As Time Goes By

01/20/04
Looking for ways to live longer and be stronger? USC aging experts suggest eating less, exercising more and avoiding toxins such as tobacco. The results, they say, will leave you feeling fit as the years add up.
By Nicole St. Pierre
USC neurobiologist Caleb Finch: "The life span of our cells is programmed into our genetics to a point, but not as much as people might think."

photo/Irene Fertik
Ask University Professor Caleb Finch what his ultimate career goal is, and he won’t hesitate to respond.

“It’s to understand the mechanisms behind the human life span,” said Finch, holder of the ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Chair in the Neurobiology of Aging and professor of biological science in the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.

Besides Finch, other researchers in the USC College are looking at ways to make life better and maybe even longer. Here’s what they suggest:

Start early to stay young

The best time to adopt healthful diet and exercise habits is very early in life. A new paper by biology professor Michel Baudry lends support to the idea that cognitive declines begin in early middle age. Prenatal and postnatal nutrition is especially important to healthy brain development, said psychology professor Margaret Gatz.

Stimulate your mind and socialize

Stimulating your mind throughout your life span, through crossword puzzles for example, might help ward off Alzheimer’s.

“While we have not proved the adage ‘use it or lose it,’ it certainly makes sense that keeping an active mind contributes to positive aging,” said psychology doctoral student Michael Crowe. Going to museums and socializing with friends during middle and senior years has been shown to lower risk of developing dementia, Gatz said.

Eat less, but more of the right things

A growing body of research shows that eating less can lead to a longer life and postpone, or prevent, many diseases - at least in worms, flies and mice. Finch has shown that low-calorie diets also can slow brain aging in rodents.

Over the last few decades, researchers have increasingly focused on the link between metabolism - the breakdown of food into energy - and cellular damage. Anything that helps lower metabolism or oxidative damage seems to slow the aging process.

“There has been strong evidence demonstrating the influence of metabolism on disease,” Finch said. “A new type of drug that could fool the body into thinking it’s in restrictive calorie mode could be a key to addressing many age-related diseases.”

At the USC College, Baudry, graduate student Ruolan Lui and Richard Thompson, holder of the William M. Keck Chair in Biological Sciences, are developing anti-oxidant compounds that may slow age-related declines in memory. So far, they’ve only been tested in mice.

Exercise and stay upright

Regular exercise helps lower blood pressure, reduces the risk of falls and resultant serious injuries (such as hip or wrist fractures) and slows the body’s loss of muscle and bone mass. A healthy dose of sweat also works as a mood elevator, promotes better sleep and is hypothesized to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Gatz said.

Tobacco cuts deep in many ways

Steering clear of toxic substances such as tobacco will likely leave you looking - and remembering - better at 70. Finch and collaborators have discovered a new form of soluble toxic proteins in the brain - called ADDLS amyloid beta - that may be the culprit behind Alzheimer’s.

Hope for healthy ancestors (and good luck)

Ultimately, much of the aging process is left to chance, Finch said. Genetics may explain only 20 to 30 percent of our longevity.

“The life span of our cells is programmed into our genetics to a point, but not as much as people might think,” said Finch, whose book on chance, development and aging emphasizes the fundamentally random nature of cell processes that affect aging.

Relax and reflect to remember

Individual personality traits may affect how well you age. For instance, people who live a high-stress lifestyle over a long period of time alter their neurotransmitters, the part of the brain where memory is encoded, Gatz said.

Think about where you are headed

Eileen Crimmins, holder of the Edna M. Jones Chair in Gerontology and professor of gerontology and sociology, is studying the possible link between longevity and education and income levels. She also studies how demanding work environments affect the aging process. This line of research asks whether more money and more college degrees lead to longer lives and whether high-stress jobs make one live longer - or shorter.

Happiness may lead to longer life

“People make decisions assuming that more income and goods will make them happier,” Richard Easterlin, professor of economics in the College. “As a result, they spend a disproportionate amount of time working at the expense of family life and health, … where the attainment of one’s goals consequently has a more lasting impact on happiness.”

Easy Does It

The take-home message: Relax, do crossword puzzles at home with family, visit friends, eat healthy small meals, don’t smoke and do exercise and stay active.