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What Can Dogs Teach Us About Aging Well?

You and your canine may be able to participate in university research


(This story is part of an editorial partnership between the American Federation for Aging Research and Next Avenue.)

For the dog lovers among us, it is nothing short of tragic that the lives of our beloved pets are so short compared to ours.

My own first inkling of the ravages of aging, in fact, was observing the life trajectory of my childhood dog, a splotchy mutt who I creatively named Spot. As I entered my teens, Spot was a strong and sturdy adult. But when I went away to college and periodically returned home, I noticed that Spot was declining.

He gradually lost his eagerness to go for long walks. Then he could no longer jump up on his favorite couch. Eventually, he lost most of his hearing and control of his bladder. Before I graduated, he was gone.

During the intervening years, veterinary science has made steady progress at treating dog diseases and debilities. If you can afford it, your dog can now have his cataracts removed, his hip or knee replaced, and his heart, if needed, can receive a pacemaker. You can even have your pet cloned if that gives you any solace. Yet veterinary science has done little to try to lengthen a dog’s short arc of life.

Until now.

The Dog Aging Project

You may have heard that researchers investigating the biology of aging have made remarkable progress at discovering how to lengthen the healthy years of a laboratory mouse’s life. Now some of those researchers are using lessons learned from mice to try to change the trajectory of your pet dog’s life by prolonging its healthy years. And in doing so, they will likely be learning more about human aging and prolonging our health years as well.

The Dog Aging Project, directed by Matt Kaeberlein and Daniel Promislow of the University of Washington, focuses not on treating diseases but on how to prolong your dog’s healthy years.

One arm of the project ambitiously seeks to closely monitor the lifestyle and health of 10,000 pet dogs throughout their lives. The main goal of this project is to develop an understanding of the healthiest (and unhealthiest) lifestyle choices for your pet.

Exploring the Influence of Exercise, Heredity

Does canine health benefit from exercise, for instance, like human health does? If so, how much exercise is required, and what kind? Are there activities that keep your dog mentally sharp as he or she ages? Do some dogs have “longevity genes” that allow them to live exceptionally long lives in exceptionally good health?

Discovery of such genes could lead to the development of life-prolonging, health promoting medications or dietary supplements for your dog.

The Discovery of Rapamycin

Another arm of the Dog Aging Project is testing one such medication that has already shown remarkable results in mice. The drug rapamycin came to international attention nine years ago in a study published in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

In that study, it was discovered that compared to untreated mice, older mice (the equivalent of 60 human years old) given rapamycin in their food lived 30 percent longer from the time they began receiving the drug.

In the years since, rapamycin has further been shown in mice to prevent or slow the progress of several types of cancer, hardening of the arteries, heart malfunction, immune system aging, normal forgetfulness and Alzheimer’s disease. It has even reduced depression and anxiety.

What Rapamycin Has Done for Dogs

The first phase of The Dog Aging Project’s rapamycin study was aimed at ensuring that the drug was safe for dogs. Even in this small, preliminary study, however, the researchers found suggestions that heart health was improved by the drug and no significant side effects were seen. The second phase of the study is about to get underway.

The Dog Aging Project is a fine example of citizen science. If you are interested, you and your dog can apply to take part in the study. By doing so, you will not only participate in cutting-edge research that may provide immediate benefits for your pet but also ultimately help improve and prolong the health of many other dogs — and possibly humans as well.

Learn More About the Research

Recently, Kaeberlein led a webinar for the general public on the Dog Aging Project, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging’s Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in the Biology of Aging initiative. Watch the webinar here.

For more information about the Dog Aging Project and to find out if you and your dog may be eligible to enroll in the study, visit www.dogagingproject.com.

By Steven N. Austad
Steven N. Austad, Ph.D., is the scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research, the co-principal investigator of the National Institute of Aging’s Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence Coordinating Center, and a distinguished professor and department chair in the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His current research interests include figuring out why organisms age at different rates, particularly in especially long-lived organisms such as quahog clams and hydra. He is also interested in studying indicators of animal healthspan as well as the effects of rapamycin on mouse healthspan. He is author of more than 190 scientific articles and more than 100 newspaper columns on science. His book Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering About the Body’s Journey Through Life, has been translated into eight languages. Follow him on Twitter @StevenAustad.@AFARorg

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