Researchers are starting to piece together a roadmap to end the one condition we’re all born with and for which there is no cure: aging. And though science cannot hold back the chronological sands of time and there is yet no magic elixir for living longer, some scientists predict that in our lifetime, medical advances will enable us to enjoy our centenarian years active, healthy, and well.
It comes down to genetics and research that is rapidly advancing biomedical technologies to help the body rejuvenate by repairing and regenerating damaged cells and organs.
In 2007 genetic scientists at Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI) in La Jolla, California, launched the Wellderly study. For 10 years they looked at the entire genome sequence of more than 1,400 exceptionally healthy individuals who are 80 to 105 years old with no common chronic diseases. The goal of the study was to see what genetic factors are involved in mediating a long and healthy life (i.e., health-span versus lifespan).
What scientists found is that the elderly-well have an abundance of genetic variants associated with living to 100 and beyond, and they have discovered a possible link between long-term cognitive health and protection from chronic, age-related diseases.
What scientists found is that the elderly-well have an abundance of genetic variants associated with living to 100 and beyond.
“We didn’t find a silver bullet,” says Dr. Ali Torkamani, director of genome informatics. “There isn’t any one simple explanation — aging is a complex disease, and healthy aging is a complex combination of many different things. But we found that our study group have a higher-than-normal presence of genetic variants that protect against cognitive decline and have a lower genetic risk for chronic conditions, including coronary disease and Alzheimer’s.”
Dr. Torkamani says he and his colleagues are not certain how, exactly, preservation of cognitive function is related to healthy aging. He hypothesizes that it could just be that if you’re older and cognitive function is declining, you don’t take care of yourself, whereas if your mind works well, you engage in behaviors to preserve your health. “Of course, there’s a strong connection between the brain and all the organs in our body, so there could be a more biological link between brain function and healthy function of other organs.” There is much to study, and it’s why SRI has made the Wellderly Study genetic dataset available to other researchers.
A Roadmap to Healthy Aging
Former University of Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey doesn’t beat around the bush. “Aging kills us,” he says bluntly. “In a nutshell, aging is basically the process of metabolism, which is everything that goes on in our bodies that keeps us alive from one day to the next. And like the aging of mechanical things like cars and planes, the more it’s used, the more damage is caused.”
De Grey is VP of new technology discovery at AgeX Therapeutics and chief science officer at SENS Research Foundation in Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that funds academic and private sector research focusing on regenerative medicine and therapies that he says will make 70-year-olds have the health of 20-year-olds — including, among others, stem cell therapy, gene therapies, and immunotherapies.
“Longevity,” de Grey says, “is a side effect of not getting sick. Stop people getting sick at any age and we’ll all live longer — unless we get hit by an asteroid.”
Longevity is a side effect of not getting sick. Stop people getting sick at any age and we’ll all live longer.
In the meantime, don’t burn your workout clothes and reach for the ice cream, because keeping in shape and eating right remains a critical part of the biological complexity of healthy aging.
“[SENS and STSI] have got hold of the future there, but little of it is actionable yet, and there’s good evidence that healthy aging isn’t just genetic,” says internist Dr. Keith Roach, who teaches clinical medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and is an associate attending physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “Aging well is most certainly complex, and our health behavior choices can have a significant impact on living a healthier, longer life.”
Dr. Roach is co-creator of the RealAge Test, a science-based interactive health-risk assessment that predicts your health age versus your chronological age based on good and bad behaviors as well as conditions, and says most people think diet is everything. “But it’s not. It’s a piece of the puzzle, but a smaller piece. If you eat fish a few times a week and have high levels of omega fatty acids in your blood, yes, you’ll be less likely to get dementia.” But he says studies have proven that regular vigorous exercise, especially in middle age, predicts longevity. “You will live as much as 12 years longer and be a lot less likely to develop dementia.”
So while we wait for the future of rejuvenation technologies and gene therapies to keep us well in our old age, we still need to eat right and exercise right. And keep our fingers crossed about that asteroid.