Clinical trials are underway at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Aging Institute to find the formula for the fountain of youth. Researchers at the lab are dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of aging — and possibly inventing a pill to stop what so many dread.
Aging Institute director Dr. Toren Finkel says his team is developing new anti-aging strategies, including medications that directly target the aging process, as well as investigating current medications that may extend lifespan and health span — living longer healthier.
“We have 14 labs where researchers are trying to understand different angles on how and why we age, studying different systems in everything as simple as a worm or fly to more complex things closer to us like mice,” Finkel explains. “As a group we think we can derive core principles and pathways modifiable by small molecules or drugs to try to create new meds that expand our lives while keeping us healthy and that have a propensity to slow chronic disease.”
Finkel is most excited at beginning a small trial with 50 people over the age of 70 looking at combatting and preventing what he calls “inflammaging” — aging caused by inflammation. His hope is to first develop a blood test that would indicate who will age well and who will age poorly.
“We’re looking at Interleukin 6 (IL-6), which has been found to be a marker of inflammation, which is a big driver of aging, and whether high levels of IL-6 can cause frailty as we age — such as not being able to get out of a chair or walk across a room well.” The big question, Finkel says, is whether inflammation is a cause or correlation, which he says is an important distinction.
“We’re looking at whether inflammation and inappropriate immune response accompanies the condition of frailty or whether it’s a cause of the condition. There are indications that inflammation might be causatively linked,” which opens up the avenue of developing new pathways and medications to combat frailty as we age, so we can live a healthier and more active life for longer.
“We’re selecting patients for the trial who are what we call ‘pre-frail.’ They’re able to get out of their chair and get around, but it’s starting to get harder. We’ll be giving them low-levels of anti-IL-6 antibody, enough to ratchet down their IL-6 levels, and will follow them for a year against a placebo group. Our hope,” Finkel says, “is that we not only are able to slow the rate of frailty progression but ultimately make them feel better, less fatigued, and have clearer thinking.”
You may well be asking how genetics play into the healthy aging equation, and whether a genetic predisposition plays a big part in defining how long we’ll live a healthy life.
“People have looked to see if there are longevity genes, and there are some that have been implicated,” Finkel says. “When it comes to how much our lifespan is determined by what our parents give us and what we do, around 10 to 20 percent of lifespan has to do with the genetic cards we’re dealt. The rest is up to us.”
“In general,” Finkel says, “a genetic signature for a long life is really only about the people who live into their 90s and beyond without chronic diseases, and who have the absence of ‘bad’ genes. It’s not,” he says, “that they have something the rest of us don’t. Rather, they’ve avoided inheriting the thing that contributes to having, say, a bad lipid profile. The absence of bad things does allow you to live a longer lifespan. But most people want to have a longer quality of life, not just duration of life.”
Finkel says the jury is still out, but the Aging Institute researchers do think that manipulating pathways related to aging will slow the propensity of people getting diseases. He gives an example learned from mice that die from the same things as humans. “If you give a mouse everything it wants to eat, it will die from a certain range of diseases. From doing an autopsy on the mice, about 5 percent have no diseases and so died of old age. If we limit their calorie intake, they live longer, and now 30 percent or so die without evidence of disease.
“If translatable to humans, here’s an intervention that increases lifespan but changes propensity of diseases. too. So you have a longer, disease-free, and happier life, although you might be a bit hangry.”
If 90 is destined to be the new 50, it’s likely that most of us would be on board with an anti-aging pill. “Death isn’t inescapable, of course,” Finkel says, “but those who eat right and exercise do live longer. What we’re exploring is whether there are ways to use medications for the population where eating and exercising right is difficult.”
It’s hard to find naysayers when it comes to the notion of living a healthier longer life, but Finkel says there are people who are incredulous at the notion that there could one day be a pill for aging.
“Our goal is to demonstrate replicating in humans the positive results we’ve proven in other organisms. It’s complex. Even at the same biological age, every organ in our body ages at a different rate. My feeling is that when I grew up and was in medical school, I was taught aging is a process that can’t be regulated. But with regulation comes the ability to intervene — it’s what we’re researching at the Aging Institute and trying to be smart about. If you look at President Franklin D. Roosevelt 50 years ago, there was hypertension then as there is now, and Roosevelt died of a stroke. Today there are lots of medicines that can control that.”
Asked to make a casino bet on when we might see an anti-aging pill, Finkel is thoughtful with his answer. “First,” he says, “new medications will be directed to specific chronic diseases, and once shown effective in disease states in the elderly, we can back up and look at if taken preventively, would it help with overall aging. It’s a leap of faith, but I’m going to say we should see [anti-aging] meds in the next 10 years.
“It’s an incredible time that began 20 years ago looking at lifespan genes in worms. Those observations have changed the fundamental basis of how we think about our own longevity. It’s a wonderful example of how basic science opens opportunities of research, and how a simple organism like a worm can ultimately impact human health.”
