New scientific research on healing the body from within, may revolutionise the way we age, says Áilín Quinlan.
YOUTH may be wasted on the young, but it’s the holy grail for the ageing affluent. No longer willing to undergo an invasive nip-and-tuck, informed women are looking to the latest developments in science, which take an inside-out approach to ageing.
There’s a booming market in sophisticated anti-ageing procedures and products. Last year, the global market was worth €193bn. By 2018, that’s scheduled to be €280bn.
The research is being driven by some of the best scientific and business brains.
Dr David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, swallows a daily anti-ageing capsule that he developed during his research on mice.
The capsule contains a naturally occurring molecule, called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, which reduces in the body as we age, thereby making our cells less efficient.
The molecule reduces inflammation and may correct metabolic defects.
Dr Sinclair is increasing his body’s stores of this dynamic substance — and he is willing to wait and see what the result will be.
“I don’t know if they’re working,” says 45-year-old Dr Sinclair. “I’m too young to know yet. Another 20 years and I will know,” he says.
However, there have been human trials already and the results are promising. Research is ongoing into “newer, better molecules now,” he says.
He is confident about the financial success of an age-defying drug.
“Fortune magazine estimated in 2006 the drug would be worth $40bn,” he says.
Science is increasingly confident that the health hardships of ageing can be avoided.
As Sinclair said in a recent article in the prestigious Scientific American journal: “You can learn a lot about the state of a used car just from its mileage and model year. The wear-and-tear of heavy driving, and the passage of time, will have taken an inevitable toll.
“The same appears to be true of ageing in people, but the analogy is flawed, because of a crucial difference between inanimate machines and living creatures: deterioration is not inexorable in biological systems, which can respond to their environments and use their own energy to defend and repair themselves.”
Researchers have found a family of genes that have the power to keep the body’s natural defence and repair activities going strong regardless of age.
These represent the opposite of ageing genes.
“We began investigating this idea nearly 15 years ago,” Dr Sinclair says.
Mice were given NAD. By increasing the amount in just one week of treatment, two-year-old mice tissue resembled that of six-month-old mice.
In human years, that’s akin to a 60-year-old’s cells resembling those of a 20-year-old.
So it’s no surprise that for those in the know and with the money, old-style cosmetic enhancements, such as facelifts, are losing their attraction in a market obsessed by cutting-edge research and scientific breakthroughs in everything from diet to neuroscience.
Soon, some people may be able to grow a new set of kidneys, because, says Sinclair, coming down the track is “the ability to change your genes permanently and to grow replacement organs in the dish.”
By the end of this century, he says, “people could live to 150.”
His research, however, is about extending “health-span” not “life-span.” Dr Sinclair is by no means alone.
It’s been less than two years since Google launched its mission to extend the human lifespan, with research carried out by scientists at the California Life Company, or Calico.
They harnessed sophisticated technologies to delay ageing and eliminate diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. A $1.5bn, life-extension research centre in San Francisco is planned.
Larry Ellison, the CEO of tech company Oracle, and one of the world’s richest men, is pumping money into the Ellison Medical Foundation, an anti-ageing biomedical research centre. Peter Thiel, another hugely wealthy businessman — he’s a co-founder of PayPal and a Facebook board member — supports SENS, a research body that specialises in rejuvenation research.
SENS is run by Aubrey de Grey, who says that restoring the molecular and cellular structure of the body to that of a young adult will reverse ageing and allow people to avoid the ill-health that so often accompanies old age.
New, more advanced thinking is also ringing the changes in the fitness industry — there’s a growing belief that weights should be lighter and repetitions more frequent.
The formerly popular sports of marathon running and triathlons are now losing favour – they can leave you haggard, and according to actress Sandra Bullock’s personal trainer Dalton Wong, too much endurance work can stress the skin.
Wong recommends about 45 minutes of aerobic activity a few times a week, once you hit your 40s. More than that may raise the levels of the stress hormone coritoson, and could exacerbate the ageing process.
Scientists at McMaster University in Canada recently reported that up to half an hour of jogging, cycling or fast walking three times a week to boost skin plumpness in a group of volunteers aged 65 and older.
After three months, the complexion of the exercisers were closer to what the scientists said they’d expect in in healthy people aged 20 to 40.
“At a world level, people have become less comfortable with mortality,” says Dr Patrick Magovern, who was clinical instructor at the University of California in Los Angeles.
People want to make the best of what they have, says Dublin-based Dr Magovern, who has trained in nutritional medicine and bio-identical or natural hormone treatments.
However, says Dr Magovern, the stream of patients who arrive at his practice are not seeking the secret of an eternal, Hollywood-style youthfulness, but solutions to real, age-related problems, such as the decline of testosterone in men and menopausal problems in women.
“In Ireland, we’re very problem-oriented. A lot of women would be embarrassed about anything to do with enhancing their looks,” he says.
Dr Magovern uses a combination of bio-identical hormone and advanced nutritional treatments, which can help with the problems but, he says, they also have some desirable side-effects.
