“We lose a thousand years of healthy and active life because of aging”
Igor Artyukhov on research that can solve the age-old problem of human
“If it was possible to 'turn off' the class of diseases such as cancer, the average life expectancy would increase by only a few years — an elderly person who did not die of cancer would be 'caught up' with cardiovascular or other age-related diseases. Victory over the cause — aging — would give a gain hundreds of times greater than over one of its consequences — cancer,' said gerontologist Igor Artyukhov. He told about scientific research in this area to Realnoe Vremya.
“Spermatozoon and egg cell mutate already directly in the body of parents”
Mr Artyukhov, could you tell us in layman's terms how the aging mechanism is triggered? And what is the essence of the aging process? Apparently, that the cells of the body are less and less regenerate over the years?
It's just one of the many mechanisms of aging. There are also others: accumulation of damages in DNA, violation of expression of genes (both the genes necessary for the cell can be 'switched off' and the unnecessary ones can be 'switched on'), accumulation of harmful substances both in cells (for example, lipofuscins), as well as outside of them (for example, amyloids), chronic infections that can start typically age-related diseases such as atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.
There are many such mechanisms, the specific weight of each of them can be very different in different people. What they have in common is that in youth the body combat them effectively, but its capabilities in this combat are finite and it begins to lose in the end.
What does the accumulation of damages in DNA mean? What can damage it?
Many different processes, for example, when cells divide, DNA copying occurs with errors, then external factors such as radioactive background, which is always present, like chemical exposure (free radicals and other molecules). Even just thermal exposure can cause DNA damage. There are special proteins that try to repair DNA with more or less success, but still, of course, mutations accumulate in the body.
Does cancer follow the same pattern?
Actually, cancer is a collective name for various diseases. They are all associated with some genetic disorders, but some are associated with DNA mutations and some with gene expression disorders (this is the process by which hereditary information from a gene is converted into a functional product — RNA or protein). In other words, one and the same cell, depending on what genes are “silenced” in it, can both work normally and can begin to divide uncontrollably. And its progeny will also divide uncontrollably if epimutation inherited.
Actually, cancer is a collective name for various diseases. They are all associated with some genetic disorders, but some are associated with DNA mutations and some with gene expression disorders
“We know about three hundred substances that prolong the life of laboratory animals”
What are the ways to slow down aging in our time?
There are such ways — a healthy and active lifestyle, proper nutrition (this does not mean eating a little or eating only greens — diet should be individual). Finally, there are what are known as geroprotectors — the substances that increase life expectancy. Today, it is known about 300 substances that prolong the life of laboratory animals.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to study their impact on people — a convincing experiment would have to last for decades, and it is almost impossible to organize. Even experiments on mice or rats have to be carried out for several years, which is also difficult; the results are very difficult to transfer to humans. The mechanisms of aging in humans and mice are about the same, but their contribution is very different.
Today, it is known about 300 substances that prolong the life of laboratory animals. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to study their impact on people — a convincing experiment would have to last for decades, and it is almost impossible to organize
What promising developments will be able to solve the problem of aging in the future?
Scientists have a lot of ideas, even the main ones are difficult to list here. And they need to be realised all — defeating one mechanism of aging, we only postpone the process until the time when another comes. And only if that mechanism is defeated that was the main one of a particular person.
“This study has been the first in which aging could be reversed”
Then tell us about some promising, in your opinion, development of scientists in this area.
Recently, it has been published a study conducted on a small group of people. It investigated the effect on Horvath's clock, not directly on human life expectancy. Horvath's clock is a specific set of genes the expression of which is related to age. That is, by tracing a certain number of genes, whether they are active or not, it is possible to tell with sufficient accuracy what age it is, if necessary. Accordingly, this suggests that if some effect on genes slows down Horvath clock and turns it back, then, perhaps, this is good from the point of view of combating aging.
Recently, there has been a small study by Gregory Fey and Steve Horvath himself on a small group of people, I think nine people — they had Horvath's clock turned back a couple of years. They gave the subjects a set of three substances. What is important here, the dosage of substances for each was given individually. It included growth hormone, metformin, and acarbose. It turned out that if you follow individually the parameters of each person and select for each dose of drugs that he is given, then Horvath's clock is turned back. This does not mean that people will live longer because Horvath's clock is an indirect indicator of life expectancy. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting result because the study of Horvath and Fey has been the first in which aging was not just slowed down but even reversed.
Should the state invest in anti-aging programmes, how do you think?
It not just should but has to. What is more, particularly with aging, not just with its consequences, such as cancer, as they do now. Here are some figures: at the age of 40, about one person per thousand a year dies. If we could turn off aging as a phenomenon and the mortality rate did not rise, the average life expectancy would be a thousand years. This figure, which should be given some thought — plus a thousand years of healthy (after all, all diseases are also from aging!), active life is what you and I lose due to aging.
This suggests that if some effect on genes slows down Horvath clock and turns them back, then, perhaps, this is good from the point of view of combating aging.
For comparison: if it was possible to 'turn off' the class of diseases such as cancer, the average life expectancy would increase by only a few years — an elderly person who did not die of cancer would be 'caught up' with cardiovascular or other age-related diseases. In other words, victory over the cause (aging) would give a gain hundreds of times greater than over one of its consequences (cancer). At the same time, funds for cancer research are allocated hundreds of times more than for aging research.
How much does the psychological factor affect the life expectancy of a person? What attitude helps to live a long life?
Apparently, it has an effect. Although sometimes it is difficult to understand where's the cause and where's the effect — human ages faster because he's depressed, or he's just senile depression because he's already old. Most likely, mental and social activity, a sense of that people need you help to mobilize the forces of the body.
“To make life easier for a sick old person is a sacred thing, but it would be much more effective to combat the cause of the problems”
Do Russian gerontologists have any success? What projects and research are they doing now?
We have good scientists in this field, but as a rule, they succeed in something when working together with Western experts. Aleksey Moskalev is one of the largest in the world and exactly the largest specialist in Russia in the genetics of longevity, in genomics (this is the section of genetics devoted to the study of genome and genes). He works quite effectively in this direction.
Are there many living things on Earth that do not age?" Has science somehow investigated them and found the causes of their aging?
It is more correct to speak not about “ageless” but negligibly aging animals. That is, they do age, but so slowly that they do not have time to age much in a typical time of their lives. There are several such species known; perhaps there are many more — most species have not been studied from this point of view.
Aging but long-lived species are also being studied. For example, elephants are old but live long. The mouse in the laboratory dies most often from cancer. The elephant has by about a million times more cells than the mouse does — it would seem that a million times more often there should be the degeneration of cells in cancer, growing in a tumor, to say nothing of the lifetime of an elephant... But elephants rarely have cancer — their cells have multiple copies of a gene of a protein that corrects damaged DNA, but the mouse has only one such copy, it doesn't need more (they do not survive until cancer in the wild because of predators and infectious diseases).