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Animals that defy the rules of aging — like naked mole rats — could help scientists unravel the secrets to longevity

Animals that defy the rules of aging — like naked mole rats — could help scientists unravel the secrets to longevity

Neil Bromhall/Shutterstock
  • Some long-living animals seem to defy the rules of aging, so scientists are studying them.
  • Two animals of interest to researchers are the naked mole rat, which lives decades longer than its rodent relatives, and turtles, which can live up to 200 years.
  • Researchers have found noticeable differences in the ways these animals’ metabolisms and mitochondria function.

Being a freak of nature isn’t always a bad thing, especially if you defy the conventions of aging.

Naked mole rats and turtles are outliers when it comes to the rules of nature. The mole rat lives up to 31 years, decades longer than its other rodent relatives. Turtles are one of the longest-living creatures on Earth.

Comparing the biology of these animals to others that age poorly provides valuable insights to scientists about which biological pathways are most important for longevity. That information could ultimately help them find ways to increase human lifespans.

A cornucopia of factors are at play as a younger organism gets older: proteins get damaged, they build up and disrupt cell functions, mutations occur, and once-harmless cells turn into cancer. But the important question when it comes to aging is not how it happens, according to Richard Miller, director of the Glenn Center of Aging Research at the University of Michigan.

“The real question is what has been done across species or within a species to slow it,” Miller told Business Insider.

Long live the naked mole rat

A popular theory in the field of aging is that an organism puts most of its resources – such as nutrients, energy, time and effort – either into maintaining their body or reproducing, but not both. In people, for example, women’s average lifespan decreases if they have children. Scientists believe this happens because human reproduction can cause damage to cells and deplete resources in the body that would otherwise have been used for cellular repair.

But paradoxically, breeding seems to extend the life of the naked mole rat.

Scientists Martin Bens and Alessandro Ori at the The Leibniz Institute on Aging in Germany are working to understand this anomaly.

Each colony of mole rats designates a queen, the same way ants do, and only she breeds and bears young. There is also only one breeding male per colony. But non-breeders can transition to become a breeder, so Bens and Ori studied that transition process.

Their results suggested that the signal pathways involved in mole rats’ transition to breeding are also involved in their aging process.

In males, some of these overlapping pathways are related to their metabolism, the process of converting food to usable units of energy in the body. Scientists found that breeding male mole rats produced greater-than-normal amounts of energy in their testes cells, and lower-than-normal amounts in their skin cells. Diverting energy in this way could play a role in delaying the aging process.

Naked Mole Rats

Brandon Vick, University of Rochester

Ori and Bens also observed differences in the composition of the mole rats’ mitochondria: the small organelles in cells that power metabolic processes. They observed that the naked mole rats had a reduced mitochondria respiration rate compared to guinea pigs, which meant that the mole rats were making less energy and using less fuel and oxygen.

The researchers also found that all the naked mole rats preferred to use lipids or fats as an energy source, rather than the carbohydrates or sugars that shorter-lived rodents mostly use.

Another factor that allows naked mole rats to live so long is their abnormally low body temperature. Lower basal body temperatures in animals are usually correlated with prolonged healthspan, and naked mole rats are mammals but aren’t warm-blooded, which makes them an anomaly in the rodent family.

Finally, Ori and Bens examined naked mole rats’ livers. Livers generally detoxify the body and eliminate chemicals that can damage cells and accelerate aging. In mole rats, these detox pathways were more active than the same systems in guinea pigs, suggesting that mole rats keep their cells healthy and undamaged from toxins more efficiently. That could also explain why they out-live their rodent cousins.

The tortoise and the human

Tortoises and turtles are masters of aging. Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise, is the oldest known terrestrial animal at 186 years of age, and is going strong.

“There are tortoises until recently that knew Darwin personally,” Kenneth Storey, a professor at Carleton University who studies turtles, told Business Insider.

These ancient beings are the most evolved and complex animal that can survive complete anoxia: a total absence of oxygen. Turtles can go well over a year without oxygen.

By comparison, naked mole rats can survive almost 20 minutes without oxygen, and oxygen-deprived humans only get about two minutes of brain activity and five minutes of heart activity before all systems shut down and organs become irreparably damaged.

To live without oxygen, Storey said, turtles drop their metabolism rate to next to nothing.

“What the turtles do is in a tissue-specific manner, shut down genes and sub-cellular organelles that use energy or that need maintenance,” he said.

A giant green turtle rests on a coral reef in the Celebes Sea, November 7, 2005.

A giant green turtle rests on a coral reef in the Celebes Sea, November 7, 2005.

Turtles shut their energy production off by changing an enzyme called pyruvate dehydrogenase, which turns off their mitochondria.Starving the mitochondria then forces the turtle’s body to secrete a special protein that protects cells.

