“Superpill adds years to life!” declares a recent tabloid science headline. It sounds great, but have scientists really managed to stop the hands of time from ticking? Surprisingly enough, they haven’t.
This latest ‘wonder cure’ is really just a combination of four commonly used heart medicines. It could help many of the millions of people who are affected by heart disease each year because a lot of people simply don’t take the all the medication they need. Researchers think that far more people will stick to taking their pills if it is one easy-to-swallow dose rather than four separate tablets.
Not so revolutionary then.
But fear not, scientists are working hard to unlock the mysteries of ageing, and they aren’t afraid to suggest some pretty crazy ideas to try to turn back the clock…
A Glass Of Red Wine
There are all sorts of conflicting ideas about the scientific reason behind ageing. Some say that we are genetically programmed to wither and die, while others say it is an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics (specifically, entropy).
However, scientists generally agree that the trials and tribulations of daily life gradually damage the inner workings of our cells. Over time, this damage adds up and contributes to the physical effects we recognise as ageing.
One source of this damage is from free radicals – molecular waste products produced within cells throughout the day. Free radicals are also called oxidants and eat away at our DNA and other important microscopic bits.
Thankfully, we are not alone in our battle against oxidants. What can we use to fend them off? Antioxidants of course. And where can we find these handy antioxidants? Look no further than a bottle of red vino.
(N.B. While antioxidants are thought to help reduce ageing on a molecular level, the degree of real benefit is still debated. In particular, one must not use it as an excuse to go overboard on the red wine. Everything in moderation, kids.)
If you think that harvesting the blood of the young to give yourself eternal youth sounds like the plot of a horror movie, you’d be right. Sometimes, though, life is stranger than fiction as scientists have recently discovered that transfusions of young blood boost the brainpower of elderly mice.
This outrageous discovery is thought to be down to much higher concentrations of a protein called GDF11 in young blood. GDF11 is known to be able to rejuvenate ageing brain and muscle tissues, and is a hot topic in anti-ageing research at the moment.
Rumours that one mouse received so much GDF11 that it escaped its cage and began terrorising the inhabitants of a Transylvanian village remain unconfirmed.
However, they became the subject of intense anti-ageing research after scientists discovered that their cells don’t deteriorate with age in the same way as ours do. This means a single flatworm can continue to regenerate damaged tissue and organs, seemingly indefinitely!
Researchers hope that a better understanding of how flatworm stay young will help us get past the limitations our own cells.
Perhaps one day we too will be able to regenerate our body parts. Need a new brain, liver or mouth-anus opening? No problem!
Telomeres – Cancer’s Secret Weapon
Telomeres are protective caps that shield DNA from harm during cell replication. They’re a bit like the plastic bits on the ends of shoelaces to stop them fraying. However, telomeres get shorter over time until they are completely worn away. When this happens, a cell can no longer reproduce. In video game terms, a cell only has a certain number of lives until it’s game over.
Some cancer cells can stop this telomere degeneration by switching on an enzyme called telomerase. As the telomere gets worn down telomerase lengthens the telomere to replace what was lost. This makes the telomere, and the cancer cell, effectively immortal. As if cancer wasn’t scary enough already.
Scientists are studying telomerase to work out exactly how cancer activates it, and how we can do the same to halt the DNA damage that contributes to ageing.
Alas, time for reality. For despite what skincare companies would have you believe, at the moment there is no miracle cure for ageing. The best idea we have about how to live longer is the one you already know: Eat healthily, exercise regularly, and don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Not even red wine.
It’s not exciting or sexy, but until the approval of vampire-telomere therapy, it’s the best we’ve got.
Alternatively you could try to live your life like a flatworm, aimlessly floating around the ocean floor, occasionally ingesting some dead animal matter. It just might help you live forever. The choice is yours.
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