It’s no secret that scientists around the world are unlocking the secrets of human health and disease by studying the human genome. While the right diet and good physical fitness contribute to a longer life expectancy, almost half of the reasons why people live a longer life are purely genetic. The results of the Human Genome Project (HGP) were published in 2003, but this map has served as a type of scientific springboard from which other advances in genetics have evolved.
What information do genes hold about living forever? Do we know enough now to prevent the diseases that would normally cause us harm? Budget Direct, a health insurance company, says science can help us live longer.
According to some scientists, disrupting the ageing process is not a fantasy. Aubrey de Grey, a biologist with the SENS Research Foundation believes that the first human to live to 1,000 years old has already been born. That’s how fast the advances in longevity medicine are occurring.
The interventions currently being explored don’t just seek to slow aging, but to counteract the ravages of age-related diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. Scientists believe there are just seven cellular/molecular reasons why we age, and all have the potential to be reversed:
1. Loss of cells and tissue atrophy
Our functional tissue shrinks or is not replaced as we age. Engineered stem cells could possibly replace our old ones, like replacing parts of a machine.
2. Cancerous cells
Cancer causes damage when abnormal cancer cells invade healthy tissue and destroy its functions. DNA mutations to genes and epimutations to DNA scaffolding become more common as we age, both of which contribute to cancer. Repairing these mutations is the focus.
3. Mitochondrial mutations
Mitochondria are tiny structures in our cells that convert the stored energy in our foods into usable energy for every cell of our body. They have their own genes controlling their function. As we age, mitochondria do not generate as much energy; this affects all repair processes in the body. They also become more vulnerable to waste produced by normal metabolism. Mitochondrial function could be preserved.
4. Death-resistant cells
Many types of cells in the body are “death resistant.” They are present in very low numbers until our 50s, but increase in number as we age, increasing our risk of cancer. They also secrete large amounts of protein, leading to inflammatory processes in the immune system and damaging normal structures in our cells. Preventing their accumulation might be possible.
5. Protein cross-linking
Many of the most important structures in our body are based on proteins. Built early in life, they are replaced slowly during our lifetime. They need to move freely, but can become stiffened via protein cross-linking. The stiffening of the lens in glaucoma and the artery wall in cardiovascular disease are just two examples. Reversing cross-linking is a target of new therapeutics.
6. Extracellular aggregates
This is like cellular debris or junk that build up outside our cells. Most of this material is protein based. It’s sticky and prevents vital transport of substances in and out of cells. The amyloid plaque buildup of Alzheimer’s Disease is just one example.
7. Intracellular aggregates
As part of normal metabolism is cells, waste products are produced. Cells constantly produce waste, but there are mechanisms for removal of cellular waste, or the cell recycles and reuses these products in other, useful ways. This form of waste removal and recycling diminishes as we age.
It’s not unreasonable to think that our children and our grandchildren could receive treatments to reverse aging. Would you accept these treatments if offered to you? The idea of having a few more decades with family, or to see just how much the world will change by being here a bit longer is appealing to many of us. The exciting thing is, science thinks it will happen.
Annalies Corse is an Australian medical scientist, lecturer, naturopath and writer. Annalies has worked in many varied research settings including The Australian Institute of Sport, cancer research, paediatrics and genetics. Her love of nutrition and the medical sciences lead to further studies and lecturing for university students. Annalies is currently working on a masters degree at the University of Sydney, focusing on medical, health and scientific communications.