In the absence of oxygen, turtles can initiate an organized shutdown of 50,000 processes in their bodies.

“We know what happens to the pathways and we know what happens to the system, but we don’t know what ultimately controls it,” Storey said.

He added that under stressful, low-oxygen conditions, turtles’ bodies do one other thing exceptionally well: “They don’t panic.”

In these circumstances, turtles turn off most of their stress-response proteins so they can focus what little energy they have on reshaping their cells to operate differently in anoxic conditions. Those changes include preventing cells from digesting and turning over proteins, a process called autophagy that can make detritus and cause damage. Limiting the amount of matter created and destroyed in their bodies allows turtles to maintain a pristine internal balance.

By comparison, human cells that are deprived of oxygen turn on stress kinases: signaling proteins that help facilitate communication in the body in order to respond to a challenging situation. Over-activating stress kinases can use up a lot of energy, overload the system, and ultimately trigger cell death.

When juxtaposing humans and turtles, Storey thinks longevity depends on an energy trade-off.

“Think of these lower animals as living longer than us because their pilot light is lower. They’re not 37 degrees [Celsius], they’re not racing around,” he said. “They’re not burning the candle at both ends, they’re barely burning the candle at one end, and during anoxia they stop burning the candle. That’s how they can live so long. It’s a pace argument.”

All about energy

The idea that metabolism is one of the key factors in the aging process has been a cornerstone of many studies on aging. Hypothetically, if you turned down the energy production in your cells, you could live longer and get fewer wrinkles, Storey said. But you would probably not have enough energy to sustain a normal human life.

Humans’ complexities mean we require more energy and a constant supply of oxygen to power our cells. We also need to consume food frequently to fuel our bodily functions.

“What we’ve opted for is a high velocity lifestyle, which ties us in to oxygen all the time,” Storey said.

Rozalyn Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, told Business Insider that it’s hard to ignore how big a role metabolism and energy balance play in aging. Anderson studies caloric restriction in monkeys, and said evidence is starting to show that age-related diseases show up with increased prevalence in people who have metabolic issues and obesity.

“I think it’s all about energy: energy use, energy storage, and the type of pathways that are being engaged to derive energy,” Anderson said.

Exercise may be the best protection against aging that we have, according to new research

Exercise may be the best protection against aging that we have, according to new research


Let’s get physical isn’t just a catchy line from an Olivia Newton John song – it’s a health intervention.

Exercise is increasingly being recognized as the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have. Not only does regular movement appear to benefit our mind and body, it also seems to protect us from many aspects of aging’s slow wear and tear.

For a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers found that older people who spent less time sitting and more time moving had fewer signs of encroaching heart disease.

The scientists had 1,600 British volunteers between the ages of 60 to 64 wear heart-rate sensors for five days. They analyzed the participants’ activity levels and compared them to indicators of heart disease such as cholesterol precursors and a substance called interleukin-6. Overall, the participants with more activity had lower levels of all of the negative biomarkers.

The effects were even noticeable when the researchers looked at participants’ activity in 10-minute chunks. Every 10 minutes spent doing some kind of movement – whether it was walking, playing tennis, or gardening – was linked with measurable improvements in at least one type of biomarker related to heart health.

Conversely, every 10 minutes spent sitting was tied to worse biomarker results.

These results add to a growing body of evidence that suggests physical activity can lower the risk of heart disease.

“It’s important to replace time spent sedentary with any intensity level of activity,” Ahmed Elhakeem, the study’s author and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said in a statement.

2 forms of exercise may be the key to keeping your heart and brain young

An elderly man swims

Al Bello/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time that two forms of exercise – cardio and strength training – have been tied to anti-aging benefits. Aerobic exercise, or cardio, is the type of workout that gets your heart pumping and sweat flowing, while strength training helps keep aging muscles from weakening over time.

Both of those types of exercise are important for the heart, parts of which can grow stiff with age. The left chamber of the heart, which plays a key role in supplying the body with freshly-oxygenated blood, is especially susceptible to age-related damage.

A recent study published in January in the journal Circulation found that adults who practiced supervised exercise four to five days per week saw significant improvements in their heart’s performance over two years when compared to a control group that only did basic stretching and balancing moves. Those results suggest that some stiffening in the heart can be prevented or even reversed with regular aerobic exercise.

“Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past five years, this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life,” said Benjamin Levine, the author of the study and a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern.

Regular movement has benefits for the aging brain as well.

In May, a large review of nearly 100 studies published in the journal Neurology: Clinical Practice found that older folks who got roughly 40 minutes of exercise three times per week showed significant cognitive advantages compared with people who did less exercise or none at all.

