Fighting Back Against the Ravages of Aging

Greta Harrison wrote . . . . . . . . .

New USC Viterbi research tells us more than we’ve ever known about how and why our cells age, paving the way for a healthier, happier old age.

For centuries, humans have been obsessed with halting the negative effects of aging; searching for a so-called fountain of youth. While humans are unlikely to achieve immortality any time soon, new research could be key to our understanding of how the aging process works. This paves the way for better cancer treatments and revolutionary new drugs that could vastly improve human health in the twilight years.

The work, from USC Viterbi Assistant Professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Nick Graham and his team in collaboration with Scott Fraser, Provost Professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, and Pin Wang, Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering, was recently published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

“To drink from the fountain of youth, you have to figure out where the fountain of youth is, and understand what the fountain of youth is doing,” Graham said. “We’re doing the opposite; we’re trying to study the reasons cells age, so that we might be able to design treatments for better aging.”

How do Cells Age?

To achieve this, lead author Alireza Delfarah, a graduate student in the Graham lab, focused on expanding our knowledge of senescence, a natural process in which cells permanently stop creating new cells. This process is one of the key causes of age-related decline, manifesting in diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis and heart disease.

“Senescent cells are effectively the opposite of stem cells, which have an unlimited potential for self-renewal or division,” Delfarah said. “Senescent cells can never divide again. It’s an irreversible state of cell cycle arrest.”

The research team discovered that the aging, senescent cells they studied stopped producing a class of chemicals called nucleotides, which are the building blocks of DNA. When they took young cells and forced them to stop producing nucleotides, they became senescent, or aged.

“This means that the production of nucleotides is essential to keep cells young,” Delfarah said. “It also means that if we could prevent cells from losing nucleotide synthesis, the cells might age more slowly.”

Graham’s team examined young cells that were proliferating robustly and fed them molecules labeled with stable isotopes of carbon, in order to trace how the nutrients consumed by a cell are processed into different biochemical pathways.

Scott Fraser and his lab worked with the research team to develop 3D imagery of the results. The images unexpectedly revealed that senescent cells often have two nuclei, and that they do not synthesize DNA.

Before now, senescence has primarily been studied in cells known as fibroblasts, the most common cells that comprised the connective tissue in animals. Graham’s team is instead focusing on how senescence occurs in epithelial cells, the cells that line the surfaces of the organs and structures in your body. These are also the types of cells in which most cancers arise.

Graham said that senescence is most widely known as the body’s protective barrier against cancer: When cells sustain damage that could be at risk of developing into cancer, they enter into senescence and stop proliferating so that the cancer does not develop and spread.

“Sometimes people talk about senescence as a double-edged sword, that it protects against cancer, and that’s a good thing,” Graham said. “But then it also promotes aging and diseases like diabetes, cardiac dysfunction or atherosclerosis and general tissue dysfunction,” he said.

Graham said the goal was not to completely prevent senescence, because that might unleash cancer cells. “But then on the other hand, we would like to find a way to remove senescent cells to promote healthy aging and better function,” he said.

Drugs to Help Humans Grow Older More Comfortably

Graham said that the team’s research has strong applications in the emerging field of senolytics, the development of drugs that may be able to eliminate aging cells. He said that human clinical trials are still in early stages.

He added that in order for successful senolytic drugs to be designed, it was important to identify what is unique about a senescent cell, so the drug won’t affect the normal, non-senescent cells.

“That’s where we’re coming in—studying senescent cell metabolism and trying to figure out how the senescent cells are unique, so that you could design targeted therapeutics around these metabolic pathways,” Graham said.

Source: University of Southern California

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UK’s First Supermarket Designed by Public Health Experts Launches in Central London

Edwina Langley wrote . . . . . . . . .

How to properly tackle obesity? Let public health experts design supermarkets. That’s the message of a recent report released by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and Slimming World.

‘Health on the Shelf’ uncovers how the layout of supermarkets, their pricing strategies and general ambiance are fueling obesity, as prominence given to unhealthy food plays a significant role in shopping choices made by customers. Research revealed 15 per cent of people believe supermarkets cause them to ‘go off track’ in their efforts to lose weight, whilst more than one in three claim they impulse-buy unhealthy food and drinks because supermarkets put them on special offer.

The report encouraged retailers to address these issues and released a series of recommendations, one of which was to re-consider store layouts in favour of more health-focused designs. The report advised supermarkets allocate less shelf space to products such as chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks, and give greater visibility to foods based on the Government’s EatWell guide, such as fruit, vegetables, pulses, lean meat and water.

It also encouraged the removal of unhealthy products from eye level, from checkouts and from end of aisle promotions, unless – in the case of the latter – a healthier option is also on promotion, and stated retailers should be more transparent about paid-for product placements, if permitted in-store.

Additionally, healthy snacks should be handed out to shopping customers, the report suggested, whilst live food demonstrations should take place showing how ingredients can be used to create healthy dishes.

