Date: February 1st, 2002
There is a fine line in medical research between hope and realism. Today's highly-hyped breakthrough could be tomorrow's bust. So it may seem premature to try to characterize any of the advances in research on aging since the turn of the 21st century as "bigger" or "brighter" than others. Only time will tell.
However, in looking at the most promising research to have emerged in the infancy of the new millennium, there is significant progress in research, pharmaceuticals and medical technologies on which to report.
There is evidence that a vaccine that has been developed can clear the sticky deposits that have been targeted as a likely contributor to Alzheimer's Disease. Experiments have shown that immunization with little bits of a suspect brain protein can prevent mice from developing Alzheimer's or delay its onset.
"The vaccine is safe for humans and trials are underway," says Dr. George Martin, professor of pathology and genetics at University of Washington. "But we need to be cautious about how much of a breakthrough this will be. We hope it will work."
Genes captured the spotlight as the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics jointly announced completion of a working draft reference DNA sequence of the human genome. This achievement provides scientists with a virtual road map to an estimated 95% of all genes. The map will speed the understanding of how genetics influence disease development and contribute to discovery of new treatments.
The hunt intensified for the gene or genes that predispose certain individuals to exceptionally long and fairly healthy lives.
Dr. Thomas Perls, leading researcher on the "longevity gene," has been working with 308 individuals in an attempt to decipher what helps them reach "extreme" old age.
"These individuals lack genes that predispose one to disease and also have genes resistant to disease," explains Perls, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and geriatrician at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The centenarian studies recently yielded discovery of the Chromosome 4 region thought to house the longevity genes and should become the springboard for remarkable genetic discoveries in the next 10 years or so. They've found the region on Chromosome 4 that contains the longevity gene or genes. Now they have to find the genes.
"Discovery of the disease-resistant genes could lead to the development of drugs that do the same things the genes do and compress the time the aging are sick toward the end of their lives," Dr. Perls says.
Other researchers working on longevity found that mutating a single gene doubled the life span of fruitflies. Laboratory work further suggests a link between metabolism, caloric restriction and longevity and indicates that if you genetically alter metabolism, you can alter life span.
Laboratory work by Caleb Finch, professor of biological sciences and gerontology at Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern California, points to links to food intake, aging and Alzheimer's Disease as well as the benefits of some cholesterol-lowering drugs on Alzheimer's.
Some of the most exciting studies in recent years have proven the positive impact of strength training on frailty.
"It's more important than aerobic exercise," asserts Perls.
Researchers (see Fall edition of Living Longer and Loving It) took very frail nursing home residents, put them on weight machines, and saw a tripling of muscle mass in months.
"A tremendous discovery from a public health point of view," Perls says. "The key is building mass. We lose 1/3 pound of muscle a year starting at age 30. That affects all kinds of bodily systems…. respiratory, endocrinolgy. Muscle mass makes a huge difference."
As promising as these developments are, no one should sit around waiting for a magic pill that will absolve people of the need to take responsibility for their own health.
Experts agree that for now the best practical advice to slow down the aging process has been obvious for 20 years - don't smoke, lose weight, and exercise. The new twist is in exercise and the extraordinary benefits of pumping iron.
We know that science will continue to provide us with more insight into medical mysteries as the 21st century ventures on. What we will learn and how it will affect our everyday lives remains to be seen. What we do know is that advances are needed to guarantee a better, more productive lifestyle for all of us.