Photo: Kaat Zoetekouw
6 Ways to Fight a Potbelly
It is not uncommon for women to lament that as they approach menopause, they are gaining weight, especially in their midsections. This potbelly, unaffectionately called a menopot, can make women feel insecure about their appearance and can also be a health issue.
A potbelly is more a product of aging in general than menopause, says Dr. Stephanie Faubion, medical director of The North American Menopause Society, and it’s not just a problem for women. “Both genders gain weight as they age due to a decrease in metabolic rate caused by the loss of muscle mass,” she says. “As people age, they don’t burn as many calories when they exercise or sit still, so it is harder to maintain or lose weight.”
For women, the problem is compounded by the loss of estrogen, causing a redistribution of weight to the stomach and waist. Faubion says, “This hormonal change can cause women to go from a pear shape to more of an apple shape in midlife.” On average, women gain 1.5 pounds per year in midlife.
Is It Dangerous?
Weight gain, especially in the midsection, can adversely affect a woman’s health. Faubion says, “Heart disease risk goes up as we age, especially in women that gain weight in their abdomen. Even women of normal weight have a higher cardiovascular risk if they hold excess pounds in their midsection.” Excess belly fat has also been associated with a higher risk of many cancers (including breast and colon) as well as an increased risk of diabetes.
Faubion says the biggest complaint she hears from patients is that they haven’t changed their diet or exercise intensity and yet somehow, they are gaining weight. “What always worked in the past as far as maintaining or losing weight, won’t work anymore,” she says. “It’s like someone changed the rules of your body without telling you.”
What to Do About a Potbelly
1. Keep your weight down. Since it’s harder to lose weight as we age, it’s better not to gain it in the first place. Ideally, women should begin to adjust their diet and exercise routine before they are in full menopause to maintain their weight. Faubion says, “Use common sense. Older women need to focus on eating vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins. Limit simple carbs such as white rice and white pasta.”
2. Go easy on the alcohol. A big sabotage for many women is alcohol. “The kids are gone and there are more parties and dinners out, so older women tend to drink more. The body reads a glass of wine as a glass of sugar, so try to limit alcohol consumption for weight maintenance,” Faubion says.
3. Watch belly bloat. In addition to actual fat, a menopot can be exasperated by bloating, which can occur more frequently in older women. Erin Parekh, holistic health coach and culinary nutrition expert, says, “As women age, their stomachs can get more sensitive. They may need to play with their diet to see if dairy or gluten is contributing to their belly bloat. Fiber, while important, can cause stomach discomfort, so don’t go crazy adding too much fiber too quickly. To keep a healthy balance of gut bacteria, I recommend my clients take a probiotic supplement daily.”
4. Exercise daily. While weight maintenance is 90 percent food related, regular exercise is vital to good health. Aim for one hour of cardio/movement per day plus strength training. While sit-ups or other spot-toning exercises alone will not eliminate a meno-pot, strength training can increase a slowing metabolism and help combat lost muscle tone.
6. Keep stress levels in check. Parekh explains, “Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol contribute to belly fat, even in women that are not overweight. So, it’s important for women to find ways to reduce their stress, especially as they age. Practicing mindfulness techniques and getting more sleep can help.”
Photo: Wave Break Media
How to Get Excited About Cooking for One
Last week I made chicken wings for dinner using a new rub and marinade. My husband, daughter, and son raved. When I saw that my son had come down in the middle of the night to eat more (a bowl of bones in the kitchen sink gave him away), I was thrilled that my culinary skills were so appreciated.
But I have a lot less enthusiasm when it comes to cooking for just myself. On an evening when my husband and kids aren’t home, I usually order in or just eat a bowl of cereal on the couch.
My feelings about cooking for one are not unusual. Liz Josefsberg celebrity health, wellness, and weight loss expert says, “People feel that it is fun to prepare something with someone else in mind. Cooking for a crowd is festive. It’s a communal and loving act. After all, food is love, right? ”
Conversely, when you cook just for yourself, you may feel less inspired. Cooking for one may feel more like a chore than a gift.
Why You Should Cook for Yourself
Healthy, mindful eating is an essential part of looking and feeling good, especially for women in midlife. Typical take-out food or restaurant meals tend not to be as nutritional as meals made at home. The food is usually higher in fat and sodium, and the portions tend to be too large.
Erin Parekh, holistic health coach and culinary nutrition expert, says, “When you cook for yourself, you control the quality of ingredients, the quality of the oils, the amount of sodium, etc. You know exactly what you are putting into your body.”
“Research proves that our metabolism actually gets started in a healthier way when we cook our food,” Josefsberg says. “The smelling of the food sets our mouth watering. The belly prepares for the incoming meal, unlike just eating prepared foods and fast food.”