So while treatment with the hormone oestrogen helps with ageing bones — it can improve density — it can also plump up the skin, and smooth out wrinkles, by thickening the subcutaneous fat.
Oestrogen treatment also increases the level of serotonin in the brain, thus improving mood and acetycholine levels, which boost memory.
“So it helps with bone health, memory, skin and happiness, alongside solving menopausal problems.
“The patients come in for the treatment, but they like the side-effects,” he says, adding that nutrition is extremely important.
“I check things like stomach acids, gut and digestive system and the person’s ability to absorb essential minerals and vitamins.”
Male patients present with a form of depression, he says: “You will see unrecognised, gross testosterone deficiency in them. This can present as a depressive illness and be diagnosed as depression, whereas what they need is the relevant hormone. When they get it, some people find it can really change things.”
It’s certainly not cheap — but it’s not beyond the bounds of affordability either — for bio-identical Hormone Therapy, Magovern charges €250 for a first consultation, while subsequent standard consultations are €120.
In London, Dr Marion Gluck, author of It Must Be my Hommones, also believes that replenishing the body’s hormones is the key to health and anti-ageing.
“Ageing accelerates after menopause, so having the hormones means you maintain your health and your quality of life. The health benefits mean you feel well — you won’t have the aching bones, the headaches, the hot flushes,” she says.
The treatment also rolls back the years.
“It’s about positive side-effects,” says Dr Gluck, adding that what she does is ‘top-up’ hormones that the body previously provided.
“My patients continually say their skin is better, their sleep is better, their moods improve, their sex life is better.”
Then there’s the rejuvenation effect.
“Women are definitely worried about the appearance — they feel everything is starting to sag, that they are losing their skin tone and that they suddenly become invisible.
“They can get this ‘crepey’ look to their skin and they welcome the benefits of the hormonal therapy that we provide.”
But given the more far-out research currently being carried out internationally, would we, if we could, really opt to live to 150 or older?
“Members of my family would,” says Dr Sinclair.
“It’s a terrible loss when anyone, with all their gathered wisdom and energy, withers and dies.”
True, but Dr Labros Chatzis, a plastic surgeon with 21 years’ experience, fears that our culture’s obsession with youth not only feeds our insecurity about ourselves, but exerts a downward pressure:
“People cannot accept that ageing is a normal process. We think we can buy everything these days, so we think we can buy youth, as well.
“It’s no longer good enough to look 58 if you are 58. You have to look younger.
“The big companies and the marketplace feed our insecurity. The celebrity culture is part of it — people feel they have to follow every Tom Dick and Harry who is any kind of an A, B or C-list celebrity.
“Consumerism is focused on youth, beauty, wealth and spending. There’s more pressure, and there’s a need to look younger,” says Dr Chatzis, who is based at Clane General Hospital, in Kildare.
In today’s workplace, he says, if you’re middle-aged and you don’t look your best, you may not have the same chance at getting a promotion or even a job.
“There’s a big market for it, there’s a huge amount of money being spent on research and marketing, not only to promote new products, but to promote the need for these new products.”
Though he says nobody can hide their age, he has this advice for those who want to look their best:
“Wear proper skin block. Don’t smoke. Enjoy a good, healthy diet, and if you’re lucky enough to have good genes you will look better than your biological age.
“It’s your personality that makes you a success, not the number of wrinkles on your face.”
Case study: Bio-identical hormone treatment
Bio-identical hormone therapy has transformed the life of Anna* a 55-year-old financier.
After discovering some years ago that she was not only going through the menopause, but had osteoporosis to boot, she began to research the bone condition.
“I discovered that the normal procedure is to give a medication which prevents further natural deterioration of the bone but doesn’t encourage the growth of new bone.
“I was told the medication would keep things stable for about five years but that after that there was not much hope.
“I learned a bit about bio-identical hormone replacement and how it could improve bone health.”
In June 2013 she travelled to see Dr Magovern at his clinic in Dublin – a four-hour round trip from where she lives – in the hope that bio-identical hormone therapy might improve her condition.
“He put me on a course of bio-identical hormones and also tested my digestive system to see if I was absorbing the vitamins and minerals in my food properly.
“I wasn’t, so I started taking a course of digestive enzymes to improve the flora in my gut.
“I feel much better now. It has totally changed my life for the better.
“I had lost interest in sex, but now my sex has life improved massively.”
In fact she says, her sex life had improved within weeks of beginning the treatments.
“I’ve lost weight. I’ve gone down a dress size. My energy levels have increased. My memory has improved and I felt so much better overall that it’s unbelievable.
“I feel like I am getting my life back. I feel much more enthusiastic about life and I would recommend bio identical hormone treatment to everybody.”
For a year she made the lengthy trip every three months, but now she attends the clinic on a twice-yearly basis.
“I feel it’s marvellous and I prioritise it over anything else.”
Her partner has noticed the difference in her, she says, and is “thinking about going to [the clinic] to see if there is anything it could do for him.”
*Not her real name
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