Ever wonder what it is about some people that makes them able to run marathons into their 70s? For the first time, scientists have identified a genetic pathway that may regulate the rate at which we age. Building on their research is expected to improve our understanding of how to keep our bodies healthy even as they grow older.
Because people want to live forever, most scientific research on the aging process focuses on longevity, meaning ways to stretch our natural lifespan. What it tends to overlook is age-related behavioral decline, which seems remiss since if we are all going to live forever we’d want to do so with bodies and brains that have remained healthy. Longevity and behavioral aging aren’t necessarily related processes; just because we extend one doesn’t mean the other gets pulled along with it.
Researchers studying nematodes called Caenorhabditis elegans, worm-like creatures about 1 millimeter long, discovered two genes that appeared to have recently undergone a “selective sweep,” genetic editing due to the natural selection process. These particular nematodes are frequently used in anti-aging research because their naturally short lifespan means any changes to longevity are easy to observe. A paper detailing the research was published in the scientific journal Nature.
“Despite the considerable interest in studying natural variation in aging rate to identify factors that control healthy ageing, no such factor has yet been found,” the authors wrote in the paper. “Here we report a genetic basis for variation in aging rates in Caenorhabditis elegans. We find that C. elegans isolates show diverse lifespan and age-related declines in virility, pharyngeal pumping, and locomotion.”
So not all the nematodes aged at the same rate. Virility and locomotion, as you might have guessed, refer respectively to physical strength and ability to walk (or wriggle) and otherwise move around. Pharyngeal pumping refers to things moving smoothly down the passages from our nose and mouth to our lungs and stomach—breathing, drinking, and eating.
The researchers propose that based on their study, the pace at which we age and lose those kinds of functions is affected by the emergence of new genes, like the ones they observed in the nematodes. This makes for a big step forward in the evolutionary theory of aging, and will hopefully lead to therapies that allow us all to age a little more gracefully.