Age ain't nothing but a number
Yesterday’s news hero was 100-year old Fauja Singh who finished the Toronto Waterfront Marathon to enter the Guiness Book of Records as the oldest man to ever complete a marathon. After reading so much about obesity, lifestyle risk factors and the chronic disease epidemic, it is great to hear that this Sikh gentleman has reached his age and maintained his fitness by sticking to ginger curry and tea.
Age and the “elixir of life” seem to be the theme of the news this week. Scientists fully decoded the genome of the world’s oldest woman who died in 2004 at the age of 115 years. This lady had no signs of dementia whatsoever and her good health has led to hopes that her genome will provide clues to her longevity. A herring-rich diet may have had something to do with it.
Ageing research is big money and a big priority. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), over US$2.5 billion will be spent on ageing research this year, and the UK has been strengthening its ageing research portfolio and networks for the past few years. Scientific journals have blossomed around the search for life-prolonging knowledge. Did you know there was a journal called “Rejuvenation Research” ?
In clinical trials and research studies, if a difference is detected between two groups of individuals, often the first step in analysis is to “adjust for age”. In plain English, that means if we get rid of the differences between two groups which are just caused by differences in the ages of the individuals in the two groups, then we can assess if there are any other differences. It has always seemed counterintuitive to me that we do not also routinely adjust for sex, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status and any number of other risk factors which can cause differences between groups of people.
With the make-up of our societies shifting more in the direction of elderly populations with increasing chronic diseases, the focus of research is shifting to how age itself contributes to disease processes and how we might reverse age-related processes. But are we focusing too much on just one factor? Age is undoubtedly a major contributor to many diseases and their underlying development but we cannot look at age in isolation. Fauja Singh and other healthy ageing adults reach their old age due to the complex interactions between genes, environment and chance, like every disease that medical science has so far uncovered. So to just look at his genes for the answer or for everybody to start on a diet of ginger curry does not make sense to me.