We’re all ageing, but are we all doing it the same way? Prof Michael Snyder of Stanford University thinks not. The results of his study may go a long way to explaining why 74-year-old Helen Mirren looks positively youthful while not actually keeping a portrait in her attic, a la Dorian Grey.
Snyder, chairman of the Department of Genetics, and his colleagues at California’s Stanford University School of Medicine spent the last four years studying 106 people in incredible detail to see how we really age. The results of the study have been published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine.
They have discovered four main ageotypes — the pattern of how people are ageing — metabolic, immune, kidney, and liver. But Prof Snyder is quick to point out that there are going to be more. He says some people are also cardio-agers, which means their heart functions seem to be changing over time. Everyone has an individual ageotype and people can be a mix.
“The analogy I like to use is a car,” says Prof Snyder. “As your car gets older, certain parts are probably wearing down faster than other parts, like the transmission, might go or maybe the brakes.”
It’s useful to know what parts are wearing out fastest so that those are the ones you can intervene on and that’s really the idea.
Prof Snyder, 65, wants to provide people with information that they can act on. If you can identify your ageing markers, you can focus on them and even try to slow down the process.
For example, he says someone who is a metabolic ager may want to change their diet to keep their glucose or cholesterol levels under control. A cardio ager should get their heart functions checked.
He believes that an immune ager “should take some anti-inflammatories like turmeric or ginger, possibly some of the aspirin types of molecules”, while kidney agers should drink plenty of fluids and liver agers “probably shouldn’t drink”.
Although the overall study was running for 10 years, most participants were involved for three or four years. Prof Snyder says: “We think we only need two years of data to tell you how you’re ageing, and then it should be possible to intervene.”
Don't wait for people to get sick
The data comes from measuring participants every three months. Samples are taken of their blood, urine, and poo. “There is 10 times more bacteria in your poop than in the cells of your body. Those microbes in your gut that digest your poop, they’re very important for your health.”
The aim behind such detailed measurements is to try and keep people healthy for longer rather than waiting for them to get sick and then treating them.
Prof Snyder says a key aspect of the study is that participants are being followed longitudinally. This is an observational research method in which data is gathered for the same subjects repeatedly over a period of time.
“We follow thousands of molecules in your blood, urine, and microbes,” he says.
This enables him and his colleagues to see with much better resolution what’s going on within a person than some of the DNA tests currently available. “We found that not only are people ageing differently, but they’re ageing at different rates," he said.
Some people even seem to be reversing their ageing markers, which is pretty cool.
He hopes that, in the future, anyone will be able to do the test. “We’d like to commercialise this at some point. We’ve applied for a patent for it because I think people are very interested in how they’re ageing.”
While Prof Snyder thinks the discovery will lead to a significant increase in lifeexpectancy, “more importantly it willexpand people’s health span. You don’twant them just living, you want themleading active, healthy, fulfilling lives. It’s basically to catch things that might begoing off early and intervene to keep them healthy.
“The number one party line is exercise well and eat better, but I do think, in the future, people will want to know exactly how they are ageing and they’ll want to know that if they are exercising, how are they improving.
"If you can actually see yourself reversing your ageotype, that would be pretty powerful, I think.”