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Healthy, and happy, aging takes time and dedication

Published 1:29 pm, Thursday, June 26, 2014
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When it was recently discovered that researchers had found a way to give older mice more pep in their steps with the help of the blood of younger mice, the news quickly made it into the mainstream. Might humans also one day be able to turn back the clock?

Unfortunately, the simple answer to that question is "no." However, researchers in the field of aging continue to delve into the why, how and when of aging and, in the processRepor are unlocking some of its mysteries.

"The fundamental mystery in biology is why we deteriorate with age," said Amy Wagers, a member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and a faculty member in the university's Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. "It does so in a timed manner ... in a synchronistic way. So the question is, what is mediating that?"

Wagers was the co-author of two studies that looked at the effects of the blood of younger mice and a substance within that blood on their older counterparts. Her team looked into a protein, GDF11, the concentrations of which appear to decline with age in the blood of humans and mice. In both interventions, Wagers said older animals that were exposed to the younger blood showed enhanced function.

The mice recovered more quickly from injury, improved physical function, increased their grip strength and, for one group of subjects, ran longer on a treadmill, showing increased endurance. The substance also appeared to improve blood flow, which increased brain function.

"One of the effects of aging is deterioration in multiple tissues," Wagers said.

The goal of healthy aging is to stave off that deterioration. In these latest studies, Wagers said that understanding took a large jump forward. "What we found, in part, are that those effects can be reversible ... which is different from prevention or slowing the process of aging. We can now think about turning the clock back a bit to a state where function is higher."

The studies also indicate this particular protein is a substance that can benefit multiple organ systems. "We might be able to go to the root cause of the deterioration that occurs in aging, rather than approaching individual diseases," she said.

But Wagers and others have cautioned that such a leap forward is still several years away. A surer bet for longevity, say those who work in the field of aging, is to start making healthier lifestyle choices today.

"What you do now will affect you later," said Dr. Vivian Argento, medical director of Bridgeport Hospital's Center for Geriatrics. It turns out, she added, that the admonitions you heard as a child just might be the closest you have to a fountain of youth.

Get plenty of rest. Eat healthfully. Exercise (particularly balance and resistance training). Keep your mind active. Don't smoke. Find loyal and supportive friends. Go for regular health check-ups. Take precautions to avoid injury. Protect your skin from the sun. Explore your spiritual side. And, find a purpose.

All these things won't stop time, but they can slow the effects.

At the present, France's Jeanne Louise Calmert, who died in 1997 at 122, holds the record for the longest confirmed human lifespan. Human life expectancy has increased dramatically over the year, thanks to improved public health services, better public sanitation, medical advancements, vaccinations and other factors. A baby born today is expected to live to 80. In 1900, an individual was only expected, on average, to hit 47.

"No one has been able to crack that code," Argento said about lifespan extension in humans. "But healthy aging and happy aging are being heavily investigated."

When it comes to specifics as how to best optimize your later years, she said it can help to look at centenarians, those who have hit 100 and beyond. And it's best to look first at the energy that sustains them.

"You will not see obese centenarians," she said, adding that they have been largely found to rely on a diet high in vegetables and fruit, whole grains, beans, legumes and nuts. It is lower in meat-based protein and incorporates more fish. It also limits unhealthy fats and salt. A glass of wine can be on the menu, too. It's better if it is red and consumed at dinner with friends. It is the basic blueprint for the Mediterranean diet, which has been found to improve heart health.

The longer-lived among us also exercise, but Argento said it doesn't have to entail a trip to the gym.

"These can be functional living exercises," she said. "It's about taking a walk through your garden to smell your flowers. It's going up a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator. It's about active participation in life, and doing daily exercise."

Successful agers also tend to keep up with preventative screenings. This allows them to identify diseases such as heart disease and diabetes early, so their lifestyles can be modified. They don't abuse alcohol or drugs; and they find effective and healthy ways to cope with, and reduce, stress. "Having some way to combat stress is very important," Argento said.

Chronic stress has been found to have unhealthy consequences on a person's physical and mental state, possibly leading to such conditions as heart disease, diabetes, depression and other illnesses.

Nobody will live a life free of stress, but the key is reducing that stress, said Sheila Wilner, the director of the King Street Home for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care in Rye Brook, N.Y. Wilner speaks to groups throughout lower Fairfield County with her program, "Staying Young and `Well' thy."

"It's about creating longevity with optimal health and joy," said Wilner, who has worked in the field for about 30 years. "People think it is going to be complex, but these are simple things."

She said it can be something as simple as listening to your favorite music for 10 to 15 minutes without distractions. It can be a walk in the garden or a simple meditation.

Whether it is stress reduction, exercise, eating better, finding joy or keeping your mind fit, Wilner said the more years you are good to yourself, the greater the chance you will get more years. "Your body is a machine, and you have to take care of it. If people took a little more time to nurture themselves, they would find as an end result they would get a better payoff."

While humans work to control the lifestyle choices that can hasten aging, researchers will continue to get down to the molecular level of why these processes are occurring. The results will likely end up having myriad implications, from the profound to the cosmetic.

For instance, biologist Valerie Horsley and her fellow researchers at Yale University have discovered how the fat cells of mice signal hair growth, which could have implications for wound healing and human baldness later down the line. But that work also is adding to the growing body of literature on how cells regenerate and signal processes of the body to begin or end.

"It's the idea of finding the light switch," said Horsley, alluding to that moment when one study will significantly enlighten the work of another -- perhaps leading to significant gains in understanding human longevity.

"Everybody wants to live longer," Argento said. "We've been searching for the fountain of youth since the beginning of time."

Christina.hennessy@scni.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy