Elixirs, Potions, Tonics... An elixir of youth capable of at least reversing the ravages of aging, if not bestowing immortality, has always been one of the enduring dreams of humanity. We don't want to just live longer; we want to live younger.
The Chinese believed ingesting precious substances, such as gold, would confer longevity. In India, Amrita (the "elixir of life") is described in Hindu legends along with similar hints of alchemy that were found in ancient China. In Europe, the elixir had as many names as it had stories surrounding its existence. The Comte de Saint Germain was an 18th century nobleman reputed to be several hundred years old because of his having the elixir. Even Alexander the Great may have been looking for a river that healed the ravages of age. Cleopatra took baths in donkeys' milk to preserve the beauty and youth of her skin. Medieval alchemists were always in pursuit of the elixir of life. The famous perfume "Eau de Cologne" was initially sold as a miracle water to be taken internally, bestowing a "refreshed body, mind and soul." The name most closely linked to the search for a fountain of youth is 16th century explorer Ponce de Leon, who reportedly found it in Florida (where older folks from the Northeast are still looking for it). Virtually every culture has its own elixir of youth legend.
Jeanne Calment, who had the longest confirmed human life span in history, attributed her longevity -- she died in 1998 at 122 years old -- to a diet rich in olive oil, regular glasses of port and her ability to "keep smiling." My Dad, who lived to 101, said his secret was one very dry martini every evening (no olive please).
Modern scientists (and many hopeful product marketers/snake oil salespeople) have also been hot on the pursuit of the "fountain of youth." In recent years there has been some intriguing research progress.
Very exciting research from the University of Pittsburgh Medical School may replace glasses of port and martinis as the next elixir of life. This month their scientists reported that mice bred to age quickly, who were injected with young stem cells, had improved health and lived three times longer then the mice without the injections of stem cells. Yes, they lived three times longer! In fact, it seemed that the healthy stem cells secreted some kind of factor that helped to correct the dysfunctions in the native stem cell population. This finding prompted the study authors to say that it might be possible one day to forestall aging declines with a shot of youthful vigor. Research continues.
This study follows on the heels of research done at the Salk Institute where scientists were able to reset and reprogram certain stem cell factors that are implicated in aging. This reprogramming slowed down epigenetic alterations commonly associated with aging.
During the last several years, researchers have discovered other tantalizing clues to slowing down aging. Three thousand miles off the coast of Chile, scientists discovered a substance in the soil on Easter Island that has life-extending properties. This naturally occurring antifungal agent "rapamycin" (a powerful immunosuppressant) has significant lifespan-extending properties. These benefits are thought to be related to the benefits of calorie-restricted diets. Work continues of this research in attempts to produce a genuine anti-aging pill.
And in 2008, researchers showed that boosting the amount of a naturally forming enzyme, telomerase, in the body could prevent cells from dying and possibly lead to extended, healthier lifespans. The scientists at the Spanish National Cancer Clinic found that boosting the amount of telomerase in mice doubled their lifespans.
While we wait for practical uses for this exciting research, what can we do besides driving to St Augustine, Fla. and bathing in the fountain of youth? We spend billions of dollars each year on anti-aging tonics, potions, vitamins and creams, trying to stave off the ravages of the years. But our genetic inheritance trumps all other factors in determining how well we age and how long we live. While we can't change the genetic card we were dealt, we CAN modify the expression of our genes through healthy lifestyle choices. These cutting edge discoveries are bringing the fountain of youth closer to our reality. While the dreams of a future in which we get an injection of stem cells rather than Botox to keep the wrinkles away may be tantalizingly closer to reality, even now, we have the means not to reverse but to slow down the aging process by the choices we make.
Here six things you can do right now if you want to live a healthier, longer life:
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In good health,
For more by Stephen Barrie, ND, click here.
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For more on aging gracefully, click here.
 Mitra Lavasani et al., Muscle-derived stem/progenitor cell dysfunction limits healthspan and lifespan in a murine progeria model. Nature Communications, Jan 2012.
 J Belmonte et al., Recapitulation of premature ageing with iPSCs from Huchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome. Nature, 2011.
 Kan Cao et al., Rapamycin reverses cellular phenotypes and enhances mutant protein clearance in H-G progeria Syndrome cells. Sci Transl Med 29 June 2011.
 A Tomas-Loba et al., Telomerase Reverse Transcriptase Delays Aging in Cancer-Resistant Mice. Cell, 135;4: 14 Nov 2008.