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What sets a human lifespan as ‘three score and ten’?

Even the healthiest among us is unlikely to see 100 years of age. But why? According to expert David Vilchez, professor of Medicine at the University of Cologne, the key to longevity can be found in our cells.

Health

Thanks to advancements in medicine and overall healthier lifestyles, more people are now living into their 80s than ever before. Yet the number of over-100s is not increasing at the same rate. Is there a hard limit to human lifespan, and if so, where is it written? “Life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past decades, which of course is good news,” says David Vilchez, director of the Vilchez Lab and a professor of Medicine at the University of Cologne. “However, this demographic revolution also presents a challenge due to the increasing prevalence of age-related diseases.” According to Vilchez, ageing is associated with a progressive loss of physiological integrity, which is a major risk factor for multiple metabolic, cardiovascular, oncological and neurodegenerative disorders. “The discovery of genetic manipulations that regulate ageing has revolutionised the field of molecular gerontology, suggesting the realistic possibility of developing therapeutics for multi-disease prevention,” he explains. “Being able to define the mechanisms that can delay the ageing process could be of enormous benefit for our ever ageing society,” adds Vilchez. However, the mechanisms underlying the ageing process are only just beginning to be unravelled at the molecular level.

Longevity factors

The discovery of a single gene mutation that doubles the life expectancy of a nematode worm has dramatically shifted the ageing narrative. “Before, ageing was seen as a cumulative process, one where disease and general ‘wear and tear’ eventually break the body down and you die,” he explains. “But this discovery really showed how ageing is actually a regulated process.” Vilchez notes that the ability to manipulate genetic and environmental factors to extend longevity has also been found in other animals. “This might mean that it’s also possible to extend longevity in humans and that perhaps some of the pro-longevity factors discovered in invertebrates or mice might also extend longevity in humans,” he says. What Vilchez finds particularly interesting is embryonic stem cells, the raw material from which every one of our body’s cells is produced. “Because these cells are able to replicate forever without showing any signs of ageing, they are essentially immortal.” Thus, the theory goes, if the mechanisms that contribute to a stem cell’s immortality are replicated in other cells and tissues, one could potentially slow down the natural ageing process while also preventing the development of many age-related diseases. “The result could be the key to further extending both life expectancy and longevity,” concludes Vilchez. Click here to read more about David Vilchez’s research: Maintaining proteostasis may slow ageing and related diseases

Keywords

StemProteostasis, life expectancy, longevity, disease, ageing, cell, stem cells, medicine, age-related disease