Those benefits included better processing speed and superior performance on tests that measure skills like time management and the ability to pay attention.

“This is evidence that you can actually turn back the clock of aging in your brain by adopting a regular exercise regimen,” said study author Joyce Gomes-Osman, a rehabilitation scientist at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

The intensity of a workout matters less than moving regularly

A growing body of evidence suggests that the time you spend on a single workout matters less than the total time you spend at the gym over long periods. That means whether your latest workout was five or 50 minutes is less important than whether you hit the track or pool regularly – at least several times a week.

When it comes to the heart benefits observed in their latest study, the American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise like walking or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercises like kickboxing, along with muscle-strengthening exercises two or more days a week.

If you’re curious about how to get started, we recently spoke to a physical trainer and exercise scientist who laid out an easy weekly plan. Try it for yourself!

A collaboration between Google’s secretive life-extension spinoff and popular genetics company Ancestry has quietly ended

A collaboration between Google’s secretive life-extension spinoff and popular genetics company Ancestry has quietly ended

Hollis Johnson
  • Genetics testing company 23andMe made headlines last week when it announced it would share consumers’ anonymized genetic data with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
  • Companies like 23andMe frequently share customer DNA data with other institutions, also known as “third parties.”
  • Ancestry, another popular company like 23andMe, had a partnership with Google’s stealthy life extension spinoff Calico to study the genetics of longevity. That partnership has now ended.

As is often the case in the world of scientific research partnerships, almost as quickly as a new deal begins, another ends.

Popular spit-in-a-tube genetics-testing company 23andMe made a splash last week when it announced a plan to share the anonymized genetic data of millions of consumers with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to help the company develop new drugs.

Ancestry, which maintains a database of genetic information built on the spit samples of more than 5 million consumers, had been partnering with Google’s stealthy life extension spinoff Calico to study aging and longevity. The agreement, which was finalized almost exactly three years ago, recently ended, an Ancestry spokesperson told Business Insider.

Apart from a 2015 press release announcing the agreement, neither company has said much about what the research partnership did.

Genetic testing companies frequently share customer DNA data with other institutions. These can include public research groups like state universities or private drug makers like GSK.

Looking at genetic data for clues to a long life

Calico was ostensibly interested in sorting through Ancestry’s treasure trove of genetic data to identify commonalities among people who live a long time. Data on individuals who live longer-than-expected lives compared to their shorter-lived family members might be especially useful. This could reveal common genetic traits among those longer-lived folks that might play a role in helping them outlast their peers.

“The Calico science team decided, what if we used a data set like what Ancestry.com has to identify people who have a longer-than-expected lifespan in their family?” Ken Chahine, the senior vice president and general manager of Ancestry, told Business Insider back in 2015.

Since then, neither company has published any research from the collaboration, but that doesn’t mean none was produced, someone familiar with Calico’s work told Business Insider.

“Ancestry previously had a relationship with Calico which focused on understanding human longevity and developing ways that all of us can lead longer and healthier lives,” an Ancestry spokesperson told Business Insider, adding, “This relationship has now ended.”

According to Calico, some of the results of its research with Ancestry will be published in a peer-reviewed journal soon.

Ancestry can share your anonymized genetic data with third parties like Calico if you opt-in to what the company calls an “informed consent to research.” This option comes up after you submit your spit sample during the online registration process. (If you decline the opt-in, your data will not be shared with third parties, the company says.)

Those third party groups can include for-profit private companies like Calico as well as nonprofit research groups like the University of Utah and the American Society of Human Genetics – both of which still have active partnerships with Ancestry.

How to delete your DNA data

If you choose to share your genetic data with a company like Ancestry or 23andMe, it can be a difficult decision to undo. Once you opt-in, the company will not wipe your genetic information from any “active or completed research projects,” according to its latest privacy statement.

However, if you’d like to stop your DNA data from being used for new research, you can.

Use the navigation bar at the top of the homepage to select “DNA.” On the page with your name at the top, scroll to the upper right corner, select “settings,” then go to “delete test results” on the column on the right side. Doing this will result in Ancestry deleting the following within 30 days: “All genetic information, including any derivative genetic information (ethnicity estimates, genetic relative matches, etc.) from our production, development, analytics, and research systems.”

If you want to take the additional step of having the company discard your physical spit sample, you must call member services.

The best way to avoid gaining weight as you age has little to do with your metabolism, according to science

The best way to avoid gaining weight as you age has little to do with your metabolism, according to science

Flickr/Flying Kiwi Tours
  • Putting on a bit of weight as you get older is fairly normal, but there are simple ways to avoid it.
  • Contrary to popular belief, none involves trying to “boost” your metabolism, which doesn’t really budge.
  • Here’s what to do instead.

