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By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor
The popular notion of hacking aging has been captured by people like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey, who have popularized the notion of concepts such as the singularity and immortality. Tantalising though these proposals are, for the majority of people, maintaining physical wellbeing as they age is likely to be a more pressing concern.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham have been working to better understand some of the biological factors that result in declining physical capabilities as we age. They focused their efforts on the mitochondria that powers the cells in our body, and which provide us with the energy we require to function.
The researchers explain that the mitochondria is under a constant process of synthesis and degradation in response to our fluctuating energy requirements. This process tends to falter as we enter old age, which can result in a number of damaged or older mitochondria clogging up our bodies and reducing our physical function.
The team used a clever approach that tags the mitochondria a different color depending upon its health. For instance, a healthy cell would glow gold, with one that’s faltering glowing red instead. This allowed them to focus on a specific molecule, known as the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which they hypothesized had a big role to play in the degradation of the mitochondria.
The idea is that specific interventions, whether in terms of new drugs or new exercises, could be recommended with the specific aim of triggering the AMPK and thus maintaining the muscle mass of people as they age.
“The idea of targeting AMPK with drugs is not new. Many studies, including some of our previous work, demonstrate that AMPK activation in muscle elicits many beneficial effects for treating type 2 diabetes,” the researchers explain. “As a consequence, many pharmaceutical companies are currently working to develop pre-clinical compounds that activate AMPK. We hope that our new discovery will accelerate targeted drug development to help identify new and safe compounds to activate this key molecule in muscle.”
A second team from the University of Birmingham highlights how such interventions can be successful, even if they begin relatively late in life. Their research reveals that exercise can deliver significant benefits, even if people have been largely sedentary for the majority of their lives.
They compared the fitness gains of two groups of older men, one of whom had exercised all of their life, and the other who had never done any form of structured exercise before. The researchers collected muscle biopsies from all participants before and after the exercise regime they were required to complete to gage muscle gains as a result of the training. They also used an isotope tracer to monitor how specific proteins were developing within the muscle itself. The analysis revealed that there was no noticeable difference in muscle gain between those who had trained their entire life, and those who had largely begun doing so for the purposes of this research. In other words, there was no difference in their capacity for building muscle.
“Our study clearly shows that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been a regular exerciser throughout your life, you can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start,” the team explains. “Obviously a long term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness.”
Activity is but one part of healthy physical performance as we age, of course, and diet also plays a crucial role. People like Kurzweil have long espoused a minimal calorie diet as a key for long life, and while it doesn’t perhaps go to that extreme, research from the University of Michigan suggests calorie counting may have a role to play.
They found that the most effective form of calorie restriction was to limit the amount we consume in each meal rather than across the entire day. When the volunteers took this approach, they ended up consuming 100 fewer calories than their peers who set limits by day, which equates to around an extra pound of weight loss every five weeks.
Our understanding of what works, and what doesn’t is still evolving, but there is no doubt as to the interest the topic is receiving. One of the biggest projects is the EU’s Healthy Aging Through Internet Counselling in the Elderly (HATICE) project, which aims to tackle various conditions that largely affect the elderly, including cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease.
A recently published paper from the research team behind HATICE highlights how e-health solutions can effectively help older people maintain active lifestyles. The online platform allowed participants to monitor a range of cardiovascular risk factors, while also exploring how lifestyle changes could affect health outcomes. The platform also provided access to health professionals who could provide advice and support.
As our understanding of healthy aging grows, these kinds of interventions are likely to become more and more important as we strive to keep people active and mobile for as long as possible.
“The possibility of devising common preventive programmes throughout Europe and delivering them through the Internet means that we may be able to reach a larger portion of the population in a simpler and cost-effective way. This would improve our chances of better preventing cardiovascular disease and dementia,” the HATICE team says.
The kind of immortality espoused by Kurzweil may be some way off, but there’s no reason why we can’t live a healthier life for longer than is currently the case. Both our understanding of the aging process and the structure of our healthcare systems are heading in that direction.
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