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Author to discuss the science of aging in virtual event Monday via Prairie Lights
Aging is one of the world’s greatest humanitarian challenges, according to Andrew Steele, a computational biologist and London author on new science in aging.
Around the world, he said about two-thirds of the 150,000 people who die every day are dying from aging.
“It’s the suffering that really bothers me,” he said. “Aging is arguable the world’s largest cause of human suffering. … This is an enormous challenge.”
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, according to years of research compiled in “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old.”
What: A discussion on aging between Andrew Steele, author or “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old” and Iowa City gerontology specialist Michelle Buhman
Where: Virtually, hosted by Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. Register online at prairielights.com.
When: 1 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7
Details: Presented by the Prairie Lights Books and the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center
After getting his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Oxford, Steele changed careers to computational biology because of a graph he saw on the risk for death by age, which doubles every eight years.
“On the one hand you look at that as a human and think this is terrifying — I’ve got this exponential wall of mortality coming at me,” he said. “But as a physicist, you look at that and think there must be some fundamental underlying process going on here, because it’s this incredibly synchronized increase in the risk of cancer, dementia, frailty, all of these different things happening.”
So he left physics behind to become a biologist and see if there was much promise in the field of aging biology as he thought there was. After years of research and two years of writing from 2018 to 2020, his first book released on Jan. 4 details advances and research in the growing scientific field that demonstrate aging is not necessarily inevitable.
Some of the most exciting discoveries in aging research also show the most promise for change. Take senescent cells, for example.
As you age, senescent cells accumulate. As you grow older, those cells can secret a “toxic cocktail” of molecules that accelerate aging even more. With new drugs, upward of 30 companies are trying to convert technology that could potentially be used in human patients in the next 10 years, Steele said.
Steele outlines the 10 hallmarks of aging processes — the fundamental drivers of aging — in his new book.
1. DNA damage and mutations
2. Trimmed telomeres
3. Protein problems
4. Epigenetic alterations
5. Senescent cells
6. Malfunctioning mitochondria
7. Signaling changes
8. Microbiome changes
9. Cellular exhaustion
10. Immune malfunction
In Ageless, the author hopes to change the way readers thing about aging — something he asserts is not necessarily a natural part of life. For some species in the animal kingdom, such as turtles, the risk of death stays completely flat rather than doubling every eight years.
His conversation with Iowa City gerontology specialist Michelle Buhman on Monday will focus on a new view: many parts of aging may be controllable.
“People want to age, but they don’t want to get sick. They don’t want to live the last 10 years of their lives with a chronic condition,” said Buhman, who teaches the psychology of aging at the University of Iowa. “These kinds of books really inspire people to make changes in their lives. Some of the diseases we’re living with are preventable in some ways and manageable.”
Genetics, Steele said, is responsible for 5 percent to 25 percent of how long you live. The rest is determined by lifestyle and luck.
“There is definitely a case that biological age isn’t just a number. We all know someone who’s 60 and looks far older than the number of candles on their cake,” Steele said.
Studies based on some basic metrics seem to show that people with a higher perceived age tend to die more quickly, he said. Biological age is more than a number — it can be used to predict how long you’ll live and is something that can be manipulated. Your biological age, marked by the signs on your body, can be younger than your chronological age.
Synthesizing research that includes 30 experts around the world, Steele’s new book has enough numbers to satisfy data geeks, but is written in a way the casual reader can understand. With data robust enough to satisfy skeptical peers, Steele wants to spread the word that biological aging prevention isn’t sci-fi.
“It’s very easy to be dismissive because there’s all this talk of billionaires investing their money wanting to live forever,” Steele said. “There’s mad quackery from the past. There are loads of reasons to dismiss it.”
But in a world where aging biology has taken a back seat to other scientific fields, the author dispenses one unconventional piece of health advice to anyone who will listen: to write their lawmakers and representatives, urging more funding for aging biology research.
The National Institute for Aging receives about $350 million in its $3.5 billion budget for aging biology research — about $1 per American. Meanwhile, health care spending in the United States tops about $4 trillion per year, a sizable amount of which goes to caring for the chronic diseases of aging.
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