Can we defend ourselves against aging?

January 3, 2020

Is it possible to stay healthy, despite your age? The demography of the world, not just in developed countries, has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. There are more people over the age of 65 than children under the age of five, and the number of seniors will be 2.5- to 3-fold higher in the near future. As a result, the aging population is the climate change of healthcare. We have to adapt to this new world and develop interventions—and develop a defense plan, if you will—to keep people functional, healthy, and free from frailty and other chronic conditions as they get older.

Lifespan is described as how long we live, while healthspan is essentially how long we stay healthy, free from disease, and retain our ability to remain active and functional. We’ve been making solid progress at extending lifespan for the last 100 years, but we’ve not really been able to make improvements to healthspan at the same pace. The end result: we’re keeping people alive longer, but we’re also keeping them sick longer.

Aging increases our risk of incurring a wide range of chronic conditions, adversely impacting our healthspan. These conditions not only affect us emotionally and mentally, but also can take a physical toll on our bodies. Problems with our bones, vision, hearing, body composition (loss of muscle), and our immunity complicate our health, life, and social interactions as we get older.

Regarding our health, there has been considerable time and effort spent, for instance, in educating consumers to try to control cholesterol levels for better cardiovascular health. But aging is a much bigger risk factor than cholesterol for poor cardiovascular health (and practically everything else). As such, the causes of aging itself should be targeted. When you consider all the hospitalizations, medicines, and treatments a sick individual receives, it becomes crucial for families to formulate their own “aging defense plan” to minimize the health and financial risks associated with getting older.

What would a defensive plan for aging look like? Start with the basics: limit stress, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. Regarding the latter, participate in a sustainable resistance training program and cardiovascular workouts. When it comes to diet, consider eating whole foods and staying away from processed foods. Eat foods rich in antioxidants, and try to eat all meals within 12-hour—or, even better, 8-hour—windows, while fasting at all other times.

We’ve known that reducing calorie intake extends lifespan and believe that calorie restriction taps into mechanisms that tell our cells to be resistant to stress. Yet most of us overeat. Getting in line with the FDA-recommended calorie intake (around 2200 per day for adult males) will likely be beneficial.

Another approach that shows promise is establishing a baseline and tracking your biological (or epigenetic) age. There are two types of age: chronological (what’s on your driver’s license) and biological/epigenetic (what your DNA predicts your age to be). What was once an invasive blood test can now be taken in your home with saliva. Biological/epigenetic age takes a look at DNA’s methylation profile, shedding possible light on the need for more dramatic health interventions.

Finally, consider taking dietary supplements that have been shown scientifically, particularly in mammals, to work on one or more known pathways of aging. For example, research conducted on mice in labs by our teams at both the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and the National University of Singapore focused on developing natural alternatives to improving lifespan and healthspan. Because mice and humans age in very similar ways and share very similar DNA, we are optimistic these results will translate into humans. Our results showed daily consumption of calcium alpha-ketoglutarate (Ca-AKG), for instance, led to a modest improvement in lifespan of 12%. Perhaps even more importantly, the Ca-AKG led to a 41% improvement in healthspan and 46% reduction in frailty. A copy of the study and findings can be found here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/779157v1.

By improving healthspan and reducing frailty, the scientific objective is to postpone and, if possible, shorten the suffering that typically accompanies our senior years. Ultimately, doing this will allow us to live more independently, with less emotional and financial strain on ourselves, as well as our loved ones.

 

Brian K. Kennedy, PhD, has an international reputation for his work in the basic biology of aging. He became the Buck Institute’s second CEO in July 2010, coming from the University of Washington in Seattle, where he served in the Department of Biochemistry. He is currently a professor and Director of the Centre for Healthy Ageing at the National University of Singapore. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Kennedy has published more than 190 manuscripts in prestigious journals, including Cell, Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a co-editor-in-chief of the journal Aging Cell and is commonly called upon to review grants for the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. He currently serves as the chief science officer at supplements brand Ponce De Leon Health. Learn about some of his research at https://rejuvant.com.