A relatively new field in gerontology is emerging: the elimination of aging. Scientists like Aubrey de Gray, who says the first generation of people who will live to 1,000 has already been born, consider aging a curable disease that we should eliminate through scientific research. Farfetched? Maybe not.
We’ve know for some time that restricting calorie intake can keep us healthier for longer as we age, and so can help us live for longer – but scientists have been in the dark as to how low-carb, low-calorie diets work. So the news last week that researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in California have identified a mechanism by which the “ketogenic diet” can delay the effects of aging is especially significant. Understanding the basis of the diet could help scientists extend life and treat or prevent age-related diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimers and cancer. (The research was published last week in Science – in the same week, researchers in Spain proved that it is possible to extend the life of a mouse by up to 24 percent through telomerase gene therapy – read that story by clicking here.)
“This discovery … could represent a way to slow the detrimental effects of aging in all cells of the body.”
In their research, the institute’s senior investigator Eric Verdin, MD, and his team, examined the role of a compound called β-hydroxybutyrate or βOHB, which the body produces as its major source of energy during exercise or fasting. They found that the compound blocks enzymes that promote oxidative stress, thus protecting cells from aging.
What’s oxidative stress? It’s what happens when the cells in our bodies produce energy – and that process releases the free radicals that we’ve long known lead to cell damage. As we age, our cells become less efficient at clearing free radicals in our systems. And that, in turn, leads to accelerated aging and disease.
βOHB is what’s known as a “ketone body” – the same that our bodies produce during a prolonged low-calorie or ketogenic diet. Ketones are toxic when our bodies produce them in high concentrations – for example, in people who have type 1 diabetes, but the Gladstone team discovered that in low concentrations, ketones like βOHB protect our bodies from oxidative stress.
Does this research represent the beginning of the end of aging? It’s too soon to tell exactly how effectively βOHB can slow the aging of cells throughout the body; stay tuned as the Gladstone team continues its research.