Since the dawn of man, we’ve been searching for ways to escape our mortality. The long-sought “fountain of youth” may not lie in divine water or a miracle pill, but rather, in something as simple as the foods we eat and the way we live.
In 2016, for the first time in half a century, US life expectancies dropped for the second year in a row. That same year, the anti-aging market grew to $250 billion dollars, with Americans spending more on anti-aging products (like skin-care, supplements, etc) than on any other type of drug. Of course, most of these products are not FDA approved and largely ineffective (one exception is an omega-3 pill that can help prevent heart attacks for a select few).
The modern-day Ponce de Leon
Centuries ago, Ponce de Leon scouted Florida in search of the mythical fountain of youth. Today, researchers are following his misbegotten vision by peering into the depths of our cells and genes. Many avenues for studying (and hopefully slowing) the molecular process of aging have popped-up, and so far, most seem to converge around one answer: metabolism.
Metabolism is the process by which your body breaks down food to generate energy. Turns out that breaking down too much food, too quickly may do more than give you a stomach ache.
In the lab where I work at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, we study telomeres, which are the chromosomal equivalent of the little plastic cap on your shoelaces. Sitting on the tips of chromosomes, they protect your DNA from erosion.
However, the more your cells divide, the more the telomeres get worn away. Telomeres act as a molecular clock, and eventually everyone’s time runs out. After decades of divisions, your telomeres get so short that they reach their limit (known as Hayflick’s limit). At that point, your cells can either enter “crisis-mode” and become cancerous, or enter “senescence” and slowly wither away. This latter process is responsible for most of the symptoms of aging, like wrinkles, dementia or heart disease.
In a recent study, scientists at the University of Minnesota found that transplanting senescent (aged) cells into animal and human tissue could make healthy cells age, while using drugs which eliminate senescent cells could reverse the effects of aging. Of course, there’s a long way to go before we can determine the safety of these drugs and deliver them to all the cells of the body.
While reversing senescence is difficult, preventing senescence is actually relatively straightforward. As Dr. Robbins from the U Minnesota study said, “the [body’s] ability to deal with senescent cells is based 30% on genetics and 70% on environment.”
An apple a day affects your DNA
Back in the lab where I work, we have found a similar result: telomeres, which protect cells from becoming senescent, are especially prone to UV and metabolic damage. The more we eat, the faster our body processes that food, creating dangerous particles like free oxygen radicals which damage our DNA and wear away at our telomeres.
It seems our bodies evolved to break down food more conservatively when it is low and metabolize prodigiously when food is plentiful. The less we eat (especially less fatty and processed foods), the less metabolic damage we accumulate. Foods rich in antioxidants, like fruit, vegetables, coffee and even dark chocolate, may also help to slow this damage.
There’s still much to learn on the molecular level, but when it comes to our daily lives, the solution has been hiding in plain sight.
In recent studies, monkeys given 25% less to eat live decades longer, up to 130 in human years, while regular exercise has been shown to extend human lifespan by an average 4.5 years. It seems that tricking your metabolism to slow down is currently your best option to safeguard your DNA and extend your life.
The more we learn, the more we realize the answer has been sitting (or in this case, running, swimming or biking) in front of us the whole time. So before you try the next anti-wrinkle face cream or age-reversing supplement, think of your telomeres and your metabolism and visit the vegetable aisle instead.