The search for the mythical fountain of youth may have ended with Ponce de Leon, but millions of us hold out hope that science will discover the secret to beat aging, the special formula that will keep our skin, and our insides, from displaying the wear and tear of our years.
So we scour the media for news of the latest studies and claims that this or that compound or herb can slow the aging process and improve both our appearance and quality of life. One recent source of optimism has been resveratrol, a chemical compound found in some foods and drinks many of us already consume. An antioxidant of the group known as polyphenols, resveratrol is plentiful in the skins and peels of grapes, berries and certain other fruits. It is found in both white and red wine, but in much greater quantity in red varieties.
Multiple studies, all on mice, have shown that resveratrol may have a number of heart-healthy benefits, such as preventing damage to blood vessels, decreasing clots, lowering cholesterol, hindering inflammation and warding off stroke. But some of the most intriguing research is focused on its potential as a general anti-aging agent.
How It Works
New research seems to confirm the theory that resveratrol, by stimulating the cellular proteins known as sirtuins, can promote longer cell life in the body. Researchers had previously found that resveratrol, among other natural and synthetic compounds, appeared to stimulate the proteins. But they did not know exactly how it did so or how to incorporate the compound into potential anti-aging treatments.
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The new findings, from a group led by Dr. David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School, a member of the team that originally discovered resveratrol's effect on sirtuins in 2003, observed that the compound stimulated the proteins directly. Specifically, resveratrol appears to help increase the activity of mitochondria, which produces energy within cells, potentially extending their lives.
The study's conclusions could open the door for research into resveratrol-mimicking drugs that could inhibit conditions common to aging, including heart disease, cognitive decline and even type 2 diabetes. "Now that we know where and how resveratrol works," Sinclair said in a statement, "we can engineer even better molecules that more precisely and effectively trigger its effects."
The research is encouraging, but unfortunately, you can't just down a bowlful of grapes every now and then to receive those anti-aging benefits. Some experts suggest that if one relied on red wine alone to gain the lasting effects found in studies of mice and rats, it would require drinking more than 60 liters a day.
Some marketers have made resveratrol supplements available, but they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the dosage in any particular product can vary widely, from 75 milligrams to more than 1,000 milligrams. Also, studies have not found any preventive benefit from current supplements for people already in good health.
It's also important to check in with your doctor before taking resveratrol or any other purported anti-aging supplement. Research on humans has not yet uncovered any severe side effects, but experts believe resveratrol could limit the efficacy of some medications, like blood thinners or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs taken for arthritis and pain. The fact that resveratrol is a natural compound also limits researchers' ability to patent it for use as a medical treatment, which is one reason why future anti-aging treatments are expected to rely on synthetic versions.
Fighting Cancer, Hearing Loss and More
Other research into resveratrol's benefits continues to gain attention from a hopeful public. A recent conference held by the University of Leicester in Britain featured 65 separate presentations on such topics as the compound's potential to reduce tumor development and how its wider use could cut cases of bowel cancer nearly in half. Here's what else we've discovered about resveratrol lately:
An aid in fighting cancer Michael Nicholl, an assistant professor of surgical oncology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, recently published studies showing that resveratrol can boost the effect of radiation treatment on prostate tumor cells in a laboratory setting, thereby increasing the likelihood of a patient's full recovery from even the most aggressive cases of the disease.
"Other studies have noted that resveratrol made tumor cells more susceptible to chemotherapy and we wanted to see if it had the same effect for radiation therapy," Nicholl said in a statement. Prostate tumors contain low levels of the proteins perforin and granzyme B, which can kill diseased cells. When Nicholl's team introduced resveratrol into the tumors, it increased the proteins' activity and enabled radiation to destroy up to 97 percent of cancer cells. "We were able to kill many more tumor cells when compared with radiation alone," he said in his statement.
This treatment has not yet been used on human cells, and clinical trials are at least a few years away. As Nicholl's research points out, his approach faces the same stumbling block as other potential therapeutic uses of resveratrol – the high doses needed for it to be effective. "The body processes this compound so efficiently that a person needs to ingest a lot of resveratrol to make sure enough of it ends up at the tumor site," he said. But consuming such a large amount of the compound could lead to severe discomfort in patients. "Because of that challenge," he said, "we have to look at different delivery methods for this compound to be effective."
A guard against hearing loss A study from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit found that healthy rats were less likely to suffer the effects of noise-induced hearing loss when they were given resveratrol before long-term exposure to loud noise. The research may have even more extensive implications. "Our study focuses on resveratrol and its effect on bioinflammation, the body’s response to injury and something that is believed to be the cause of many other health problems, including Alzheimer's disease and cancer," lead author Michael Seidman, director of the Division of Otologic/Neurotologic Surgery at the hospital, said in a statement. "Resveratrol is a very powerful chemical that seems to protect against the body’s inflammatory process as it relates to aging, cognition and hearing loss."
In identifying the means by which resveratrol protects hearing, the study sought to gain insight into its potential effect on other inflammation-related conditions, including cognitive decline. As in the radiation study, researchers focused on the compound's effect on specific proteins in the body – in this case, its ability to inhibit the common inflammatory protein cyclooxygenase-2, commonly known as COX-2.
What You Can Do Now
Interestingly, in the anti-aging studies of animals, resveratrol appeared to imitate the beneficial effects of calorie restriction in warding off such conditions as diabetes and heart disease by promoting extended cell life. This finding, of course, raises the question of what else we can do now, aside from sharply reducing the amount of calories we consume, or taking unproven resveratrol supplements, to extend our healthy years.
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According to the federal National Institute on Aging, sustained good health can be the payoff for a range of actions, including exercising, or at least moving more; quitting smoking; protecting yourself from exposure to the sun; limiting stress; eating healthy, or at least healthier; and stimulating your brain, especially with new challenges.
If we start to follow these steps today, we'll be well prepared if a magical anti-aging pill never arrives.