Role of Autophagy in Healthy Aging: The Future of Anti-Aging
Written by Stephen Anton PhD on December 6th, 2020
Statistics show that life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past century (although this trend is changing in recent years). Unfortunately, longer lifespans do not always mean longer health spans, the disease-free period of life.
In fact, although we are living longer, the quality of most people’s lives in their later years is quite low and is often filled with pain and suffering, rather than happiness and joy.
For this reason, an important goal of this century is to better understand the biological causes of aging and discover novel interventions to extend vitality and healthy lifespan. In order to do achieve this lofty goal, we need a better understanding of biological factors that may influence how and why we age.
Why Do We Age?
Are we programmed to live a certain number of years or do we wear out over the course of many years? To answer this question, we first need to understand what happens to our bodies as we age.
Aging is a biological process, as our cells become less efficient in maintenance and repair activities, as well as in defense responses. This results in the accumulation of lipids (unhealthy fats) and damaged molecules, which can affect the health of our organs and tissues, but also the appearance, health, and quality of our skin.
Perhaps you may have noticed it in the mirror? Over time, most people’s skin becomes thinner and more prone to damage as the collagen and elastin fibers break and lose their elasticity, resulting in dull skin, fines wrinkles and expression lines.
Of the various mechanisms that contribute to these unhealthy changes during aging, the biological process of autophagy has emerged as having a critical role in our overall health and function. Deficiencies in this important process can interfere with the way our cells function, which can lead to damage to our tissues and ultimately increase risk for chronic diseases.
What Exactly Is Autophagy?
You may or may not have heard about this amazing cellular cleaning system that we all have which helps maintain the quality and function of every cell in your body.
In simple terms, you can think of autophagy as your body’s way of taking out the trash.
The good news is the autophagy system is available to help keep our cells clean even as we age, provided we allow it to work.
In many ways, the body’s autophagy process resembles the process you use to take out the trash in the morning. First, you put trash or waste in a trash bag, and when it is full, you take it outside where it is eventually picked up by garbage trucks and taken away. In a similar manner, your body traps waste products in little bags within your cells and then takes these waste bags into the bloodstream to be removed.
When the “junk” is removed, your cells become healthier and can function more efficiently. And when our cells function more efficiently, this improves the functions of our organs, tissues, and our entire body, including our immune system.
Healthier functioning cells mean they produce less free radicals and inflammation (aka the bad guys). With fewer “bad guys” around, the body can use more of its resources to repair and recover instead of fighting the “bad guys.” Ultimately, your body will function more efficiently and effectively in every single way.
Role of Autophagy In Combating Oxidative Stress
Cells in our body produce free radicals during normal metabolic processes, but oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants, which can lead to cell and tissue damage.
Long-term oxidative stress contributes to the development of disease and plays a role in aging. For this reason, the “oxidative stress hypothesis” is one of the most widely accepted theories on aging.
Luckily, recent studies have revealed that autophagy plays a critical role in reducing oxidative stress and can also help combat another important driver of aging, chronic inflammation.
Is Optimizing Autophagy the Future of “Anti-Aging” Treatments?
Emerging science suggest that optimizing autophagy could be a important treatment approach for many disease conditions AND may even slow down the rate of aging.
Although the importance of autophagy for healthy aging has only recently been discovered, a growing body of research is now dedicated to finding safe ways to activate autophagy.
In preclinical studies involving fruit flies and rodents, interventions that activated autophagy have been shown to extend healthy lifespan, the ultimate goal. Thus, the promise of promoting healthy aging in humans by enhancing and optimizing autophagy remains high.
What we know at this point in time is that the autophagy system is most likely to be activated and active when we are fasting, sleeping, or in a temporary calorie deficit from restricting calories or exercising. Thus, interventions that can activate or enhance autophagy, such as intermittent fasting or calorie restriction, appear to have real potential to extend healthy lifespan.
By activating autophagy at different ages, cells can be cleaned from toxic garbage and become healthier. When this happens, the whole body becomes healthier and functions better.
For these reasons, “optimizing autophagy” is likely to represent the future goal of many “anti-aging” treatments.