Living longer is a far cry from aging well. Not many of us would want to live for an extensive time after our quality of life had significantly deteriorated, yet as a species we are surviving to much greater ages than our ancestors. A few people manage to achieve the best possible outcome, a very long and healthy life.
Of course, much can be explained away in terms of access to good nutrition, healthcare and educating ourselves against life shortening toxins such as smoking, but not all longevity can be attributed to environmental conditioning.
I’m sure we’ve all got that one relative who has done all the things you shouldn’t do; eaten junk foods, avoided healthy fruits and veggies, smoked and drank to excess and still barely has a grey hair on their head to betray their ripe old age, but what is it that singles out these miraculous die-hards from the rest of us?
It turns out that there is an unusual gene variant that gives these old-timers a superpower over their mental faculties.
Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr Jihye Paik and her colleagues, identified this rare gene in studies on humans who live beyond one hundred years. The variant has a catchy acronym of FOXO3 or Foxhead Box Protein O3. Her study follows on from an earlier one conducted on mice that showed agitated and stressed rodents rarely, if ever, possessed the FOXO3 gene. Those ultra-stressed mice developed an accelerated form of brain cell death.
The team then set about finding the variant in humans, which they did in January of this year. Further research suggested that the gene acts like a switch inside certain brain cells. We have a finite number of brain stem cells available to us from birth. These stem cells are like a blank canvas, waiting for a signal to tell them which type of cell to grow into, allowing us to make new memories, reinforce old ones or repair tissues that have been exposed to a build up of toxins from our everyday activities.
When old cells are worn out, a biochemical reaction triggers a stem cell to develop into a replacement. The problem is that since we are leading more and more stressful lives, which can result in more of those metabolic toxins to build up…