How Genetics helps Healthy Ageing

  • 28 Sep 2015
  • Reading time 13 mins
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Genetics is central to healthy ageing – however the genes you are born with are not a life sentence. How often have you heard someone worrying about their risk of a heart attack because it runs in the family, or the centenarian who claims the secret of a long life is choosing your parents carefully? In other words, that our risk of disease and how well we age is down to the genetic hand we were dealt at birth. The truth is quite the opposite.

Genetic nutritioneering

It’s now clear that our genes are remarkably porous; constantly responding to changes in our environment. Diet, micronutrients, toxins, love and affection, trauma and loss can all affect them. In fact, if you could see the genes in your body as points of light as they turned on and off, you would look like a firework display.

This has huge implications for anyone trying to improve their chances of a healthy old age by changing their lifestyle. No longer is genetic engineering something confined to research labs packed with millions of dollars of high-tech equipment, it is something that you can literally do on the kitchen table. The way to change the behaviour of your genes, even some of those inherited heart-attack ones, is with a good supply of omega-3 fats, healthy levels of vitamin D, eating a low-GL diet that keeps your blood sugar down and taking exercise.

The Methuselah worm

The gene–lifestyle link was first discovered when a top American geneticist became curious about exactly why calorie restriction (CR) had such a dramatic effect not just on lifespan but on ageing healthily. Professor Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, San Francisco, wondered if the diet could be having a direct effect on gene activity, so she cut back on the calorie intake of a number of tiny roundworms just a millimetre long, which are the genetics researcher’s ‘lab rat’.

She found that one gene in particular was turned off by the CR diet. To her big surprise, it was one that normally made more insulin available. Even more of a surprise was the finding that turning the insulin gene off turned on another gene that controlled a cascade of extensive cell-repair processes. By tinkering with these genes she was able to breed some worms that lived for twice their normal 20-day lifespan.1 With more sophisticated techniques, she’s been able to genetically engineer a strain of roundworm that lives healthily and actively for an astonishing 144 days. The human equivalent of 450 years!

Discovering this genetic mechanism opens the way to making healthy lifestyle changes in a much more focused way. It has also revolutionised ageing research, according to Jeff Holly, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Bristol University. ‘Ten years ago we ......

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