How can I live longer? That’s the big question for many people — and one of the answers may rest in a millimeter-long, dirt-dwelling roundworm.
Researchers at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor are trying to find out why the worm — which has a lifespan of only about a few weeks — lives significantly longer when its diet is severely restricted.
One reason might be genetic: When the roundworm gets less to eat, its body goes into survival mode and it focuses on staying alive.
And because the roundworm’s genetic structure has a surprising amount in common with humans’, that fact could be significant in understanding longevity.
Nora Flaherty and Aric Rogers discuss longevity.
MDI assistant professor Aric Rogers says scientific research 100 years ago found lab mice could live 30-50 percent longer if you restricted their access to food.
“And for a long time, this was a black box, because metabolism, and digesting food, was just seen as a bunch of chemical reactions,” he says.
He says animals have a couple main jobs: growing and reproducing. But we all live in a changing environment, and organisms are often faced with food scarcity.
“Whether you’re a single-celled animal living in a slime pond, or you’re a Neanderthal, you might not have enough food to grow and to reproduce,” Rogers says. “So what do you do? You can die — or you can go into a survival mode. And by going into a survival mode you are temporarily moving away from that basic drive and necessity of growing and reproducing.”
But, he says, that “survival mode” keeps an organism alive just long enough so they can get to a point of less scarcity.
So what does a restricted diet mean exactly? Eating lots of salads? Rogers says it would mean cutting calories by 35 or 40 percent, and while some people do try to do that, it’s extremely difficult.
“It’s a hard lifestyle, and it definitely comes at a cost,” he says.
He says researchers have a different idea.
“The idea is that we can develop drugs that target these same genes that are changed by diet, so that people don’t have to starve themselves, or go on an extremely challenging diet, to reap the awards that are available just by essentially small changes in the activity of some of these genes,” Rogers says.
He says immortality may not be around the corner, but we’re on the cusp of having treatments that will increase the healthy years of life. He says actions that change lifespan in roundworms or mice also increase health and the innate ability to avoid age-related decline and diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.