Updated: Oct 3, 2019
Different people will find beauty in different things. For most, it is a matter of cultural perception. For me it is a matter of health on a cellular level.
Beauty can be find almost everywhere … I find beauty in the sunrise in my mountains in Abruzzo, Italy or in the great waves of the Ocean Water surrounding Cape Town, my other home …
Different people will find beauty in different things. It is after all a matter of cultural perception. For the Mayans in South East Mexico and Central America some features of human beauty included elongated heads, big noses, sharp teeth, crossed eyes and pierced ears, lips and noses and they went to extraordinary lengths to achieve these beauty standards.
Such enhancements are in some cases deformations are sometimes overly emphasised in our culture. At present nose jobs and body implants are being performed in teenagers who have not yet completed development only for reasons of vanity and the pursuit of that beauty idea. Luckily, most people do not go to this extraordinary measure but as we age a bigger proportion of the population is faced with the gradual disappearance of vitality and beauty that only young ones enjoy.
As the tone of our skin fades and the brightness of our hair dissipate into gray and white we seek for assistance of creams and dyes. Others also turn their attention to miracle recipes that will rejuvenate them.
In 2003, the global anti-aging industry was estimated to be worth $30,000,000,000. And, in 2013 this value increased to 262,000,000,000. These numbers only seem to be increasing. Aging may not be good for your health but it certainly is good for business. Let me be clear here, there is no problem with people wanting to enhance their appearance unless they do so at the risk of endangering their health.
Although most of these cosmetic treatments do not appear to harm, they certainly do not help. And although you can sometimes find them in pharmacies, they are most often located in shops for herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Their claims are hardly ever backed up by hard scientific evidence. And consumers will often find themselves being able to measure their positive effects against anything. The truth is there is no available anti-aging therapy today. The biggest problem I have with the anti-aging industry is that it is deterring from the real science of aging. There seems to be a disconnect between what most people think is anti-aging and what I consider to be anti-aging, two anti-aging worlds. One concerned with appearance and beauty, the other one dealing with health and disease.
Research done by bio-dermatologists, scientists and people like me who study the biology of aging, has found that the aging process is flaccid, meaning that we can modulate it. Since the 1980s we started to identify that specific genes have positive effects to extend lifespan based on different laboratory organisms, including worms, flies and mice. Now this means that by changing one gene, one small fragment of DNA, we can make these organisms live longer. And even though they do not appear anything like us, we share a big portion of our DNA with them; what we call evolutionary conservation. For example, we share 40% of our DNA with the round worm seen on and 60% with the fruit fly. And I know you're pretty smart and you can do the maths, but no, if you put a worm and a fly together you do not get a human. It does not work like that.
The advantage of organisms like this is that they live so short that we can fairly quickly changes that occur during aging. For example, using flies, we can study changes in the gut, heart, muscle, brain. Yes, flies have brains; very complex and organized ones. Over the last 30 years we have been able to make these organisms not only longer lived but also to live healthier for longer. Aging seems to have been delayed; some features of functional capacity like movement and resistance to stress seem to go hand in hand with extended lifespan.
In mammalian models we're identifying that this single gene modification have effects to prevent or retard the onset of diseases. This is great news. However, we are still far from completely understanding the aging process and we need to continue doing research, studying the biological basis of aging and its relationship with disease. Genetic interventions like the ones I have referred to holds almost no practical hope to slow down aging and prevent diseases in humans. However, work also done with worms, flies and mice is showing that drugs aiming at similar targets, as the genetic interventions can have positive effects. This means that in the future we can have one or more drugs that can slow down aging and improve health during aging. The funny thing is that nothing of this has had anything to do with anti-aging creams and other therapies available today.
As I said before, there is no problem in wanting smooth skin or shiny hair. I am all up for making the world beautiful. However, while aging threatens our youthful appearance, the consequences are far greater. We are faced with the possibility of memory loss, impaired movement and increased risk of diseases. After all, aging is the biggest risk factor for the major killer diseases of our time; and this includes cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles almost every five years after the age of 65. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s at the age of 80 years is 50%.
Our populations are aging very rapidly. Oficcial Statistics estimate that by 2020 one billion people will be in the age group of over 60 years and by 2050 this will almost double to two billion. And, out of those two billion, almost a quarter will be over the age of 80 years. This is more than the current population of the entire United States of America. An aging population of course poses some serious concerns about pension plans and health care needs. Especially, when considering that the risk of disease rises with age. However, if we tackle the main risk factor, that is the aging process itself, things might look different.
A recent simulation estimated that by delaying the aging process we can increase healthy lifespan and save some money as a result. Interestingly, simulations for successful treatments against cancer and heart disease did not herald such optimistic predictions. It seems that a medical model where aging is properly studied and addressed would have long lasting impact in public health. Living to 80, 90 or 100 years should be cause for celebration. Research into aging is part of the celebration. Ensuring our parents, grandparents and great grandparents can live a healthy life into old age should be a priority. We must eliminate this ageist culture that blames our aged ones for the inadequate infrastructure of our healthcare system and pension schemes. What better way to celebrate them to give them well being and good health at old age. I am more concerned with ways to improve their health. This is what I want for every person too. To be able to give all people the possibility of enjoying the later stages of life with pride, dignity, independence and good health. Because although anti-aging can be for both beauty and health, I chose to study aging to one day be able to make people live healthier for longer.