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What Biology Tells Us About Gender and Longevity

In the late fall of 1846, 87 California-bound pioneers found themselves stranded in the deepening snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains with little food and inept leadership, and with winter coming on fast. It would be months before rescue —if at all — was likely. This was the Donner Party, now infamous because they ultimately resorted to murder and cannibalism so that some of them could survive.

Although the psychological pressures that led to the cannibalism (even of children) are fascinating 173 years later, what interests me most about this well-documented catastrophe is who died and who survived. Of the 87 original members (89 if you count two native American men who joined them late and were eventually murdered), 47 members of the Donner Party survived. More than half of the men died of starvation or disease, but more than 70 percent of the women survived.

Last Year’s Research on Aging Hints at What Lies Ahead

The year 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the first gene in any animal that, when mutated, lengthened its life. In that case, the animal was a tiny worm; today, worms are the workhorses of aging research, but back then it was a novelty. The gene was called age-1, and it extended the worm’s life by 50 percent. That event marked a convenient beginning for modern aging research, the pace of which seems to be accelerating each year.

In 2018, the field of aging research learned more about the science behind what you can do to keep yourself healthier, for longer, as you grow older. Likewise, investigators gained new insight into the biology of aging and age-related illnesses. To anticipate what lies ahead, let’s look at what we learned in the past year.

Studies Show It’s Never Too Late to Improve Your Health

Oct. 13, 2011, was a very good day for runner Fauja Singh. On that date, he set eight world records for his age group, spanning distances from 100 to 5,000 meters. Three days later, he added the record for the marathon. His age group? One hundred years and up.

Running a marathon at age 100 might not even be the most remarkable thing about Singh. Possibly even more remarkable: He didn’t take up serious running until his mid-80s.

You’ve heard it again and again: “It’s never too late.” Well, it wasn’t too late for Singh to begin training to be a world-class master athlete in his mid-80s, but what about the rest of us? We might not aspire to be world-class athletes, but many of us do want to enhance our health and extend our lives a bit. When is it too late to begin?

It’s Not Just What You Eat — It’s When You Eat

Eating less improves health. We have all heard this — and scientists have known this — for decades. From portion control to calorie counting, recommendations on nutrition and dietary choices often focus on limiting our intake of what we eat daily. But new research suggests that when it comes to healthy eating for healthy aging, it’s not just what you eat or how much you eat, but when.

The first evidence of the impact of dietary timing has been seen in mice studies. Mice are the standard laboratory mammals from which we learn much of what we know about human biology.

The Low Cost, All-Natural Tool for Healthy Aging

Medications to help keep us healthy as we grow older are just around the corner.

This is not as outlandish as it might sound, considering that medications to keep our hearts and blood vessels younger and healthier have been around for some time. That is, it is well-known that blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medication preserve cardiovascular health. In fact, the widespread use of these medications has led to a one-third reduction in age-adjusted deaths from heart disease and stroke just since the beginning of this century.

Scientists focusing on the biology of aging, supported by the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), have now identified a number of other medications that target processes of aging itself. These interventions have had impressive results in mouse studies, and the most promising of these will soon start human testing.

What can dogs teach us about aging well?

For the dog lovers among us, it is nothing short of tragic that the lives of our beloved pets are so short compared to ours.

My own first inkling of the ravages of aging, in fact, was observing the life trajectory of my childhood dog, a splotchy mutt who I creatively named Spot. As I entered my teens, Spot was a strong and sturdy adult. But when I went away to college and periodically returned home, I noticed that Spot was declining.

He gradually lost his eagerness to go for long walks. Then he could no longer jump up on his favorite couch. Eventually, he lost most of his hearing and control of his bladder. Before I graduated, he was gone.

© 2017 Steven N. Austad

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