Ageing is something that we all seem to reluctantly do. Sadly, the general consensus appears to be that grey hair isn’t cool unless you purposefully dye it that colour, and wrinkles are only cute if you’re a Shar Pei puppy. Perhaps, ageing gets a bad rep because growing old is associated with disease and ultimately death – not exactly what you would call desirable connotations. In a recent Pint of Science talk (one of many held in pubs across the UK during the month of May), Professor Peter Adams from the Beatson Institute described the research efforts that might help us to enact ‘healthy ageing’ and reduce our stigma towards the process. This research is especially important considering the prevalence of ageing populations in the Western world, commonly referred to as the Silver Tsunami. The hope is that research into healthy ageing will mean more of us can enjoy a high quality of life for longer.
In order to understand what it means to age well, we first need to understand what causes ageing. It appears that the main factor is DNA damage. DNA is like the cell’s recipe book, providing instructions on how to produce a vast array of biomolecules. If the recipe is altered, then the biomolecules (e.g. proteins) may not work properly as a consequence. The vast majority of cells can pre-empt the potentially detrimental effects of damage by either self-destructing (apoptosis) or preventing further division (senescence). Essentially, we have a lifespan defined by that of our cells and by increased susceptibility to disease and disorder as a result of the damage our cells incur. So if damage results in ageing and increased likelihood of becoming ill, surely the key to healthy ageing is just to avoid such harm?
As you may expect, avoiding damage is much easier said than done. On a daily basis, we are exposed to a barrage of factors that mutate our DNA, from the UV-rays of the sun to the toxic components of cigarettes. Not only is our external environment to blame, but our cells themselves ̶ some of the essential metabolic processes keeping us alive produce by-products that harm our genetic code.
So what can we do to age well? For now, research is still being conducted to find out. However ̶ surprise, surprise – exercise and eating well are linked to healthy ageing. Recently though, various drugs have been tested on people with diabetes and have been shown to reduce the incidence of cancer – one of the most prevalent diseases of old age. Perhaps in the future, the exercise and healthy eating mantra will be less intense, and popping a couple of pills will be what we’re encouraged to do instead.
If you’re interested in seeing any talks similar to this, check out the Glasgow Science Festival listings.
Image is of national treasure and well-aged man Peter Capaldi (The Telegraph)