Science On the Cutting Edge of Age Old Questions

By Chuck Norris

January 15, 2016 7 min read

Anyone who's managed to reach that rarified plateau known as old age should never feel as if they're no longer important in the grander scheme of things. Yet ageism, the discrimination against people based on age, sadly is a real problem in our modern society. But it's certainly not one when it comes to researchers at the leading-edge of medicine; quite the contrary. Those folks are absolutely obsessed with senior citizens and just itching to know exactly what makes them tick — as in that internal clock inside our bodies that set a rhythm as to when we wake and when we go to sleep; that even influences thoughts and feelings.

It may be somewhat amusing — or annoying — to family members when folks of a certain age take a little catnap in the middle of the day or rise early in the morning, or suffer through a "senior moment" in trying to recall some name or piece of information. To a neuroscientist or geneticist, these behaviors are all clues to be explored, for our seniors are the key in a quest to understand exactly which genetic, environmental and behavioral factors contribute to a long life.

It all starts with what is called the circadian clock. Neuroscientists have long struggled to understand exactly how the circadian clock, this internal master controller found inside our genetic makeup, affects our minds. What's known is that people's circadian cycles change as they age. This internal clock changes rhythms and shifts forward. Some of the genes that were active in strong daily cycles in young people fade in people older than 60. Is it possible that some older adults stop producing proteins in their brains needed to maintain circadian rhythms, wondered University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine neuroscientist Colleen A. McClung.

At the same time McClure discovered other genes that became active in daily cycles only in old age. "It looks like the brain might be trying to compensate by turning on an additional clock," she concludes. Another neuroscientist on the trail to uncovering the secrets of life span, Huda Akil, of the University of Michigan, speculates that the brain's ability to cobble together a backup clock might protect some older adults from neurodegenerative diseases.

When brain cells start dying, among the first to go are those involved in learning and memory. Researchers at Harvard Medical School are hard at work studying what distinguishes brains that make it to 100 with limited cognitive decline from those that succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia before age 85. Alzheimer's disease today is the only cause of death among the top 10 in the U.S. that can't yet be prevented, cured or even slowed. According to the Alzheimer's Association, there are now 5.3 million Americans age 65 and older living with the disease. There are strong incentives for finding a cure to this devastating disease and the study of senior citizens on a cellular or molecular level is proving to be the best pathway.

The total direct cost to the U.S. economy of caring for those with Alzheimer's disease is a staggering $226 billion a year, with half coming from Medicare. Delaying the onset of the disease by just five years, research studies show, could decrease Medicare spending by 50 percent.

Doing so won't be easy as researchers have identified no fewer than 440 genes known to start to slow down after age 40, each needing to be checked off the list as to how they might influence the aging processes.

So if you happen to have lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and both world wars, witnessed women's suffrage and the moon landings, and are still keeping up with world events, modern science wants you. You represent a new model of aging, and among those scientific investigative groups seeking you out is the Long Life Family Study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and part of the National Institutes of Health.

If you've reached the age of 100, you are among a very coveted group known as the "new centenarians." Far from the frail, ailing, housebound people you might expect within this demographic, most new centenarians are mentally alert, relatively free of disability and remain active members of their communities.

While so many people in today's world fall prey to chronic diseases that strike in mid-to-late life and end up nursing disabilities for the remainder of their lives, centenarians appear to be remarkably resilient. People who live to 100 and beyond do not necessarily avoid the chronic diseases of aging. About 40 percent of centenarians have experienced one of these illnesses in their lifetimes, but they seem to push through them without long-term problems or complications. They seem to have an ability to shrug off such ailments and draw on some reserve that allows them to bounce back from health problems and remain relatively vital until their final days.

These people are the elite, for they represent the extreme limit of our species' life expectancy. So listen up young people, they are the true "in crowd," and wouldn't we all like to be a member of their exclusive club some day? We should be respectful, not dismissive, of those among us further along in the journey to the golden ticket of 100.

"One misconception of aging research is that we are looking to prevent aging," says David Sinclair, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. "What we are hoping to do is to come up with something that will give us a lifestyle that now only centenarians enjoy."

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndi

Photo credit: bobbi vie

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