Our Search for the Fountain of Youth Continues

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Our Search for the Fountain of Youth Continues

Slowing — and possibly even reversing — the aging process and its symptoms depends on understanding the mechanisms of aging.  As we explained in the June 2003 issue of Trends,1 there are at least five mechanisms believed to play a part in aging. 

However, scientists are only now reaching solid conclusions about which of these might play the primary causal role and what effect manipulating each mechanism might have on the aging of a
specific person.  Let's review the five theories:

The telomerase theory of aging focuses on telomeres, which are sequences of nucleic acids extending from the ends of chromosomes.  Every time our cells divide, the telomeres shorten.  Ultimately, once the telomere end pieces of the DNA become too short, cell division slows and stops.  Research has shown that the lengths of telomeres affect the longevity of humans:  In a group of people over 60 years old, those with short telomeres died of heart disease at rates three times higher than those with long telomeres.  Similarly, people with short telomeres were eight times more likely to die of infectious disease than people with long telomeres.

The free radical theory has gotten the most attention from the general public.  Within the cells, mitochondria convert nutrients and oxygen into energy.  Aging begins here.  Basically the problem is rust, or oxidation, caused by toxic molecules called free radicals.  As you age, your body's ability to make antioxidants, which disarm the by-products of these everyday chemical reactions, diminishes.  Free radicals have been implicated in more than 20 age-related diseases, including cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration, and Parkinson's disease.  A large market already exists for antioxidants intended to destroy these free radicals. 

The genetic control theory contends that we're predetermined to live to a certain age by our genes.  For longevity researchers, the SIRT genes, which regulate metabolic processes, have become a focus of intensive investigation. 

Another line of research is focusing on the neuro-endocrine system, which produces the body's hormones.  Today, tens of thousands of Americans undergo expensive hormone treatments in hopes of halting the aging process.

The wear-and-tear theory suggests that aging occurs when the body and its cells are damaged by overuse and abuse.  Since the P53 gene seems to play a major role in killing cancerous cells as well as normal cells that have been damaged, it's been a primary target of investigations.  It's through the killing of slightly damaged cells that P53 seems to contribute to aging...

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