We know that our condition of “health” is fluid. At any given moment, we may be ill. Or on the way to recovery. Or not ill at all. We may be “managing” several chronic conditions, and see fluctuations in the effects they exert on our wellbeing. Nothing surprising in any of this.
But what about the rate at which we age? For laymen like me, it’s been framed, more or less, as a constant. We age at a certain rate, based on our genetics, lifestyle and other influences. We can then (maybe) slow down that rate through diet, exercise and (again, maybe) drug therapies.
But what if that rate is fluid? What if it bounces up and down? Can we age more quickly, then more slowly, and back up again? If so, why? And what can we do to promote the “slow it down” part of the equation, and maybe even reverse it?
In an important new study, reported here, researchers demonstrated that biological aging is fluid. It can be decelerated or even reversed — and a key may be in the blood.
The researchers took old mice and young mice and had them share the circulation of one of them. When the young mice shared the old mice’s blood, they aged faster. When they didn’t, the effect was reversed: ““We show evidence for a reversal of biological aging. The young mice, which showed accelerated biological age with exposure from aged circulation, were able to reverse this process and return back to their chronological age after the old circulation was gone.”
But the team went further: “Obviously, it’s not exactly natural to be surgically attached via blood vessels to another living creature, so the team wondered whether the same fluctuation in biological aging could be true without sharing old blood. In collaboration with Harvard University, they analyzed human cohorts of stress that included chronic illness, surgery, and pregnancy. Using DNA methylation clocks on blood samples, they found that aging can accelerate during these stressful events, but when the stressors are removed, aging can decelerate.”
They looked at patients who had undergone emergency surgical repair for traumatic hips fractures. They took blood samples before surgery, one day after, and before discharge from the hospital. “The team found a significant increase in biological age markers in the first 24 hours of hospital admittance, but by the time they were discharged, patients’ biological ages dropped, even though many of these patients were in their 70s and 80s.”
The results were different for patients with elective hip replacement surgery. “Without the trauma of an injury, biological aging was not affected.”
The emerging theory here is that eliminating certain stressors, we cannot only improve immediate health but decelerate the rate of aging. Is it just illness or injury? What about depression and mental illness?
The money quote, from a co-author of the study, James White, PhD, assistant professor in cell biology at Duke Molecular Physiology Institute:
“I think the tissues and cells respond to their environment. So, in theory, if we can convince the cells they are young and take out stressors, maybe we can push off aging a while longer.”