The problem of aging has troubled many since the beginning of time and the dream of finding a solution to the aging problem is as hopeful today as it was thousands of years ago. Conventional wisdom is that aging is caused primarily by the cumulative damage of environmental factors, wearing down the very cells that make up every fiber of our being and altering their genetic capability for repair.
In plastic surgery, this thought seems not only plausible but very obvious as the outer skin wrinkles as we age. The influence of environmental stress and oxidative damage (free radical formation) to the DNA of cells from the sun, motion and other physical activities clearly has a strong influence on the protective skin covering. Many of today’s topical potions and lotions have ingredients which either strive to protect and perhaps even help repair in a limited way some of these aging effects. But yet we all see patients who ‘look good for their age’ with great skin (often with little effort) and other more unfortunate patients whose skin makes them ‘look older than their age’. (and they don’t have very deleterious habits such as smoking or a lot of sun exposure) As a plastic surgeon, I am quick to say that ‘you just have good genes’…or ‘you just got bad genes’. Recent research suggests that these off-handed comments may be more factual than we have thought.
A recent paper published in the journal CELL poses some new hypotheses about aging. Looking at genes in young vs old worms, they discovered that certain transcription factor genes controlled many other genes that led to diminished cell development. Older worms had increased expression of these controlling genes, regardless of their exposure to oxidative stress, infection, or even radiation. When these expressive genes were stopped, the worms lived longer. This indicates that some parts of aging are built-in and under a stronger genetic influence than we previously thought. Whether what happens in worms translates to humans is not yet known and if it does, it is likely to be a much more complex system.
Such findings suggest that many aspects of aging are genetically controlled, perhaps regardless of what we do. ‘Bad habits’ may accelerate the process but ‘good habits’ will not prevent it from happening either. They may just have a slowing influence on the downhill ride. When genetic engineering becomes more advanced (as it one day will), manipulation of these controlling genes may be a real possibility. So don’t order that sarcophagus and fill up the anteroom just yet!
Dr. Barry Eppley