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The Fountain of Youth is a mythical spring which restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been recounted for hundreds of years, with the most famous involving the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. In 1513 he obtained a Royal Charter from the King to search for these famous waters in a part of the “New World” that today we call Florida. Alas, his mission was a failure, but the search for everlasting youth continues today in scientific laboratories around the world. Some of the latest research reaffirms the value of living a healthy lifestyle to stay young in mind and body. Other discoveries are opening the possibility of using science to transform the cells in our bodies to make them younger. That sounds like science fiction, but today’s fiction often becomes tomorrow’s facts, so let’s have a look at what we know so far.
In one study, men ranging in age from 50 to 72 followed a healthy lifestyle program to see if that would change the “biological age” of their cells. The program lasted for eight weeks, and it included at least seven hours of sleep each night, a 10 minute meditation and breathing practice done twice a day, 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, and “intermittent fasting” (eating only during limited hours like 10 am to 8 pm). Each man’s biological age was measured at the beginning and end of the study - this is the actual age of your cells regardless of how old you are. The results of the study were astonishing: in just eight weeks the men’s biological ages were reduced by an average of 3.2 years. The head of this study concluded that: “The biological age of organisms is thought to steadily increase over the course of life, but it is now clear that biological age is not indelibly linked to chronological age. Individuals can be biologically older or younger than their chronological age implies.”
This is something that we all know intuitively when we see someone who looks and acts notably younger or older than their age in years. But now science is finding out why this happens, and how we can apply that knowledge in our daily lives. In addition to lifestyle changes, there is increasing evidence that biological age can be influenced by disease, pharmaceuticals, environmental exposures and other factors. A recent study looked at how it is affected by stress. They found that people’s biological age undergoes a rapid increase in response to stress, but that it returns to near the previous level when the stress is removed. Their conclusion hints at the possibility that reducing overall stress can be an important factor in having a younger biological age: "A key area for further investigation is understanding how these continual elevations and recoveries in biological age may contribute to accelerated aging over the course of one’s life." These studies show that our life choices can help to slow or reverse the aging process. But science is also working on something called regenerative medicine, which aims to repair or replace aging cells. This could potentially bring results that are closer to those promised by the mythical Fountain of Youth.
Your biological age can be younger than your age in years
A ground breaking study at Harvard University (US) challenged the prevailing idea that ageing is the result of genetic mutations which break down our DNA over time. They managed to actually reverse the ageing process in mice by boosting their epigenetics - the body’s system for choosing which genes to activate. Your DNA is a menu with countless genetic options, so it is your epigenetic system that instructs cells as to which genes to choose and how to use them. According to the head of the study Dr David Sinclair: “It’s not cell damage that causes us to get old, it’s a loss of information. Over time cells lose some of the ability to read their DNA, so they forget how to function - in much the same way as an old computer may develop corrupted software. By activating the epigenetic ‘software’ we can reboot degraded cells. Our work raises the possibility that this could one day be done for humans.”
Researchers at the Babraham Institute in the UK have taken what is perhaps the next step on the path to human rejuvenation. They have been able to make the biological age of human skin cells up to 30 years younger with a method they call “time Jumping”. Their process also enhances the function of the cells so that they act younger. This work is still in the early stages of exploration, but it has the potential to revolutionize the field of regenerative medicine. Dr Diljeet Gill concluded, “Our results represent a big step forward in our understanding of cell reprogramming. We have proved that human cells can be rejuvenated without losing their function and that rejuvenation restores some functions that had been lost.”
You hear people say that age is “just a number”, but it’s a number that often carries unwanted side effects, from brittle bones and weaker muscles to increased risks of serious disease. Science is making great strides in the study of cellular regeneration, but it will be many years, if ever, before “miracle cures” will be possible. However, science is also proving that there are many things that we can do today which will naturally rejuvenate our bodies. There is a wealth of research which shows that living a healthy lifestyle can minimize and even reverse the problems of aging. If a mere eight weeks of moderate changes can reduce your body’s age by three years, imagine what a lifetime of living well can do. Everyone has the opportunity to drink from this natural Fountain of Youth. All it takes is the will to create new healthy habits, and the dedication to making them a priority in your life. Go for it!