Can we hack aging?

March 17, 2020
Tim B. McLaughlin, MD

Specific targeted action may help us turn back the clock

A few years back, I read with interest an editorial by Peter J. McDonnell, MD, detailing a patient he treated who had survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. 

During my residency training in ophthalmology at Tulane University, I spent time at the VA Hospitals in New Orleans and Biloxi and had the privilege of treating many veterans who had survived extremely harsh conditions similar to Louis Zamperini in the story “Unbroken.”

Read Dr. McDonnell's original editorial: A resident's memory of a patient 
 

Plane shot down
Zamperini’s plane was shot down in the Pacific in May 1943 and he then spent 47 days drifting in the ocean in a small raft. He and one other survivor were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy when they approached the Marshall Islands. He went on to endure two years of intense suffering in Japanese POW camps.

He was exposed to near starvation, constant cold, and extreme physical labor and torture-and yet, he survived. He later ran a leg of the Olympic Torch relay in Nagano Japan prior to the 1988 Winter Olympics and continued to bike around Los Angeles and attend USC football games into his 90s. He lived a long, healthy life until he died at the age of 97 in 2014.

How is that possible? Were these men who survived the Bataan Death March or years in a POW camp blessed with resilient uber-genes that their fellow soldiers did not possess or did the ordeal they survived somehow change them and lead to a longer and healthier life? How can someone who went through such an ordeal live longer and healthier than most of us who experience a sheltered, comfortable existence?

It turns out that new research may hold the answer. 

Related: Doctors, nurses and medical records 

In my hometown of Pensacola, FL, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition produces a terrific podcast called STEM Talk in which a visiting scientist or researcher is interviewed regarding his or her area of expertise. 

The podcast is typically an hour or two and reviews topics such as astronomy, climate, aviation, or artificial intelligence. However, my favorite topics are those covering diet, exercise, health, and aging. I am a former college basketball player and physician and thought that I was reasonably up-to-date in the areas of health and fitness until I began listening.

I have learned about intermittent fasting, efficient weight training, high-intensity interval training, caloric restriction, and the benefits of a ketogenic diet and hot and cold stress. 

Related: The 14 habits of successful Ophthalmology Times readers

 

Modified aging
Many of the experts on STEM Talk argue that aging is not preordained and can be modified through specific targeted action.

Harvard professor David Sinclair, PhD, makes the point in his book, “Lifespan,” that physical stressors can alter our epigenetic makeup and may lead to a longer life span and health span. He and others believe that hormesis-“a level of biological damage or adversity that stimulates repair processes that provide cell survival and health benefits”-is largely responsible.

In other words, what does not kill you makes you stronger! 

Dr. Sinclair also discusses compounds that might extend life, in essence, by simulating hormesis such as NAD boosters, metformin, resveratrol, and rapamycin. 

Are the veterans that we have probably all seen in the VA Hospital system somehow the beneficiaries of hormesis after surviving near starvation, extreme physical demands and chronic cold stress?

In the end, it seems only fitting that men such as Zamperini who survived near death in a POW camp would have a few extra years of healthy living after what he went through. 

Maybe we can hack our aging processes by harnessing hormesis and live longer and healthier lives by implementing some of these ideas.

Read more editorials 

Tim B. McLaughlin, MD
Eye Institute at Medical Center Clinic
Pensacola, FL
E: tim.mclaughlin@medicalcenterclinic.com

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