A hormone naturally created in the body could be the elixir of life, scientists believe.
According to a study of thousands of over-50s, the hormone known as DHEAS makes you live longer and is more plentiful the wealthier you are. Research suggests that in future tablets, patches or injections could boost the DHEAS level.
Leading a more fulfilling life could have a similar effect, says Michael Marmot, who led the research at the University College London, the Daily Mail reported.
Higher levels are associated with both greater amounts of exercise and an active life with lots of pastimes, interests, friends and family – all of which tend to come with wealth.
The hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys.
Production is greatest in childhood and teenage years, before gradually declining through adult life. By the age of 80 it could be just 10 percent of the peak teen level.
Having more DHEAS in the body is linked to a better memory and ability to cope with
mental tasks, particularly in men.
The research also found higher levels of a second hormone, the insulin-like growth
factor I (IGF-I), in those who are better off.
The two hormones help control reactions to stress and regulate various body processes including digestion, the immune system, mood and energy usage.
Marmot believes the benefits of wealth, which include a better diet, greater control over life, less stress, more travel and involvement in the wider world through hobbies, sport or other interests will encourage the body to create DHEAS.
The study was carried out by University College London for the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.
Hormone levels were measured by taking blood samples from more than 10,000 people aged over 50, who have been monitored since 2004.
Of course, the quest for eternal youth has been led by charlatans, frauds and snake-oil salesmen through the ages. There is money to be made by promising the Holy Grail – as the questionable claims on the labels of countless anti-ageing beauty products will attest.
For centuries, lotions and potions have been touted as elixirs of longevity. These have ranged from products containing monkey glands to injections of minced dog testicles.
Unsurprisingly, all have failed.
Still, the search continues. We have been told that exercise, red wine, chocolate, Vitamin C and various cocktails of antioxidants are the answers.
The latest elixir claim comes from scientists in Italy, who announced this week that mice given dietary supplements rich in three amino acids (similar to the concoctions favoured by human bodybuilders) lived on average 12 per cent longer than mice fed on ordinary food. For humans, this would mean about an extra ten years of life.
And yet the world still awaits its first 125-year-old. The record stands at 122 years – achieved by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997.
But the truth is, charlatans apart, the ageing process may be more amenable to change than was thought.
For a start, life expectancy (the number of years a newborn is predicted to live) is increasing by five hours a day in Britain. This means a baby born in five years’ time should live a year longer than a baby born today.
This is, for the most part, simply a result of better healthcare.
For evidence we need only look at the first big jump in life expectancy, which took place in the 19th century when infant mortality rates dropped because of improved diets, better medicine and proper sanitation.
We haven’t conquered age, it’s just that more and more of us are living to our full potential. But we may now be nearing a surprising breakthrough.
According to a new book, The Youth Pill, by health journalist David Stipp, in a few decades a number of pills may be available, which will help delay the onset of most serious illnesses by up to ten years.
This would give us at least five extra years of healthy old age and allow the 122-year barrier to be breached.
Until recently, those scientists working on increasing the longevity of fruit flies or mice have shied away from making claims that humans could benefit from their work on genetics.
Some scientists have claimed that we should take large quantities of free-radical neutralisers called antioxidants (which include Vitamin C and are best found in fruit and vegetables).
Yet Vitamin C, it turns out, may actually increase free-radical damage and very large doses can interfere with the body’s natural repair mechanisms.
It is such contradictions that have led researchers to focus, instead, on calorific restriction.
Mice placed on near-starvation diets have seen their life expectancies increase 20-35 per cent. If such results were achievable in humans, the average Briton’s life expectancy would rise to almost 100 – with the potential to carry on to 150.
This is precisely what Professor Roy Walford was trying to achieve with his grimly tedious rice and water diet in California.
And the truth is that research into whether calorie restriction will greatly extend our lifespans would take decades to reach firm conclusions – simply because we are so much larger than mice.
Even so, research on rodents has uncovered how extreme calorie restriction appears to switch on a genetic mechanism called a stress response. This has evolved to allow animals to survive tough conditions (such as a very hard winter when little food is available).
It seems the bodies of mice – and possibly those of humans, too – react to starvation by boosting their repair mechanisms, triggering anti-inflammatory responses which slow the damage done to vital organs as they age.
The problem for humans is that near-starvation is unlikely to catch on. What people are much more likely to turn to are drugs which mimic the effects of extreme calorie restriction, without having to live on lettuce.
And such drugs may soon be available. One could be based on the chemical resveratrol which is a plant compound found in red wine.