Is This the End of Aging? How We Can Hold Back the Years


There are, it seems, medical breakthroughs nearly every week to help us combat one of the harsh facts of life: aging.

Last week, researchers at Durham University reported that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in women, designed to replace sex hormones such as oestrogen which fall with age, has been shown to help the brains of middle-aged women work like those of younger women.

And an Oxford University study revealed that a daily aspirin in middle age could help ward off heart disease and cancer over the age of 45 – when the risk of cancer goes up substantially. Indeed, not only are we keeping healthier for longer, we feel younger, too.

A recent study of more than 10,000 people revealed that more than 40 per cent of today’s over-50s feel at least a decade younger than their actual age.

This is borne out by radiant actresses Dame Helen Mirren, 65, Joanna Lumley, 64, and Felicity Kendal, 64, who are hardly examples of what one thinks of as an Old Age Pensioner. By 2020, a quarter of the UK’s population will be more than 60-years-old, with 40 per cent of these over 75. By 2030 within Western Europe, nearly half the population will be over 50.

According to Newcastle University’s Institute for Aging and Health, for the past 200 years life expectancy in the Western world has been increasing at the incredible rate of five hours per day.

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So are our minds and bodies aging at the same rate as they always have done, or are we staving off the aging process? Is it actually possible to decrease our chronological age at a cellular level?

‘There is a genuine physical premise for having younger bodies than your chronological age,’ says Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, London, who is convinced that fit and healthy 50- or 60-year-olds could have the biological age of a 40-year-old.

‘Aging is the process of the body’s repair mechanisms gone wrong,’ says Prof Spector, who is studying aging in 2,500 twins, perfect for separating nature from nurture.

He hopes that by studying the aging of their skin, bone, heart muscle and eyes, he can discover genes that determine how fast we age, to develop anti-aging drugs.

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‘We are continually fighting inflammation and oxidative stress – which is where excess hydrogen ions, a natural by-product of energy production, float around the body and damage the cells. As we get older we have less effective defences.’

One way in which biological age (as opposed to chronological age) can be measured is using markers called telomeres.

‘Every cell in the body has genes, which are carried on chromosomes. At the end of each chromosome is the telomere. As we age, this starts to shorten and fray, leading to cell damage.’

Average telomere levels can be measured in blood tests on our white blood cells.

‘Longevity and aging is not an exact science,’ says Prof Spector.

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‘To an extent the rate of aging and our baseline levels of telomeres are controlled by genes. But smokers tend to have eight years less of telomeres, and obese or unfit people will have theirs shortened by four to eight years.’

Although it is impossible to repair them, we can halt their retreat by changing lifestyle.

‘There is increasing evidence that aging and health in later life could be related to events in childhood, in utero or even in our grandparents,’ says Prof Spector.

‘Social class is another factor. The more money worries you have, the more chronic stress you are under.’

In the study of identical twins it was revealed that the one who married a solicitor had aged less than the one married to a plumber.

Dr Pat Sutlieff, a GP, has been practising for 33 years and she agrees with the hypothesis that we can hold back the years.

Before retiring in June, aged 61, she was seeing patients in the early stages of potentially life-threatening diseases which she was able to treat, therefore delaying years of debilitating ill-health.

‘Because we have access to more treatments, the pattern of disease is changing,’ she says.

‘And there are the beneficial effects of good diet and regular exercise in delaying the development of heart disease and stroke.’

She also believes the initiatives to stop people smoking have produced a reduction in heart disease problems.

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November 29, 2010