Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Ecuadorians that could hold vital clues to healthy aging

I have just returned from a fascinating day at the USC Davis School of Gerentology, which is currently playing host to a group of people from Ecuador with Laron syndrome.

The condition, a form of dwarfism, is characterized by stunted growth, but also an extraordinary resistance to cancer and diabetes.

These individuals are known to have mutations in the gene for the growth hormone receptor, resulting in exceptionally low levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) 1, which has been linked to aging.

Ongoing studies are exploring parallels with studies in mice - and humans in the wider population - and the aging process.

What a great group of people. Good humored and generous with their time.  They would rather not live with stunted growth, but they know that their body chemistry is special. So special that it could hold vital clues to the aging process for the rest of us.

Photo: Ecuadorian endocrinologist Jaime Guevara-Aguirre and USC cell biologist Valter Longo with the Laron subjects

Friday, October 24, 2014

Putting a limit on lifespan

In a recent essay, Why I Hope to Die at 75, in The Atlantic, the prominent and respected health strategist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel spelled out his wish to die at the age of 75.

"I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop," wrote Emanuel, who helped develop President Obama's health care reform law and is the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

I struggle to understand why anyone would want to exit this world at such a relatively young age. Modern science, coupled with a better understanding of the biological mechanisms that promote a long healthy life make it eminently possible to live far longer than the accepted norm. And even by conservative standards, 75 is below the age that most of us will achieve. Today the average American can expect to make it to 79, although the 'average American' (or Brit for that matter) is not a glowing example of a lifestyle designed to promote long life.

For me, living a long and as healthy-as-possible a life is the holy grail. My goal is to delay the inevitable fade to black for as long as possible. I get Emanuel's argument that living with infirmity, lengthening the dying process and becoming a burden on society is not an attractive option, but I am not about to accept that it is inevitable. One-time killer diseases and many life-threatening medical conditions are now curable or treatable. A healthy lifestyle - plenty of physical activity and a finely tuned diet - will promote good health and longevity. Around the world, scientists are making astonishing progress in understanding the mechanists at work in promoting better health.

As a productive 75+ year old my plan will be - yes, to enjoy life - to hopefully do some of my best work and also give back. For every day that I wake up and smell the coffee, embrace the sun's rays and breath fresh air, I want to engage and inspire others to make our world a better place. Lofty yes - but this lifetime is the only chance I'll get.

I spoke with Dr. Emanuel at BBC.com/Future's World Changing Ideas Summit in New York City. Full BBC coverage here.

Dr. Emanuel has done a great job at getting people talking about the human life - or health - span and he makes an excellent point that life should be about living in the moment - about enjoying the 'now.' But I am still not persuaded that life should be capped at 75 - or any number, for that matter.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Possible link between depression and age-related diseases

Some of the longest lived people often equate their longevity to their level of happiness. Being sad, depressed or stressed is rarely linked to vibrant health or wellbeing.  But are chronically stressed individuals quantifiably, at greater risk of getting the diseases of old age? It seems they may be. 

Researchers in Germany believe that they are beginning to unravel a connection between biochemical changes in the body and both the diseases of old age and depression.    

*According to lead researcher, Dr Anthony Zannas (Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich):

"We found that both aging and depression seem to lead to changes in how DNA is processed, and that this can control the expression of genes that regulate how we respond to stress. These changes are associated with increased inflammation, and we believe that this may lead to the increased risk for several aging-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and neuropsychiatric disorders, that has been observed in chronically stressed and depressed individuals. 

Commenting on the work for the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology congress in Berlin., Professor Bill Deakin (Manchester) said:

"There is a growing realisation that depression is one expression of a set of vulnerabilities for a range of disorders associated with age including obesity, diabetes, cerebro-vascular disease and dementia." 

The findings, which need to be confirmed in future studies, may explain why aging-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and neuropsychiatric disorders, are worse in chronically stressed and depressed people.  

The hope is that a between understanding of the links between depression and age related conditions will lead to better treatments for the diseases of old age.

*Source: EurekAlert