatic prolongation of life seen in calorically restricted mice. While some studies have shown that restricted food intake and proper exercise leads to positive changes in a series of blood tests that are associated with a longer and healthier life, no strategy in man currently offers the prediction of living to 120 years or more.
The more we learn about the aging process and the better we understand the fundamental mechanisms leading to the common diseases afflicting us, the more likely that a time will come when the fountain of youth becomes a reality. We may well find a magic pill that offers the hope of greater longevity and, who knows, even immortality. Life teaches us that nothing is ever impossible.
Dr. David Lipschitz is the director of the Dr. David Health and Wellness Center in Little Rock. To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz, visit www.drdavidhealth.com