Is Aging Reversible? Can We Reset the Clock?
• German Center for Research and Innovation
• Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Ursula Staudinger, Director of the newly established Columbia Aging Center, as well as Robert N. Butler Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Professor of Psychology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and Vice President of Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences, opened the evening by referencing the metaphorical “fountain of youth.” What kind of fountain are we looking for? she asked. How far back do we want to rewind the clock of life? According to Dr. Staudinger, numerous studies show that there is “no gold standard of the perfect phase in life” as there are distinct advantages and disadvantages associated with each life stage. In general, human aging is composed of three parts: the biological, socio-cultural, and behavioral. Lifestyle choices, such as nutrition, exercise, and stress levels, all affect an individual’s overall biological age, which can be younger or older than his or her actual chronological age.
Improvements over time in the socio-cultural arena, such as an increase in medical knowledge, changes in education and the workplace, and altered nutrition, are largely the reason why 60-year-olds today look quite different from 60-year-olds in the past. These changes also help explain why the same chronological age at various points in history implies different levels of cognitive ability. One good way to foster cognitive functioning in the elderly, according to Dr. Staudinger, is age-appropriate aerobic fitness. Work that challenges the mind and a mentally inspiring job environment are also beneficial.
Dr. Rodney L. Levine, Chief of the Laboratory of Biochemistry at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, presented other options for prolonging life, especially with regards to health span. The relatively new field of geroscience has identified three methods to slow the aging process – at least in animals thus far. They include changing one’s diet, altering genes, and using pharmacological drugs. Studies on worms, fruit flies, and mice have shown that cutting lifelong caloric intake by 40 percent increases both the health and life span of these animals. With monkeys, however, lifespan could not be changed; nonetheless, the health of the rhesus monkeys was much improved even at old age. The success of the caloric reduction approach can be attributed to the regulatory protein mTOR, which plays a significant role in the aging process and becomes activated on high food intake. Based on this finding, lowering or silencing this protein activity becomes one way to increase longevity. Prolonging life span can also be achieved by administering high doses of the drug rapamycin or with genetic modification. In repeated experiments with mice, such actions resulted in a 20 to 25 percent increase in life span. Looking to the future, Dr. Levine remains optimistic, citing the tremendous achievements made over the past 50 years in neonatal medicine to reduce child mortality. Such efforts also raised the statistical life expectancy of the general population by a few decades. In a similar vein, it is “now time to work on the older ones,” Dr. Levine said, emphasizing the need for targeting efforts towards increasing health and life span of aging adults.
The evening’s moderator, James Collins, Chairperson of NGO Committee on Ageing, concluded the program by inviting the audience to address their questions to the speakers. The topics of this lively Q & A ranged from the oldest age humans could potentially reach and the impact of sugar and vitamins on longevity to whether “brain-jogging” activities, such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku, are helpful in one’s quest for aging slowly and well.