– The Biology of Ageing
Colin Selman who is Professor of Biogerontology at the University of Glasgow gave a fascinating talk on the subject of the biology of ageing. He noted that, while much of the research on ageing has been done on animals, it has enormous relevance to human ageing although research on this topic is challenging and complex. Some of the key points in his wide-ranging talk included:
Lifespan vs “healthspan”
More important than the duration of life is its quality. Big increases in longevity have not been matched by commensurate increases in healthy years. Research needs to focus on how to ensure that later years are lived in better health.
Genetic and environmental factors in lifespan and health
Lifespan is to some extent determined by genetic factors and research on animals demonstrates how switching off even a single relevant gene can have a marked impact on both lifespan and health. In humans it is suggested that genetics may account for approximately 25% of the variance in longevity.
One dramatic slide related to deprivation as a determinant of lifespan. This showed that men living in Lenzie have an average lifespan of over 80 – above the average for Japan, whereas men living in Calton in the East end of Glasgow, less than ten miles from Lenzie, have an average lifespan around 55 – less than the average for India.
Diet, and in particular caloric restriction and fasting were found to impact on disease risk factors and hence longevity. Professor Selman also noted the importance of exercise, but time constraints meant this was not specifically covered in the talk. The negative impact of smoking on longevity was also noted.
Drugs that impact on lifespan
Drugs which may enhance lifespan attract a huge amount of interest and considerable investment, including through the firm Calico which is owned by Google and from several billionaires. Many different potential drugs are being studied, one promising example being Rapamycin. This is an immunosuppressant drug which is used to prevent rejection in organ transplantation and to treat certain types of cancer, but which has also been found to increase longevity. Professor Selman noted however that its side effects would likely mitigate against it being used specifically as an anti-aging drug at this time.
Another focus of research attracting almost unlimited funding relates to technology to manipulate human cells to revert to stem cells which could potentially prolong life.
The world’s oldest person
Jeanne Louise Calment lived to 122 despite smoking for most of her life! She came from a long-lived family and also ate a healthy diet and exercised well into old age.
Q and A discussion
Professor Selman’s talk attracted a huge amount of interest among those present and there was a lively Q and A session. In particular the point he made at the start of his talk and to which he returned frequently ie that a healthy old age is much more important than longevity as such chimed strongly with the audience.