Like a favorite car that’s starting to show its age, many of us begin to put on weight as we get older.

“She’s not what she used to be!” I heard a friend say the other day as he lovingly slapped his belly in the way one gives the hood of their old clunker an affectionate tap.

Many people blame a sluggish metabolism for the weight gain. But as it turns out, our metabolism isn’t the real culprit when it comes to the pounds that seem to creep on with each passing decade.

In fact, age-related weight gain has far more to do with our activity patterns than it does with our metabolism, which barely budges after age 30, according to the National Institutes of Health.

‘Boosting your metabolism’ is a myth

healthy eating

Flickr/IRRI Photos

Our metabolism, the term for the calorie-burning process our bodies do naturally, shifts based on the various activities we do throughout the day.

Unfortunately, the rate at which we digest our meals and burn energy can’t be altered significantly enough to cause weight loss. (No, spicy foods and green teas won’t move the needle.)

But as we age, we also get less active while sticking to roughly the same diet. Researchers say that this – not our metabolic rate – is the real culprit for the pounds we pack on as we get older.

Instead, move more

To avoid weight gain, adding regular movement to your day is crucial. That could involve taking the stairs at work or hitting the gym a few times a week – every little bit counts.

In fact, new research published this spring suggests that to achieve better health and reduce your risk of death from any cause, any kind of movement is better than little or none. That means any effort that gets you moving and breathing – whether it’s a twice-weekly heart-pounding kickboxing class or a 30-minute walk to work – has measurable benefits for your brain and body.

That study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, used data on physical activity and death rates from national surveys of more than 4,800 adults. It found that people with more “bouted” or concentrated activity (like a fitness class or gym session) fared no better than people who clocked the same amount of exercise in tiny bits throughout the day (like walking to the train or taking the dog for a stroll).

“The key message based on the results presented is that total physical activity (i.e., of any bout duration) provides important health benefits,” the study’s authors wrote.

Amazon beat out Walmart in a deal for a small pharmacy startup — and it shows just how intense the rivalry’s gotten

Amazon beat out Walmart in a deal for a small pharmacy startup — and it shows just how intense the rivalry’s gotten

Daniel Becerril/Reuters
  • Amazon just signaled its intent to get into the pharmaceutical business through the acquisition of a startup called PillPack.
  • The deal came just a few months after Walmart was reported to be thinking of buying PillPack. Walmart lost about $3 billion in market cap on Thursday after Amazon announced it had bought the pharmacy startup.
  • That impact to Walmart’s valuation over a reported $1 billion deal shows how intense the rivalry between the two retail giants has gotten.

Amazon threw the entire pharmacy industry into a tizzy last week when it announced its plans to acquire PillPack, a small startup that mails prescriptions to people who take multiple medications.

Among the companies hit: chief rival Walmart, which lost about $3 billion in market cap after the deal was announced.

Walmart had offered $700 million for PillPack, but dragged its feet over regulatory concerns, according to CNBC. Amazon stepped in and offered a reported bid of just under $1 billion.

The stock drop which occurred as a result of Walmart not buying PillPack shows just how tense the long-simmering rivalry between Amazon and Walmart has gotten, particularly around the elderly population.

An aging population

The US population is aging. By 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 is expected to be double what it was in 2012.

An aging population means we’ll see an increase in health concerns and chronic conditions like heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer that can be costly to manage. It also offers a business opportunity for those companies best placed to meet the healthcare needs of this growing population.

PillPack, with its focus on patients with a number of prescriptions to manage, squarely serves that aging population, and the bidding war over it suggests it’s a key area for both Amazon and Walmart.

Walmart has historically had an interest in the Medicare population. For example, Humana and Walmart have a cobranded Medicare drug plan and an initiative that provides healthy-food credits, and there were rumors that Walmart was considering buying Humana.

The aging population has been one of the few healthcare topics Amazon executives have addressed as well. In February, Babak Parviz, a vice president at Amazon, said at an event that the elderly was something “we deeply care about.”

Flipping out

The fight over PillPack is just the latest example of the two retailer’s growing rivalry. As Amazon moves further offline and Walmart moves further online, the two companies are beginning to clash more often.

Though Amazon ultimately triumphed with PillPack, it faced defeat in India earlier this year over another acquisition target. In May, it was Walmart that eventually bought approximately 77% of Indian e-commerce startup Flipkart for about $16 billion, beating out Amazon, which had also made an offer for the company, according to Bloomberg.

The Flipkart deal gives Walmart an edge on Amazon in the fast-growing Indian market, where Amazon is seen as number two when it comes to e-commerce, trailing Flipkart.

Flipkart and PillPack, when taken together, show a pattern of the two retail giants leapfrogging each other.

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