New Breakthrough in Anti-Aging Research May Allow People to Live Longer Healthier Lives

Ryan Ripsman, Science Staff Writer

Since the dawn of time, people have been obsessed with the idea of conquering death. One of the oldest written pieces of literature, Gilgamesh’s epic, tells the tale of the hero Gilgamesh’s struggle to achieve eternal life. While humanity remains engaged in its battle with aging and death, the battlefield has shifted from the realm of myth to the realm of science. In recent years, there has been more and more research focused on slowing and reversing the aging process.

         One of the difficulties with “curing aging” is that aging, as a disease, defies easy classification. It affects most organ systems and causes a myriad of different physiological effects ranging from worse insulin regulation to neuronal loss. In addition, aging is difficult to treat as it has such varied effects on people. Age related damage is largely random – while most older people will have some damage in all their organ systems, everyone’s aging timeline will be different. Some people lose their hearing at a young age, while others will experience age-related heart problems, long before they experience any other symptoms of aging.

         Another difficulty in treating aging is that aging does not have one single universally accepted cause. However, most scientists agree that the accumulation of genetic damage plays a key role in the aging process. Every time cells reproduce, they make a complete copy of their DNA. When the DNA is copied, there is a small chance that there will be a mistake. As people get older, their DNA accumulates more mistakes, impairing their cells’ ability to perform their tasks.

One form of DNA damage that receives a lot of attention is telomere shrinking. Telomeres are a repeating portion of DNA at the ends of the DNA strands. The telomeres do not actually contain any information themselves, instead, they exist to protect the rest of the DNA from damage during cellular reproduction. As people age, their telomeres become shorter, making them less able to protect the rest of their DNA. Telomere contraction is an especially serious problem because the telomeres do not have access to the regular repair mechanism that corrects mistakes in the rest of the DNA.

Cells have a built-in mechanism that prevents them from reproducing when they have genetic damage. Once cells have divided a certain amount of times they cease to reproduce – a process called senescence. Generally, the immune system removes senescent cells. However, as a person ages, senescent cells build up in the body leading to organ deterioration and other age-related diseases. Together, preventing the accumulation of senescent cells and increasing telomere length represent two of the main focuses of current anti-aging research.

         A new study published by a group of scientists from Tel Aviv University and the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research may be the first step towards slowing and reversing the aging process. After 30 patients, all at least 64 years old, underwent hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the scientist found that they had fewer senescent cells and longer telomeres than before the experiment.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves exposing patients to air that is composed only of oxygen rather than the usual mix of oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gasses. The therapy is conducted in a specially designed high-pressure chamber. Paradoxically, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can cause the body to react like it is being deprived of oxygen, even though it is receiving more oxygen than usual. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been shown to have positive physiological effects in previous studies. In one previous study, it was shown to improve cognitive function among older adults. However, this is the first time that hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been shown to reverse two of the most important cellular hallmarks of aging.

         The patients underwent hyperbaric oxygen therapy for 90 minutes, five days a week. The therapy continued for 60 sessions over the course of three months. The patients had blood samples taken before the therapy, on the day of the 30th and 60th sessions and two weeks after they received their last session. By looking at the telomere length of the blood cells they collected, the scientists found that the patients’ telomeres grew by more than 20% on average over the course of the treatment. While past studies have shown that lifestyle changes like endurance training can cause telomere lengthening, they have only shown telomere lengthening of 2-5%. Additionally, the scientists found that the patients had 10-37% fewer senescent cells after the therapy.

         This study is a big step forward in the field of aging research, but it has several limitations that will need to be addressed in future studies. It is unclear how long the effects of this therapy will last since the study only observed patients for a few months. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is an expensive therapy, with the cost of one session ranging from $300 to $400. If the effects of this treatment are not sustained long-term, it may make hyperbaric oxygen therapy a prohibitively expensive treatment for aging. As well, the experiment was only performed on 30 patients. In the future, larger studies will need to be conducted to ensure the accuracy of these results.

         Before a therapy like this could be rolled out to the general population, many more studies would need to be conducted including controlled clinical trials. These trials would definitively determine whether this therapy helps combat aging. They would also help determine if there are negative side-effects associated with this treatment.         While there is still a long way to go before hyperbaric oxygen therapy could be used as a treatment for aging, this study is a strong first step. Will this therapy allow us to finally triumph over aging, and live forever young? Probably not, but only time will tell for sure.

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