Growing old is a fact of life - but does it have to be? We investigate 7 cutting-edge ways science is looking to combat aging.
Medical advances have allowed us to live longer, healthier lives than ever before, but is there anything that can be done to slow, or even stop the aging process?
In this guide we’ll look at some of the most effective ways to combat aging and bust some myths about getting old along the way.
Why do we age?
Despite all our scientific progress, we’re still not sure what’s going on when it comes to aging. The symptoms are easy to point out and it’s the highest risk factor for a range of medical conditions, but we’re still yet to get to grips with what makes us grow old.
To break it down to the basics, there’s two main theories when it comes to why we age. The first suggests that we’re essentially ‘programmed’ to die, with our genes having a biological timer that tells our body how long it’s got left.
The second is that aging is a result of damage to our body on a cellular level, which builds up until we reach a point where our bodies are unable to cope with it.
There’s evidence to back up both theories, but the actual answer could be much more complex and ongoing research in this area will help us better-understand the aging process and perhaps even find a way to slow or even stop it altogether.
How do we age?
While we may not be sure on what’s causing it, there’s a number of age-related symptoms that occur in everyone. These include:
Sagging skin: Caused by a loss of substances like elastin and collagen, which give your skin that youthful look. This can also be made worse by the fact that the muscles of your face can also weaken with age.
Loss of muscle mass: Your muscles will grow bigger and stronger from the moment you’re born until some point in your 30s. From then on, muscle mass will decline - even if you stay physically active (although this can reduce the rate of loss).
While scientists are still somewhat uncertain of the root cause, it’s thought that a decline in nerve cells that operate muscles and lower levels of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone contribute to the process.
Menopause: During the menopause, women will stop having their monthly period and will be unable to conceive children naturally.
While it can occur early in some women, the menopause typically takes place between the ages of 45 and 55 and is usually signalled by less frequent periods in the months or years leading up to it.
It’s caused by the ovaries steadily producing less estrogen and can be prematurely brought on by medical treatments like hysterectomies and chemotherapy.
Male menopause: While men will go through a range of changes as they get older, doctors don’t currently agree on whether or not the male menopause - or ‘Andropause’ is a real thing. However, it’s common for blokes in their late 40s and 50s to experience higher levels of body fat, hot flushes and a range of psychological issues that are sometimes branded part of a ‘mid-life crisis’.
Mental acuity: Your ability to remember stuff, reason things out and quickly understand things can begin to decline as early as your mid-40s and while this is inevitable, there’s a range of things you can do to keep your mind sharp as you grow older.
Can we slow, or even stop aging?
People have been looking for the fountain of youth for a long time, but it’s only recently that breakthroughs in DNA, computing and other areas of research have given us a glimmer of hope at artificially extending our lifespan.
Some of the most high profile areas for research currently include:
Calorie restriction: A number of studies have found that a restricted-calorie diet can have an effect on the lifespan and quality of life of other animals. However, in other species, the opposite effect has been found - with reduced calories leading to a shorter lifespan.
Studies into primates and humans are still being carried out, but to date, there’s little supporting evidence that it’s of any use, or even safe for people.
Antioxidants: These days, everyone raves about antioxidants, which are supposed to protect your body from the effects of ‘free radicals’. These reactive molecules are unleashed when your body converts air and food into raw energy and steal electrons - damaging cells in the process.
Given the theory that this type of cell damage is what causes us to age, it was widely hoped that by introducing more antioxidants into our diet, we’d be able to reduce the effects of free radicals and increase our lifespan and health as a result.
However, while a diet with plenty of antioxidants in has been found to reduce the rate of certain kinds of cancer and circulatory diseases, there’s no evidence to support the life-extending properties of antioxidants.
Free radicals are also part of the body’s natural processes and have useful functions, like helping the immune system fight off invaders.
Hormone therapy: Since hormones like testosterone, estrogen and growth hormone decline as we get older, manually topping them up should help reverse the process, right?
Wrong. To date, there’s no science to back up these claims and several prominent organisations have warned against upsetting the delicate balance between what level of hormones your body needs and how much it produces.
An excess of estrogen, testosterone or human growth hormone have been linked to several serious medical conditions, like heart disease and cancer, while there’s no strong evidence to back up claims of these substances being able to expand your lifespan.
Diet: People from Okinawa in Japan have enjoyed some of the lowest levels of age-related diseases in the world, as well as a surprising number of people living to be over 100.
This is often attributed to their traditional diet, which is low in calories and high in nutrition and includes:
A variety of fruits and vegetables that are rich in vital nutrients
Beans and pulses
Fish and other types of seafood
Lower calories when compared to the staple western diet
However, lifestyle factors undoubtedly play a role and eating healthily won’t be of much use if you’re drinking too much alcohol or smoking. In fact, as Okinawans started moving toward our more western diet, recent generations have seen their BMI skyrocket and their potassium levels decline greatly.
Psychology: Living longer can also be a case of mind over matter, it seems. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago found that people who reported being extremely lonely had a less active immune system and higher rate of inflammation, which can lead to a range of health issues.
On the other hand, studies have found that positive psychological traits like optimism, a positive attitude towards aging and a high degree of personal control tend to correlate highly with a longer life span. Similarly, one long-term piece of research found that close personal relationships made all the difference when it comes to living a happy, healthy and longer life.
Young blood protein: In mice, at least, a protein found in the blood of younger specimens were found to reverse the signs of aging when administered to older ones. This included improvements in heart tissue, as well as muscle and brain rejuvenation.
Gene therapy: If our cells have a built-in countdown clock that tells our body how much time it’s got left - what would happen if we were to turn the hands back? That’s exactly the goal of anti-aging gene therapy, where research has found that altering genes could more than double the lifespan of specimens of roundworms.
A promising study into centenarians (people who live to be over 100) among the Ashkenazi Jewish community has backed up this theory, finding that a significant number of these people who lived more than a century had mutations in genes thought to be involved in the human aging process.
The bottom line
While there’s a number of promising avenues for research into ways to potentially slow or stop the aging process, right now, the best ways to ensure a long, healthy and happy life are the traditional staples of diet, lifestyle and psychological outlook.
If you’ve got any questions about the topics we’ve covered above or would like to share your thoughts on how science might tackle aging in the future - be sure to leave us a comment below or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.
And if you’re looking for expert advice on how to improve your lifestyle and chances of living longer, hit the button below to talk to an experienced UK GP online right now: