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Fri, 12/06/2013

The Quest For Immortality Leads The Way to Happy Ageing

Immortality – a centuries-old dream. Previously we had been looking for the fountain of youth in far away countries but today we strive to science. Today it is no longer about eternal life, today we strive for a life in physical and mental integrity. Science does not want to understand the aging process to stop it, but to be able to cure diseases, of which more and more people are affected in old age

such as cancer, diabetes, heart attack or dementia. Through better health care, healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle more and more people, especially in the rich countries, become very old now. Thanks to high-tech medicine average life expectancy has double in the past 130 years. But that does not automatically mean that you stay mentally and physically healthy when becoming older. On the contrary. The longer you live, the more body functions can break down. And like a car, it may be that one part does not work thoroughly even though the car is still moving – but just not as quickly and smooth as before. That is because the human system is only designed for a reproductive period of only 40 years. During this time one can procreate in order to enable the species to survive as every species does. What comes after that, evolution does not care.

Science would now like to find out which parts of the body age how fast, how vulnerable they are to the aging process and how they can be replaced or healed. Up to the age of sixty, man is able to use his physical and mental strength to 100 percent. Only around his 20 birthday there is a cut, but then it returns to normal quickly. From 60 on power drops to about 70 percent to decline unstoppable to zero from about the 100th birthday.

One of the centers for the investigation of the causes of age suffering is in Germany: at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Cologne and at the Cluster of Excellence CECAD the University of Cologne. The main area of research is the body's protein TOR, which stands for Target of Rapamycin. 2009 three American research groups independently showed that the cancer drug rapamycin prolongs the lives of laboratory mice dramatically. However, it has too many side effects to be a real miracle cure or even an anti-aging agent. But more important is to know what role TOR plays in aging. TOR stimulates the cells to grow as long as there is food. If food is scarce, TOR brings the cells to degrade superfluous cell components and flush them into the digestive system. For the cells this is amounts to a major cleaning. As long as you are still growing this works well. But if you have food in abundance as an adult TOR stimulates the cells to a harmful growth. At the same time it makes the cells insensitive to insulin, as a result the typical adult-onset diabetes is created.

Since the 30s of last century, we know that fasting protects against aging. The downside is that with this method you are allowed to eat only so little that you are basically malnourished why this is not a life-prolonging measures. However, it helps to fast consistently for one week once a year or so because this puts the cells on alert and prevents damage to the them.

Another research focus is the repair of the mitochondria, the power plants of cells. They getting run down with age. But the body's immune system begins to weaken in old age as well. This is due to the T-cells, which are formed in the bone marrow but mature only in the thymus. T-cells are part of the white blood cells that fight invading enemy bacteria and viruses in the body. However, the thymus regresses after puberty and turns off completely around 50. As a result T-cells can not be programmed to battle new enemies. Vaccinations do not work as good after the thymus stopped working and new viruses and bacteria that you may acquire while traveling overseas have an easy time with your immune system.

The cause of cancer are usually 'typos' in the reproduction of genes. The body replaces its cells at regular intervals and thus the genetic information in it. But also the control and repair mechanisms of the body age and errors happen that become visible as cancer. The Spanish researcher Maria Blasco has been successful in developing a gene therapy, it has been tested so far – successfully – but only on mice.

With all this, the researchers just want to avoid lingering illness in old age and to allow a full, conscious and independent life until death – they do not want to prolong life indefinetley. Very few want to live forever anyway and most people want to die painlessly and with dignity.

Up for now the best way to stay mentally and physically healthy in old age is regular exercise, a balanced diet and especially to avoid obesity.