30 Years of Research on Aging: Six Scientists Talk of Top Discoveries

Published In Aging in a Home Environment

Most people in the U.S., where the average life expectancy is 78 years old, live about 20% of their lives with a chronic disease of aging such as osteoarthritis, Type II diabetes, cancer, heart attack, stroke, and macular degeneration.

But the brainiacs at the Buck Institute for Age Research, based in Novato, California, and operating under the slogan “Live Better Longer,” are striving to change that. There, a team of scientists from all over the world focus their research on discovering how people can live their maximum lifespans while being healthy most of that time.

The Buck recently sponsored a seminar series as a follow-up to its 30-year anniversary. In it, six leading scientists were invited to present their takes on the best and brightest developments that have occurred in aging research over the last three decades. Recordings of the complete sessions will be available on the Buck Institute’s website.

To whet your optimism, here is a distillation of some of their conclusions.

Exercise: The $20 Billion ‘Drug’

Eric Verdin, president and CEO of the Buck, kicked off the lecture series. The lab he runs there focuses on how metabolism, diet, and small molecules regulate key proteins that affect the aging process and the diseases associated with it.

Though he’s a true believer in the lab science he practices daily, Verdin emphasizes that the two most important tools to healthy aging are still what’s long been emphasized for good health in general: diet and exercise.

While he says there are some “key lessons” learned about what a healthy diet should be, it is almost impossible to test and compare diets scientifically — and the flood of conflicting information makes it even tougher to bulldoze through to the facts. Verdin says that generally, a diet low in meat and high in fresh fruits and vegetables has been shown to be best.

Then he drops something like a scientific bombshell. “None of the diets existing today is superior to the other,” he says. Recent research has shown that what might matter most is not what you eat, but how and when you eat it. It seems that periods of fasting allow the body to tap into its own “self-cleaning” system by sorting and storing parts that have become degraded — a hypothesis supported by mice in the lab. “Even if you eat an ‘unhealthy diet,’ something magical happens when you fast at least 12 hours a day,” he says.

Another hypothesis, later echoed resoundingly by the other research scientists, but hard for the couchbound culture to hear: It’s essential to keep moving. “Exercise is really one of the miracle anti-aging medicines,” Verdin says. “Its been argued that if it were a drug, it would be a $20 billion drug, because it has really profound effects in terms of the way you age, your lifespan, and development of chronic diseases of aging.”

Choose Your Parents Wisely — And Pet Puppies

George M Martin, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, has centered his research on genetic approaches to the study of aging and age-related diseases. Now proudly “almost 92 years old,” Martin has long been lauded as The Father of Research on Aging.

His interest in the topic was piqued as a young resident doing geriatric autopsies. “I was very impressed that no two individuals had exactly the same patterns and disorders of aging,” he says, which got him thinking about how genetics played into it all.

These days Martin’s a congenial talker, laughing often and conveying great enthusiasm about his subject matter. And he’s a collegial being — heavily peppering his speech with names of co-workers and colleagues he admires. The problem is that most mere mortals have a tough time understanding what he’s talking about, his speech is so often laden with scientific terms.

That changed some when the moderator asked whether he had any secrets to share about getting to a hale and hearty age. “Be lucky about who you get for parents; that’s been recognized for a long time,” he said, then launched into a diatribe on somatic mutations.

Another secret to aging well, Martin says, is to stay engaged. He recalled a meeting in Denmark that left a lasting mark: “I was impressed with what they were doing with their older individuals who needed some help,” he said. “They did not put them in a separate community. They had public housing and they made damn sure these individuals were next door to families with lots of little kids.”

Martin now lives in a development in Seattle where students, staff, and faculty are all housed together. “I love the little kids all around me,” he says. “And I love also all the dogs — the puppies, I get to pet them and they wag their tails. I very much enjoy that environment.”

Looking at Aging Through Different Eyes

Luigi Ferrucci, a geriatrician and epidemiologist who is currently scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, ran the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging — one of the world’s longest studies on aging, initiated in 1959. It scrutinizes the same individuals over time to help identify age-associated differences not explained by diseases and to understand the causes of pathological aging.

One prime discovery is that the same factors that lead to disease are also connected to aging. “What I find incredibly exciting is that we’re looking at aging through different eyes,” Ferrucci says. “This takes aging to a completely different level. Aging now becomes the way we understand health. We’re looking at disease as the manifestation of activities of aging.”

