Scientists developed a new way to measure biological age and finally help us find what really rejuvenates us
Remember your grandma telling you orange juice is healthy and good for you? It will make you strong and help you fight the winter flu!
Orange juice is a good example of something that many of us believed (or still believe) healthy but is not.
Today there is an increasing focus on increasing lifespan and healthspan. Health advice is everywhere. They aim at helping us live the healthiest and longest life possible. But how helpful they really are?
Some people will tell you a Vegan diet is the best solution for your health. Others will say the exact opposite and promote eating only beef. You may think studies could help figure out who is right and who is wrong. But you would be wrong on that one. Just watch the Joe Rogan Experiment about the Game Changers Documentary.
People, even scientists, are more and more dogmatic about their knowledge. For many of them, there will always be a reason to explain why a study that contradicts their beliefs is wrong: industry-funded, not enough participants, questionable study design, “correlation doesn’t mean causation”, not enough parameters measured… you name it!
Just like many other aspects of the public debate, science is getting more about identity and less about facts.
This is a real problem because people are starting to be lost in the ocean of health-related advice. They came to find ways to be healthier and in better shape, and they leave lost and not knowing what to do.
This may change soon with a clear measure of how well your body is aging.
The longevity approach
Over the last century, we managed to double the lifespan, from 35 years old to more than 70 today. We did incredible progress at making people live longer. But the additional years are usually not healthy years.
When you want to do something to promote your health and longevity, in most cases you will start practices that improve a proxy for longevity. For example, you will start exercising because it will make your cardiovascular system in better shape, and this is associated with better longevity. You are not directly targeting your longevity but you are targeting something that is correlated with delayed aging.
Until now, we didn’t have the means to measure directly how something is affecting longevity.
In 2013, Steve Horvath, a professor at UCLA, developed a new kind of clock: an epigenetic clock. It took a few years to go from the concept to an actual product that can be used, but it’s finally here.
What is an Epigenetic Clock?
First, we have to understand what the epigenome is. David Sinclair, a Professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, used a great analogy in his book Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To:
“If the genome were a computer, the epigenome would be the software. It instructs the newly divided cells on what type of cells they should be”. He then explains: “Without epigenetic information, cells would quickly lose their identity and new cells would lose their identity, too. If they did, tissues and organs would eventually become less and less functional until they failed”.
Horvath developed the epigenetic clock by using DNA methylation (a process by which methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule and that can change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence) to accurately predict age.
The Horvath clock is really powerful because it gives a complementary measure of age that is, according to this study, “ associated with age-related health outcomes above and beyond chronological age. For example, we and others have shown that individuals whose epigenetic age was greater than their chronological age (i.e., individuals exhibiting epigenetic “age acceleration”) were at an increased risk for death from all causes”.
After all, the chronological age is just a number, it doesn’t take into consideration the molecular mechanisms happening in your body. This is why some people look 20 years younger and some others look 20 years older than their age.
Let’s dive a little bit in the theory to understand why this clock can predict aging and longevity better the chronological age.
The Information Theory of Aging
In his book Lifespan, Pr. David Sinclair explains what he calls the “Information Theory of Aging”. He explains that what leads to aging is a loss of information. He uses an analogy with the Information Theory of Communication from Claude Shannon: the compact disc that is our genome gets damaged over time such as cells can’t read the right genes (the epigenome) at the right time.
In addition to that, Pr. Sinclair explains that we always keep a backup copy of the original placement of the methyl groups on the epigenome. In an interview with Dr. Peter Attia, Sinclair explains:
“But what I think exists in cells and we have some evidence is that, like Shannon suggested for the internet or information, is that if you have a backup copy… and now going back to the genome… there seems to be something in cells that tells them these methyl groups, the programs that were laid down when you were a baby are still there and cells can access that somehow to say: ‘All these other things that have happened since you were born or since you were a teenager, that’s just noise… Ignore that.’” -David Sinclair, Ph.D
This opens a completely new horizon on the perspectives of delaying the onset of aging.
What will that change?
This new theory of aging and the Horvath clock is a huge step forward in the field of aging and longevity. The Information Theory of Aging presents aging as a disease in itself, like any other one. If we can manage to limit the loss of information, this disease will be delayed, potentially for years, decades or even more.
But how useful is this theory if we don’t have a way to measure the rate of aging? That’s exactly what the Horvath clock enables us to do now and it will be used by both scientists and the general public to get feedback on how an intervention affects the biological age.
The identification of compounds and activities that promotes health and longevity was always limited by the lack of non-invasive metrics that can predict the life expectancy of the subjects of the study. With the Horvath clock, scientists now have a way to measure aging and find cures and lifestyle interventions to delay aging.
Health and longevity depend on so many parameters, so even if science is getting better at understanding the mechanisms promoting longevity, it will never be sure that those findings apply perfectly to you. Because that’s what interests you, right? A given diet may benefit 90 percent of the population, but you might be in those last 10 percent. A HIIT workout may be one of the best tools for longevity but it may leave you feeling awful. You get the point — certain things must be adapted to your body and your lifestyle. Hence, the Horvath clock could be used as an indicator of how you are doing in your quest to delay aging. If you measure it once a year, for example, you can witness if your epigenetic clock is slower than your chronological one. This will tell you that your lifestyle is good regarding longevity.
Now let’s get into some longevity-promoting practices you can try for yourself.
How to slow down aging
According to the prominent longevity specialists, here are some things you could try to delay the onset of aging:
Fasting: Through promoting autophagy, fasting has been shown to be good for longevity.
Exercise: In particular HIIT training
Cold: By stimulating hormesis, cold immersion, cold showers and cold stress are promoting longevity.
Today more than ever, we have the tools and the information to try things for our health and wellbeing and measure the effect on our mind and body. Adopting a proactive and preventive approach to health and longevity can help you develop essential knowledge about what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s a personal journey, a journey of trials and errors, and a journey of self-quantification, and when taken with an open mind and without dogmatic scientific beliefs can really lead to the best version of your health.