The Longevity World Forum (LWF) is a yearly event held in the Spanish city of Valencia. LWF brings together scientists, thought leaders, politicians, clinicians and entrepreneurs from all over the world and has become a reference in the field in Southern Europe. As the reader may probably know, the South of Europe has some of the most longevous countries and has also one of the most ageing populations in the world.
Preceded by a workshop with scientists, this year, the LWF workshop was held at the Príncipe Felipe Research Centre, with presenters including María Blasco, director of The Spanish Cancer Institute in Madrid and National Institutes of Health (NIH) antiaging researcher Rafael de Cabo from Baltimore, Maryland. There were a number of recurrent themes throughout the workshop and later on during the main event. For instance, it has been discovered that the length of telomeres (the capping extreme of chromosomes in cells) are correlated with ageing: cells lose telomere length as they divide throughout the life cycle of the organism. This age-associated decrease in the length of telomere is linked to various ageing associated diseases like diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer etc., and their accompanying complications. Therefore, mechanisms to preserve telomere length are an active field of research in antiaging. Professor Blasco showed how life expectancy of animals from the zoo of Madrid correlate to their telomere length as well. As well as telomere length, another important topic of research in ageing is how fasting affects it. Dr de Cabo explained the role of fasting in lengthening the life expectancy of mice. In his recent research, his group found that imposing periods of extended daily fasting on mice produced significant improvements in morbidity and mortality.
Ageing is defined as the persistent decline in the age-specific fitness components of an organism due to internal physiological deterioration. Genetics indeed plays a key role in aging, not only because cells are programmed to die at a particular biological age but because there are actual genetic markers that correlate with aging. Epigenetics, the modifications in DNA that do not change the DNA sequence but affect gene activity, is also a key indicator of aging. It is well understood the way in which epigenetic marks may clearly indicate the biological age of a person, as opposed to his or her chronological age. Epigenetic markers can also indicate whether a person has been a smoker or not. It is important to bear in mind that to date there are no reliable genetic remedies to change DNA in a way that reverses aging. What it does exist is the potential of using genetics to predict diseases that appear later in life. An important question, however, remains: can ageing be reversed? Some of the LWF speakers think so. They showed great strides towards the reversing of ageing. We may reach a point in which our ability to reverse ageing (through targeted antiaging therapies, telomere extension and optimal lifestyle and nutrition among others), may be faster than the rate at which we age. We thus may reach a point in which our technical know-how on reverse aging is faster than our biological aging itself.
There are a number of technologies that will have an impact in our goal towards reversing ageing. First, gene editing through techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 or similar ones have the power to precisely alter the DNA code of cells. The ‘scissors’ capabilities of CRISPR-Cas9, offer an example of genetics being malleable in the near future in a way that can help reverse ageing and reduce the chance of acquiring chronic diseases that appear in old age. The challenge remains, however, on how to alter the DNA of every single cell of an organism precisely in a way that provides the intended effect. Second, tissues and cells that can help regenerate or reverse aging. For instance, stem cells can promote regeneration of aged tissues and organs by replacing defective cells with healthy ones. If stem cells could be programmed to settle in a particular organ and regenerate tissue, we could enjoy new vitality as a consequence. However, many problems must be resolved before using stem cells in the clinical field, with microenvironment conditions and delivery methods of cells being a top priority in order to make regeneration process clinically safe. Third, detoxifying therapies and optimal nutrition cycles. Although we do have some knowledge on what lifestyles are more prone for longevity, in practice it becomes unattainable to implement them for the complexities they entail. If we were able to exactly measure all the nutrients that we ingest throughout the day and receive them in a timely manner, combined with the appropriate usage of time and exercise, a lot could be achieved in terms of extending one’s life. It is perhaps in the optimisation of lifestyle, where I see that we have the greatest chances for achieving longevity in the short term.
While at the gala dinner of LWF I had the privilege of sharing table with the association of elderly people of the city of Valencia’s Council. The Council has a club of people aged over a hundred years old, which seems to be slowly increasing in numbers. Despite having reached the milestone of 100 years of age, many of the club members, however, have their faculties severely affected, unable to think clearly or even move autonomously. Is this the kind of longevity we want? Of course not. I think it is thus important to remark that when we talk about longevity, what we want to achieve is quality of life during the later years of our lives rather than artificially extending it indefinitely. Although our abilities to reverse ageing may improve, it is of great importance that we maintain our faculties, particularly our mental ones, as agile as possible for as long as possible.
Instead of focusing on becoming ‘amortal’, that is, being unable to die from disease or age, I suggest the ethically correct focus to be on preserving faculties for as long as possible: mobility, mental agility and social relations. This, in short, is what, in my view, truly matters if we want to focus the recent interest in longevity onto a legitimate worthwhile pursuit, respectful with our society and our planet.
I look forward to next year’s Longevity World Forum event, which will also be held in Valencia, making this beautiful, liveable city into a pole for the advances, technologies and discussions on longevity once again.
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