Last Year's Research on Aging Hints at What Lies Ahead
New discoveries furthered knowledge on extending health and longevity
(Editor’s note: This article is part of an editorial partnership between Next Avenue and the American Federation for Aging Research, a national nonprofit with a mission to support and advance healthy aging through biomedical research.)
The year 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the first gene in any animal that, when mutated, lengthened its life. In that case, the animal was a tiny worm; today, worms are the workhorses of aging research, but back then it was a novelty. The gene was called age-1, and it extended the worm’s life by 50 percent. That event marked a convenient beginning for modern aging research, the pace of which seems to be accelerating each year.
In 2018, the field of aging research learned more about the science behind what you can do to keep yourself healthier, for longer, as you grow older. Likewise, investigators gained new insight into the biology of aging and age-related illnesses. To anticipate what lies ahead, let’s look at what we learned in the past year.
Nutrition and Diets
2018 taught us that when it comes to healthy aging, it’s not just what you eat, but when. We learned that periodic fasting — eating all you want in a six- to nine-hour time period each day and fasting the other 18 hours — can be beneficial to your health, whether or not it causes you to lose weight.
In fact, it is possible that much of the long-known benefits of extreme dieting, known as calorie restriction, may be due to the timing of your eating as much as to the amount. (Learn more in this Next Avenue webinar with experts Dr. Valter Longo and Dr. Satchin Panda.) Microbes in our digestive system also may play a role in such health benefits, studies show.
New Information about Popular Supplements
Vitamin D and fish oil have long been thought to help prevent cancer and serious heart-related problems. However, science has shown otherwise.
In 2018, the biggest experimental study of its type found that Vitamin D and fish oil had no preventative impact on cancer or cardiovascular disease when given to healthy people in their 50s. Moreover, in an experimental study of people 65 and older, daily baby aspirin also was found not to lengthen life. In fact, it had a slight life-shortening outcome.
Exercise and Longevity
As I explored in my April column, several studies further proved the connection between physical activity and longevity.
Regular bicycling was discovered to boost the immune system of older people. Exercise also was found to help prevent dementia and retard the stiffening of the arteries that typically accompanies aging. Hand-grip strength was associated with better brain health.
People with low cardiovascular fitness in midlife were found to die almost as early as smokers, but those with high cardiovascular fitness lived longer than average and were less likely to be depressed.
Gender and Longevity
Last year particularly held a mirror to gender in America, but in the biology of aging, women are on top. The field has long understood that women typically live longer than men in normal times. But in 2018, it was discovered that women also survive better during periods of severe famine and severe epidemics.
Also related to gender, older women are less likely to die after hospitalization than are men, suggesting they are more resilient.
Having two X chromosomes, as women do, increased survival in mice even if they had been genetically engineered to have male reproductive organs.
In China, new gene variants were found to associate with long life in men, but different variants were associated with longevity in women.
Drugs that Can Extend Health
Lastly, in 2018, we learned more about how we can extend health from the inside out. Drugs closely related to rapamycin, a drug which lengthens life and staves off many diseases of aging in mice, were found to protect against infectious diseases and boost influenza vaccine protection in older people.
A drug that targets mitochondria, the source of your cells’ energy, improved muscle strength in older mice, although not in younger ones.
A natural product found in apples and several other plants called fisetin killed off dysfunctional “zombie cells” in older mice and extended their lives.
Although not a drug exactly, another promising intervention showed how a previously unknown hormone, produced by your body’s own mitochondria, slowed the rate of mental decline in mice and was associated with younger cognitive age in people.
Every day, scientists at leading research institutions nationwide are working to move these discoveries from the labs into our lives as soon as possible. We’ll explore more exciting findings in upcoming columns on Next Avenue. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings and to share it with you.