Cooking at home is also more cost efficient. In 2018 Forbes reported that, on average, restaurant food delivery costs almost five times as much as cooking for yourself.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Cooking for one can be less stressful than cooking for a crowd. If you are the one eating, you don’t have to consider anyone else’s palate or dietary needs. This freedom can translate to a lot more creativity in the kitchen.
When you cook for one, you can ditch your typical repertoire of meals. If you never cook spicy foods or avoid making shellfish because your family doesn’t care for it, now is your chance. Parekh suggests, “Experiment with new recipes, spices, and cuisines. You don’t need to be intimidated because you aren’t cooking to satisfy anyone but yourself.”
Browse cookbooks or food blogs for inspiration.”Imagine you are cooking for a famous table of your favorite people. What would you prepare?” Josefsberg asks.
Keep It Simple
Many of the best meals require very few ingredients. “You don’t need to overwhelm yourself. You can make delicious, nutritious meals with just 10 ingredients or less,” Parekh says.” Just be sure to use good-quality ingredients.” Or think about subscribing to a delivery service like Blue Apron or Plated, which brings you creative recipes and the ingredients to make them.
If you are too busy to cook during the week, meal prep on Sunday. “Roast vegetables, broil a chicken, make quinoa,” Parekh says. “During the week, you can put the components together and have a healthy meal ready in less time than it takes to order a pizza.” If you can’t pre-prep, take some short cuts by buying a rotisserie chicken or cut-up vegetables from the salad bar on your way home from work. You can also keep cleanup simple by choosing one-pot recipes.
And don’t shy away from recipes written for serving several people. “Invest in good glassware that freezes well so that you can parcel large meals into individual portions and freeze for later,” Josefsberg says.
Let It Be About You
If you are the only one eating, you may not feel that it’s worth the effort of prepping a meal from scratch, but it’s time to change that mindset. Look at it as an opportunity for self-care. Set the mood: Put on some music you love and maybe pour a glass of wine. Get creative. And show yourself some love.
Looking for inspiration? Try these recipes.
Is It Normal… To Be So Anxious
From butterflies in your stomach to a full-blown panic attack, anxiety can take many different forms. At its core, anxiety is nothing more than a physiological response to a situation that creates internal conflict.
“It’s a feeling designed to give you caution and get your attention, so that you make adjustments in your environment or boundaries,” explains Theresa Moore, LCSW, LPC. “These are actually healthy feelings.”
Even if you’ve never been one to suffer from anxiety, you might find that changes the older you get — and, yes, it’s perfectly normal. In fact, getting older can be one of the major causes of anxiety for many people.
Why Does It Happen?
There are many things that can contribute to stress as we age, but in a country where we are expected to look, feel, and act younger than we are, watching our bodies go through the natural aging process can be one of the biggest — and it’s more than just the physical.
“We fear that it means that we will cease to be useful, engaging, or exciting,” Moore says, adding that a core fear from the moment we are born is a fear of being irrelevant or not belonging. “In our country we neither honor nor respect elderhood,” she says. “ We fear being thrown out or being seen as having no value to society.”
Add to that the fear of our own mortality and you can see where anxiety can get into your system and set up shop.
What Can You Do About It?
One of the first things you can do to manage increased anxiety is to realize that although you may not be able to control the aging process, you can control how you handle it. “There is a lot that is still within our control,” says Moore. “We can accept that this is a time of wisdom and life experience, and acknowledge that things are shifting and that this is the next step in life.”
No, we can’t expect to remain at our 40-year-old peak for the rest of our lives, but we can remain fit and active as it relates to our environment, nutrition, and mental health. And by accepting the aging process for what it is, we can enjoy the relationships around us and become more aware and present rather than disheartened or anxious.
“Our relevance has to do with relationships, not accomplishments and tasks,” Moore says. “That’s an important thing to remember.”
Do I Need Help?
Again, an increase in anxiety as we age is perfectly normal. The degree in which it manifests, however, can be problematic. And some women find that even “normal” requires a little extra help in the form of medication or therapy. How do you know the difference? “Anything that is ongoing or exhibits a significant pattern might indicate the need for a life coach or therapist to help you get some new tools for dealing with stress,” Moore says.
If you are anxious to the point that it is affecting your sleep, moods, ability to focus, memory, etc., then you should see your doctor or therapist and ask if short-term medication could provide some relief. “If you are so easily distracted that it is hard for you to complete a task and other people or co-workers are noticing, then that’s a problem that could possibly benefit from medication coupled with counseling,” suggests Moore. “Trying to do it on your own only increases the anxiety.”
If you are still unsure if you are just going through a phase or if it’s something more serious, check in with your squad.
“Having a good support system of people in your life who are objective and supportive is important regardless of stage of life, and this is the first place you should go to check things out,” Moore says. “These are the people who will tell you if you seem over the top.”
A stress-free life is pretty unrealistic, regardless of age. But accepting each stage of your life for the beautiful and wonderful gift that it is can go a long way in helping you manage, if not alleviate, some of the anxiety along the way.
Photo: Rido Franz
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