He predicts this shift will have a valuable practical fallout: “In my lifetime, there will be another cadre of doctors who will look at biomarkers of aging and be able to act on them in determining treatments,” he says. “There will come a time when your doctor will be able to tell you a lot about your health at the time you still look healthy so that you can improve your life as much as possible.”

Ferrucci is also interested in sarcopenia — the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age — which he notes is a “very strong determinant” of health and the quality of life. He underscored that humans lose a lot more muscle strength than muscle mass over time, and studying that connection is leading to other discoveries about the aging/disease connection. “Lately, we’re discovering that the muscle and the brain are finely connected,” he says. “So if a muscle doesn’t work, it’s in large part because the brain doesn’t work.”

A New Era, A New Class of Drugs

Judith Campisi, a co-founder of Unity Biotechnology, is a professor at the Buck Institute, where her laboratory has made pioneering discoveries in the field of cellular senescence that have won international recognition and praise.

She first offers the simple explanation that cell senescence occurs when cells stop dividing, often as part and parcel of aging, depleting tissue’s ability to regenerate. This can have a positive health effect, in preventing the spread of cancer, for example. But a complication is that senescent cells also secrete molecules also known to create chronic inflammation — the cause of arthritis and other health maladies.

The realization that these cells and molecules could be clinically influenced, Campisi says, heralds “the beginning of a new era and a new class of drug.” She recently completed a promising clinical trial on osteoarthritis, and is turning next to diseases of the eye.

Asked what she foresees as the best outcome of the cell senescence research, Campisi offers a ready and hopeful response: “ I envision a class of drugs — multiple types of drugs — that could be taken intermittently so that we all wind up with long lifespans, healthy lifespans, either dying on the tennis court while winning, or dying as Thurgood Marshall said he would: of a bullet wound from a jealous husband at age 110.”

If We Could Talk to the Animals . . .

Steven N. Austad, professor and chair of Biology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, specializes in comparative biology on aging, which he explains has the goal of identifying and studying evolution in species that has been able to do things better than humans.

Known as a maverick in his field, Austad shuns conventional research methods. “All of the traditional animals we use to study aging are demonstrably really terrible at it,” he says. “They fall apart in a hurry and also have no defenses.” One of his pet projects, so to speak, is a study he did with colleagues on a type of clam that lives for more than 500 years. The researchers learned that the clams are particularly good at preventing proteins, known to control all chemical reactions in a body, from misfolding and aggregating. The goal is to build therapies for humans based on this discovery.

Austad also waxes rhapsodic about bats, dubbing them “the neatest animal that nobody knows about,” noting that their muscles and high-frequency hearing do not begin to degenerate early in life, as they do in humans.

Another fascination for him are the sex differences in aging, which are obvious in humans and beginning to be studied in mice, which he hopes will ultimately lead to more personalized healthcare for humans.

“We’re on our way to using what we’re learning from aging to revisit not just aging, but many of the ways we treat diseases in the clinic to see if men and women might do better by having different treatment regimens,” Austad says. “I think it’s an intriguing way for medicine to make up for all the years we studied only men.”

Making Aging Research ‘Cool’

Victor J. Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine at Stanford University, is lauded for laying the groundwork for angiotensin-converting-enzyme or ACE inhibitors, now widely used to treat hypertension and heart failure.

But his current hobby horse is commandeering the Healthy Longevity Global Grand Challenge, a worldwide movement to increase the physical, mental, and social well-being for people as they age. “Our theory is we need to get a lot of people excited about aging research — to make aging research ‘cool’,” Dzau says.

To that end, the Grand Challenge has gathered a team of about 60 experts from 35 different countries to work together to produce a report outlining a system designed to be helpful to everyone, everywhere. Dzau emphasizes that system must be integrated and include social enablers to help prevent loneliness and isolation, the healthcare delivery system, and science and technology. “If we don’t do it, we will face the fragmentation we have in the U.S. today,” he says, noting that other places, particularly Singapore and Japan, are way ahead of us.

The second part of the Grand Challenge will be a competition with prizes given for ideas and research that will be game-changing breakthroughs in the field of aging. “We want people to think innovatively — like entrepreneurs,” Dzau says.

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