Aging Research: Fit Forever?

Art Nouveau for everyone: For decades, scientists have been looking for ways in which people age more slowly and live healthily longer - and they are getting closer and closer to the dream

Aging is part of life, but research shows that some health problems can be postponed

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Everyone wants to know his secret. Gustav Gerneth was asked on his 100th birthday. And also with his 114th How do you get that old? One of his answers: "Good butter, no margarine. Diet is out of the question." Until his death on October 21, 2019, the man from Havelberg was not only the oldest German, but also the oldest living man in the world.

Supercentenarians are what scientists call people who live to be 110 years of age or older, many even in good health. For aging researchers like Björn Schumacher, they are a motivating phenomenon. "They show us that it is possible to live a very long time in good health," said the professor for genome stability in aging and disease at the University of Cologne.

Active anti-aging

Stop aging - that dream is pretty old in itself. But anyone who talks to geneticists, biologists, stem cell researchers or doctors today quickly realizes that not everything about this wishful thinking is unrealistic. "Many research results point in a similar direction: aging processes can be positively influenced," says Professor Luigi Fontana, professor of nutritional sciences and aging researcher at the University of Sydney. The dream is getting closer to reality, bit by bit.

In Californian Silicon Valley, which is a promised land especially for high-tech companies, people don't want to wait so long for the future. "Active anti-aging" is good form there, and not just among managers. Technical aids are supposed to improve sleep or optimize sport, and hormones or dietary supplements keep the body young.

Fountain of youth as a source of money

One of the stars of the movement is the biologist and geneticist David Sinclair. "No biological, chemical or physical law says that life must end," the Harvard professor writes in his latest book.

Sinclair does not mind the fact that such statements call investors on the scene, who in their eternal youth see above all a business model. After all, he himself founded several biotechnology companies that bring anti-aging substances to the market.

Skepticism is definitely in order. As well as the question of how far science is on the way to healthy aging for everyone. Behind the development of cancer, wrinkles or dementia are complex processes in which genes, cells, their metabolism or their communication are involved. In addition, there are environmental influences and the individual lifestyle.

The worm and long life

A tiny nematode provides many answers to the big questions about life and death. Caenorhabditis elegans is only a millimeter in size and usually has exactly 959 cells. For that, geneticists and aging researchers love him. For comparison: a person is made up of billions of cells.

Particularly long-lived specimens of Caenorhabditis elegans were identified 30 years ago. Ten years later, US biology professor Cynthia Kenyon discovered that a certain gene is responsible, among other things. If it was switched off, the animals lived twice as long. Björn Schumacher also works with Caenorhabditis elegans. However, with those that age particularly quickly due to a genetic defect.

One of the decisive factors for aging is the ability of our cells to repair genetic material. And there is a lot of work involved: "The DNA is constantly damaged. 10,000 damage in every single cell, every single day," says Schumacher. Using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, scientists were able to show how cells proceed in order to continue to function.

On the trail of the secret

They can activate a kind of longevity program via certain signaling pathways. Schumacher reports that there are still no ways to specifically call up this program in humans. Nevertheless, the results are a ray of hope. "With such signaling pathways there is at least a chance that they can be reached and influenced via active ingredients and drugs."

Research in recent years has also discovered some new things about what makes organisms age. In an article in the journal Cell, international scientists have recorded what they consider to be the nine most important aspects of aging processes.

Side effects of time: where aging processes begin in the body

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Not only the stability of the genome, but also the stem cells play an important role - those quick-change artists among cells that can develop into skin, blood or intestinal cells as required.

What blood-forming stem cells are all about

"The so-called blood-forming stem cells play an important role in the immune system," says Professor Hartmut Geiger, Director of the Institute for Molecular Medicine at Ulm University. Blood stem cells can divide almost indefinitely to make new blood cells.

However, nothing should go wrong. "You can imagine it a bit like an industrial production line, where 200,000 parts have to be put together correctly," explains Geiger. "If you don't have order there, you don't really need to start." But as stem cells age, chaos reigns - and that affects the results of your work.

Rejuvenation processes are possible in the laboratory

Geiger and his colleagues discovered why this is so a few years ago. A protein called RhoGTPase Cdc42 is hyperactive in aging cells and messes up processes.

With a certain substance, the researchers succeeded in clocking the protein down again. As a result, old, blood-forming stem cells functioned as before. Even the immune system rejuvenated.

So far, this has only been proven in laboratory tests. But everything indicates that such a rejuvenation process could also work in humans. A thought that even scientists still have to get used to. Geiger: "Ten years ago it wasn't clear to me that something like this would really work."

Studies of questionable informative value

It usually takes a long time before the findings from basic research can actually be tested on humans. Even if some companies pretend that the lengthy process can simply be shortened.

Recently, for example, a US biologist presented the public to nine test subjects who had taken a combination of the growth hormone hGH, another hormone-like substance and the diabetes drug metformin for two years. According to the scientist, the pill mix led to a rejuvenation of the test subjects by 2.6 years.

