Aging in the body and brain: Can we turn back the clock?

Few scientific topics are as compelling as the field of aging, and when it comes to brain aging, few research areas are better funded.

For example, although heart disease is America’s No. 1 killer, that field will receive an estimated $1.2 billion in federal research funding. The field of aging alone will receive $2.5 billion, more than twice that amount. Perhaps as part of our survival instinct, many are seeking a scientific fountain of youth.

And it may be possible yet, according to a few optimistic researchers who study aging in the body and brain. Of course, both fields hold the keys to a longer life. After all, a sharp mind is no good to a failing body, and a youthful body is no good with an aging brain.

Brain aging v. body aging

In your body, new cells are created when older cells grow and divide, and all cells eventually die. Aging occurs because of a process called senescence, where normally functioning cells stop growing and dividing. When fewer and fewer cells are created to replace the older ones, organ tissues break down and natural damage occurs.

As the human brain ages, it shrinks in certain parts, most significantly in areas called the cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Both brain areas are important for memory, planning and complex reasoning. Additionally, connections between all parts of the brain, called neurotransmitters, become damaged or destroyed.

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Emerging brain research

Experts on aging have long thought that the brain’s aging process is different because neurons, or brain cells, do not divide. However, recent research published in Aging Cell in 2012 has shown that the same process that causes senescence in skin cells also occurs in the brains of aging mice, causing shrinking in neurons.

The discovery was led by Professor Thomas von Zglinicki from Newcastle University in the UK, who said in the study’s press release that the “study provides us with a new concept as to how damage can spread from the first affected area to the whole brain.” More research is needed to know if the same is true for human brains. However, if the same is true for humans, it could pave the way for discoveries that slow or stop aging in parts of the brain.

That research may be coming soon. President Obama recently announced the BRAIN initiative, which provides $46 million in brain research funding to top neuroscientists. Most of it isn’t directed only at aging, but at ways to use technology to safely and non-intrusively study the human brain. If they are successful, many of the projects under the BRAIN initiative will lead to insights on brain aging.

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To keep your own brain sharp and healthy, make using it a priority. If you want to remember something, repeat it to keep your memory centers strong. Keep learning as you age, and play strategy games like chess or do other mental exercises. Work out your body, too. Cardiovascular exercise helps boost blood flow to the brain and helps prevent damaging events such as stroke.

How to manage body aging

The brain is difficult to study safely because it is easily damaged and it controls the rest of the body’s functions. Other organs and systems within the body are much easier to study, on the other hand, and much progress in this area has already been made.

Some researchers have even come up with ways to help people slow aging. InnerAge is a web-based platform that analyzes user-provided laboratory data to provide customized advice on how to live healthy and slow aging. Customers are provided with instructions on how to complete their blood tests, and, after that, interactions occur via the platform.

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“I wanted to slow down the clock,” says Dr. Gil Blander, who came up with the idea and founded InsideTracker, the company that makes the app. “I wanted to provide people with knowledge about how to delay the aging process and improve their health and quality of life,” he adds.

The blood test includes measures of testosterone, glucose levels, vitamin D and a liver function marker called ALT. Customized results offer “personalized focus foods” and ways to reduce internal inflammation, which also advances aging, Blander says.

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“Aging is a progressive, degenerative process tightly integrated with inflammation. A number of theories have been developed that attempt to define the role of chronic inflammation in aging,” he says, but that research is still ongoing.

For now, if you want to slow aging, watch your blood sugar levels, Blander says. When asked about the most destructive marker to aging that InnerAge tracks, he says: “Blood glucose is by far the most important marker related to longevity.”

To keep glucose levels steady, avoid skipping meals, and choose whole grains over refined sugar or simple carbohydrates. Get plenty of healthy fats from nuts and fish, and eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables to help keep your blood sugar stable.