Or It Will Be if Certain Researchers Have Their Way. The Motivation Appears to Be a Quest for Funding. Given How Institutional Medicine Has Managed Chronic Disease So Far, Going After Aging Seems to Be a Scary Idea.
Specifically, a researchers from Insilico Medicine Inc, Baltimore, MD, and predictably, a researcher from Big Pharma want aging classified as a disease by the World Health Organization, complete with a disease code, just like measles or diabetes, or any other disease.
What could motivate such a thing? The researchers display a surprising amount of candor here: “Actionable classification of aging as a disease may lead to more efficient allocation of resources by enabling funding bodies …..” (Emphasis ours.)
Oh funding. How original. But just imagine what they are tapping into. When it comes to aging, and specifically, considering who has that particular “disease,” the entire human race can join hands: here it stands on common ground. This is a potential market that could boggle the imaginations of even the biggest of big pharma. We suppose they can imagine pretty colossal ones.
Why Do We Age?
There are many theories of aging. As far as Quantitative Medicine is concerned, there are two principal components:
Mitochondrial damage. Mitrochondria are bacterial-like organisms that dwell symbiotically within us. They have their own DNA and are in essence separate beings from us. We enslaved them a billion years ago, and their function is to produce energy from the stuff we eat. They do a very good job of this, but exact a macabre revenge in return: they slowly but surely wear out and become less efficient. Our cells suffer accordingly. Mitochondria reproduce every three weeks by cell division. Damage to their DNA can then be replicated as well. Though the body has numerous defenses against this, the damage slowly accumulates.
Stem cell damage. All the cells in our body that are regularly replaced, are replaced by special, well-protected “parent” cells called stem cells (and also progenitor cells, a junior version). Our skin is a good example. It takes a beating, but we get a new layer of skin about every 10 days. If the skin that we see divided to form replacement skin, we would be duplicating worn out material. Instead, there are special cells buried well under our skin, sheltered from the sun, wind, and other hazards, that reproduce and morph into new skin cells. They then migrate outward towards the skin’s surface.
Other stem cells produce other replaceable tissue: bones, intestines, immune system cells, stomach cells, and so on. The stem cells producing all these replacements are also in very protected areas. Some are in the middle of bones. Hard to find a safer place than that. These protected special cells are like master copies.
If the stem cells made perfect copies of themselves, and the mitochondria also duplicated perfectly as well, for all practical purposes, we wouldn’t age. But even will all the stem cell protection and other clever bodily mechanism, mistakes do happen, and defective stem cells start reproducing. In fact, if a stem cell defect is severe enough, a cancer can start.
If cells that are periodically replaced are to remain “youthful,” the stem cells that produce them, and the mitochondria that power them, need to stay as healthy as possible. This is the key.
The four most damaging situations are:
- High iron
- Sedentary lifestyle (little or no exercise)
- Adult onset diabetes (dietary issues)
- High cortisol (stress)
The first one, high iron, could be hereditary, could occur with the onset of menopause, or could occur as a result of various dietary choices. Excess iron is toxic to the cells, and, if untreated, will greatly accelerate aging. The blood marker for this is ferritin. The treatment is periodic bloodletting (therapeutic phlebotomy).
The other three causes are quite familiar to regular readers of this blog. And once again, Quantitative Medicine is the solution. Interestingly, though, to seriously slow down aging, all four significant lifestyle components, diet, spiritual discipline, sleep, and exercise, are necessary.
It may be a bit of a surprise that a sedentary lifestyle accelerates aging. A principle to bear in mind is that busy cells are healthy cells. If a cell is being challenged, its mitochondria cleanly complete their energy production cycles, nutrients are fully consumed, and all is well. If the cells are idle, the mitochondria are inactive. They will skid to a halt partway through their energy production cycles. If they are in this state very long, they tend to die and loose certain oxidizing radicals into the cell. This frequently kills the cell as well. This is a simple catabolic response. The body is removing unnecessary cells.
However, this removal process is not entirely clean. The oxidizing radicals might damage the host cell, but not kill it. The mitochondria might reproduce, though damaged.
Now we don’t fall apart if we don’t exercise, the body has numerous mechanisms to block the damaged cells and mitochondria from reproducing, and many of the processes still are active. But some damaged ones will reproduce.
It may seem odd that rapid cellular turnover translates to slower aging, but that is how we are designed.
Slow Aging by Caring for Mitochondria and Stem Cells
The two necessarily go hand in hand. Unhealthy cells produce unhealthy mitochondria and vice versa. However, a healthy diet, one with a good mix of healthy meats and vegetables, along with a proper exercise program and a stress reduction activity and sound sleep will reduce aging to a crawl. These are covered in detail elsewhere on this blog: here, here, and here. Besides their beneficial effect on aging, they will prevent or slow most of the other chronic diseases of our age: cancer, heart disease, adult onset diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
Degradation of the mitochondria and the stem cells is not the cause of aging, it is aging.
Bats are a great example of how much difference optimal mitochondria can make. An extreme example of retarded aging is the bat. North American bug-eating bats weigh less than a mouse, but out live it tenfold. The principle reason appears to be that bats have great mitochondria. Or is it that they have a lot of them? Likely both. Flying has such a high metabolic demand that any animal able to do it has to have a huge reserve supply of healthy mitochondria. Bats live 25 years. So do hummingbirds. Some of the larger birds outlive us. These animals do not seem to age. Of course, there are no retirement homes for flying animals (with the possible exception of parrots). When birds and bats can no longer fly, their life is over. So everything has to work in this high-energy mode until the end. That their life should be so greatly extended over their landlubber cousins attests to the power of busy, healthy mitochondria and the consequent cellular health.
There’s No Fountain of Youth and We Can’t Fly – Great Conclusion
But we are not without hope. We can make the choices that will likely get us to 95 or beyond in one piece. Bats have no monopoly on that. Get the numbers in the right place and it all happens. Of course, the changes that must be made, the exercising, and all the rest of it can seem quite daunting. There are no shortcuts, no fountain of youth, no super-statin pills, but the ability to lead a long and healthy life and reap its benefits is built-into all of us.