Björn Schumacher views the results with skepticism. On the one hand, each test person received a differently dosed drug cocktail, on the other hand, there was no control group. The experiment was also problematic because growth hormones had long been considered to be potentially carcinogenic.

In addition: "So far there is simply no method to precisely measure such alleged rejuvenation effects in humans," says Schumacher.

The biohacker phenomenon

This creates misconceptions about research in public, criticizes stem cell expert Geiger: "Some may ask, why don't we do what these Americans do and just take these substances? And then we see what happens?"

Self-experiment or serious research: with some anti-aging optimists, the transitions are fluid. So-called biohackers are not only found in Silicon Valley: people who try to intervene in biological processes in order to optimize them.

The test with yourself

The most popular subjects of study for biology hobbyists are usually themselves. They draw suggestions and inspiration from publications by renowned scientists, among other things. For example, some take the diabetes drug metformin even though they are actually healthy.

The reason: The biohacker community has known for a long time that the drug lowers blood sugar as well as cholesterol levels and perhaps protects against diseases such as dementia and cancer. There are more promising data for the drug rapamycin. In studies, it was able to measurably slow down the aging process.

However, it is only approved for patients after an organ transplant, as it suppresses the immune system - with considerable side effects. Biohackers, especially in the USA, are not deterred by this.

Calorie brake for a long life

Geiger, who used a certain substance to rejuvenate stem cells for his basic research, has also received inquiries. "You have to honestly say: something like that just doesn't work!"

Mainly because there are easier and safer ways to slow down the aging process. The low-calorie diet has been particularly well researched. As early as the 1930s, nutritionist Clive McCay found that rats that were put on a diet lived about a third longer than their peers.

In the 1980s, two studies with rhesus monkeys started in the USA. In fact, a calorie brake brought some monkeys a biblical age of 40 years. Normally these animals do not get older than 30. The more important effect: the monkeys on diet were all healthier and fitter than their normally eaten conspecifics.

Natural menu

Phases of starvation can trigger an energy-saving mode in cells, which enables them to cope better with damage. "From what we know so far about aging processes, nutrition is the most important intervention," says Luigi Fontana, a researcher on calorie restriction research. In the Calerie study, he investigated that this also works in humans.

About 200 subjects took part. Half of them were allowed to eat normally. The others should count calories and consume a quarter less energy. After two years it was clear: the subjects in the diet group were less disciplined than hoped, they had only eaten around twelve percent less.

But even that showed a clear effect on health. Metabolism, blood values ​​and thus the risk of stroke or heart disease had greatly improved in the diet group. "These are fantastic effects that would otherwise take four or five tablets," says Fontana.

He is convinced that each of us could create a little restriction. "You can eat quite a bit, but it has to be as natural food as possible: a lot of vegetables and fiber, for example, less animal or industrially processed products." Intermittent fasting could also help you stay on the ball.

The dimensions of age

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Chronological or biographical age

The last birthday we celebrated says little about our mental abilities or our health. However, the chronological age is decisive, for example legally and socially. Driver's license, eligibility to vote or the start of retirement depend on the chronological age.

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Biological age

Over time, aging leaves traces, for example at the cellular level or in the genes. Research shows that certain patterns in DNA can be used to calculate biological age.

So far, however, there is no generally recognized algorithm or biomarker as a basis for such calculations.

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Social age

This means how a person's affiliation with other people or society changes in the course of life. The contact with family, friends or work colleagues is also of great importance for the later quality of life.

The number of contacts seems to be less important than the quality. A good friend can influence social age just as much as many, but less close acquaintances.

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Psychological age

This includes changes in cognitive functions, such as how well you can remember things or learn new things. The perceived age is also expressed in how we experience our everyday life.

Are we overwhelmed by things, contact with people, activities? Positive aspects that are included in psychological age are life experience, serenity or resistance to mental disorders.

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There is no universal definition of aging. Depending on your perspective, it affects different aspects of a life.

State-of-the-art anti-aging does not have to be expensive or elitist. This also applies to the aging processes of the brain. There is still no cure for dementia. The question is therefore: What preventive measures keep the brain young for a long time?

Healthy body and mind

In addition to education, our musculoskeletal system seems to be part of the answer, says Professor Andreas Fellgiebel, chief physician at the Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the Agaplesion Elisabethenstift in Darmstadt. "In old age it becomes particularly clear how closely a healthy body and a healthy mind are connected."

Studies show that people who are still physically active in old age have a third lower risk of dementia than those who do not exercise. Exercise makes certain areas of the brain grow with age. Without movement, degradation would otherwise be noticeable there.

Long life according to an old recipe

What also keeps us young is the feeling of being needed and living a full life. It is difficult to prove why this social and psychological level plays a role and how it affects the biological aging processes. But it seems to be these feelings that motivate us to enjoy the here and now for as long as possible.

Admittedly, these recommendations for healthy aging sound familiar - healthy eating, exercise, activities and activities, preferably with good friends or family.

"The research findings show, however, that anyone who does all of this is doing a great deal right," says Fellgiebel. Until there is a real rejuvenation pill, everyone will hold the key to long health in their own hands. Not a new thought - but a very comforting one.