It's Your Parent's Fault
(no. 5) Aging begins really, really early, by Stephen P. Williams
First, an aside. I overheard this conversation on a bench outside the Mercer Hotel in SoHo:
50 something man: I feel like an old man. My fricking leg aches today.
40 something woman: You’re only as old as you feel.
50 something man: That’s ridiculous. I’m as old as I am.
Well, let me mansplain that a little bit, bro. It turns out we actually are as young as we feel, according to numerous studies from around the world. Whether feelings cause aging, or are a result of it, people who feel they are younger than they actually are also have younger bodies and brains.
More info: Young as we feel
Photograph by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash
When does aging begin?
In the US, people generally think of aging as a disease of old people (old meaning any age that’s about 20 years older than you are when you have this thought). I hate to break it to you, but aging actually begins in the womb, before we are born. That’s right, you can worry about aging at any age!
A gaggle of researchers under the auspices of the University of Cambridge modeled human pregnancy in rats. Some of the mama rats gestated in enclosures with normal oxygen levels, and some gestated in low-oxygen environments similar to what you’d find in high altitude pregnancy, or in a mother who smoked a lot of cigarettes. (Low oxygen is among the most common human pregnancy complication.) Since laboratory rats have relatively short lifespans, the researchers could watch as the baby rats grew into old age. As adults, the rats from low oxygen environments aged more quickly than those with normal oxygen. The researchers found that the low oxygen mice had shorter telomeres, which are the binding at the end of DNA that keep the chromosomes from fraying.
"Our study in rats suggests that the aging clock begins ticking even before we are born and enter this world, which may surprise many people,” said lead author, Professor Dino Giussani, from the Department of Physiology Development & Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.
Curiously, those low-oxygen mice whose mothers received antioxidants during pregnancy aged more slowly, and had longer telomeres. The same beneficial effect of antioxidants applied to mice born to mothers who were pregnant in normal oxygen environments. (I pity all the mice in this experiment.)
"Antioxidants are known to reduce aging, but here, we show for the first time that giving them to pregnant mothers can slow down the aging clock of their offspring. Although this discovery was found using rats, it suggests a way that we may treat similar problems in humans,” said Beth Allison, another author of the study.
(Here’s a list of the antioxidants found in over 3,000 foods, in case you’re interested in boosting your intake.)
This is great info if you are a mother-to-be, but what does it mean for people who have already gotten old, and who’s shortened telomeres, apparently, are leading to wrinkles, arthritis and memory loss? In this case, what’s good for the youths is also good for the olds. Antioxidants lengthen telomeres at any age. So eat your antioxidant-rich foods, such as purple grapes, coffee and kale. While your telomeres might be suffering a decline because you are older, they’ll still do better with good nutrients, and might even improve. Long telomeres are the best revenge.
More info: Pregnancy in rats; what’s good for the youths is also good for the olds.
Of Interest to All
Word of the week: Senescence
Senescence, which has noble echoes of Seneca, and sequoia, means deterioration with age, particularly at the cellular level. I love this word. I suppose the antonym would be growth, which for us humans stops in the late teens, early 20s.
Spiels on Wheels
The Art in Odd Places Festival invited the artist Laura Nova to perform “Spiels on Wheels” along Manhattan’s W.14th Street, to celebrate the stories of the city’s 1.4 million older adults. In homage to meal delivery services, she and others delivered “story boxes” containing postcards to younger New Yorkers, so they could send them to older adults.
You Sure That’s Right?
I’m often told that I look young for my 61 years. Yet the “How Old?” website pegged me at 73, based on a decent photo. A friend who is 31 got pegged as 42. Which proves that when someone tells you how young you look, they’re really saying, “I can’t believe you got so old.”
From the Department of Humor
I hope that anyone who views this cartoon strip about competitive degeneration might immediately make a vow to never again complain about their aches and pains.
I’m working on newsletter no.5. Photograph by Konstancja Maleszyńska
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