The secret to everlasting life may not be attainable for quite some time, but ways of improving the length and quality of our lifespans are realizable now. Sue Armstrong, author of "Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age," says that the future of aging has arrived and that scientists have found encouraging new ways to approach the experience of growing old.
“Aging is not an inexorable process,” Armstrong said. “Absolutely for sure we all will get old, but it’s not an immutable process — it is something we can intervene in.”
The ways of intervening in aging take many forms. You may have seen advertisements promoting the idea that antioxidants can help us all live longer. Every day, we are exposed to molecules called oxygen radicals that cause damage to our cells. Exposure comes as a result of our own normal biological functions, including digestion, but also from sources outside of our bodies, like air pollution. If oxygen radicals are harmful, it would seem to make sense that an antioxidant would be helpful and counteractive. But Armstrong learned from scientific research that antioxidants are not all they’re cracked up to be.
“Generally speaking, I don’t think antioxidants and all the stuff that you get in the supermarket which calls itself an antioxidant, I don’t think they are very effective,” Armstrong said. “Oxygen radicals very clearly are damaging to the cells, and they do have a role in aging, but they’re not the central mechanism of aging, and so people have looked around at other things.”
Antioxidants might not be the key to a longer life, but researchers have found other ways of lengthening quality of life. Armstrong said that beyond the classic recommendations of maintaining a healthy diet and getting routine exercise, research labs are testing out a variety of new methods. Scientists are approaching aging solutions from all angles, from clearing out old senescent cells that build up in your body, to studying “immortal” jellyfish.
Armstrong emphasized that while there are, and will continue to be, an abundance of gerontological breakthroughs, there will not be one magic elixir of youth that works for everybody.
“There’s going to be a lot of things which are effective, but they’re going to have to be part of personalized medicine which takes into account your own genetic background and your own life habits,” Armstrong said.
Hannah Uebele is a former intern at Innovation Hub.