To demonstrate how this would work, RSPH and Slimming World have unveiled a pop-up in The People’s Supermarket in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London.

Named ‘Nudge’, the new look store was designed by public health experts and includes a number of health-focused features. Foods such as ‘pasta and rice’ and ‘beans, pulses and eggs’, for instance, have been positioned on sale at aisle ends in place of junk food, whilst greater prominence has been given to fruit and vegetables, and an EatWell Guide displayed on the wall.

Of the report and pop-up, Slimming World Public Health Manager and Dietician Carolyn Pallister said: “Being overweight not only impacts on people’s physical health, it can also impact on overall mental and emotional wellbeing and happiness; anything that helps those of us who struggle with our weight to make healthier choices is a good thing…

“Supermarkets will argue that they are giving their customers the choice; and we haven’t removed those choices at Nudge, all we’ve done is made it easier for customers to choose healthier alternatives and put less emphasis on promotions of foods likely to cause weight gain. If supermarkets empowered their consumers to make these changes themselves though through creating an environment which promoted a healthier diet, they could become part of the solution in helping tackle the obesity epidemic.”

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, added: “Alongside Slimming World, we are calling on the government to commit to legislation to support supermarkets in promoting healthier choices through legislation. If we change the environment we can encourage healthier choices for all.”

Source: Evening Standard

Autopsies Reveal How Meth Hurts the Heart

Use of the illegal stimulant methamphetamine causes build-up of tough protein fibers in heart muscle, which may help explain the development of enlarged hearts and heart failure in users, according to preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s Basic Cardiovascular Sciences 2019 Scientific Sessions.

Methamphetamine, also known as meth, is an extremely addictive and commonly abused stimulant drug, with 1.6 million Americans reporting using the drug in 2017.

Previous autopsy reports of some meth users have documented injury to heart cells, scarring of heart muscle and enlargement of the heart. The current studies were designed to systematically compare autopsy results in meth users and non-users and look for the mechanisms by which the drug might create heart problems.

“Our goal is to discover a fundamental mechanism of methamphetamine toxicity in order to find a way to treat heart muscle diseases associated with illicit methamphetamine use,” said Md. Shenuarin Bhuiyan, Ph.D., senior author of the study and assistant professor in the department of pathology and translational pathobiology at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-Shreveport.

Researchers used heart samples obtained at autopsy from 32 chronic meth users (mostly Caucasian men, average age 38 years) who died from meth overdose or from gunshot wounds, hanging, blunt force injury, stab wounds or sudden heart or lung problems. These were compared with samples from five non-substance users who also died suddenly from gunshot, hanging, blunt force injury or blood clots in the lungs. Meth used was established by medical history and the results of toxicology reports.

In comparison to samples from non-users, samples from the heart’s main pumping chamber (left ventricle) in meth users showed:

  • Increased deposits of collagen (stiff protein fibers) around the blood vessels.
  • Accumulation of collagen throughout the spaces between heart muscle cells.

“Regardless of the cause of death, we found methamphetamine has profound harmful effects on the cardiovascular system and results in irreversible damage to the heart, raising the risk of a heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest and heart failure,” said Chowdhury S. Abdullah, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Bhuiyan’s laboratory. “Rehabilitation centers for methamphetamine users should routinely monitor heart function and look for signs of heart failure, since early detection of heart problems could prevent further deterioration of the heart muscle. Monitoring should continue even after people have quit using the drug.”

The researchers found similarly increased collagen deposits in mice exposed to meth compared to those who were not. The studies on mice also indicated that methamphetamine may lead to structural changes in heart muscle by inhibiting a specific receptor in the heart, suggesting a possible mechanism to prevent meth-induced heart damage in the future.

The study is limited by using only autopsy samples, so researchers could not determine how the structural differences they documented in methamphetamine users might specifically affect blood tests and heart function.

“We need to further study cardiac function and biochemical blood parameters in methamphetamine users and compare them to those in other substance users and in non-substance users,” Bhuiyan said.

Source: American Heart Association


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Quitting Alcohol May Improve Mental Well-being, Health-related Quality of Life

Quitting alcohol may improve health-related quality of life for women, especially their mental well-being, according to a study from Hong Kong published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

“More evidence suggests caution in recommending moderate drinking as part of a healthy diet,” says Dr. Michael Ni, School of Public Health and The State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Science, University of Hong Kong (HKU).

The study carried out by Dr. Xiaoxin Yao, Dr. Michael Ni, Dr. Herbert Pang and colleagues at HKU included 10 386 people from the FAMILY Cohort in Hong Kong who were nondrinkers or moderate drinkers (14 drinks or less per week for men and 7 drinks or less per week for women) between 2009 and 2013. The researchers compared their findings with data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, a representative survey of 31 079 people conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the United States.

The mean age of participants in the FAMILY Cohort was 49 years and 56% were women. About 64% of men were nondrinkers (abstainers and former drinkers) and almost 88% of women were nondrinkers. Men and women who were lifetime abstainers had the highest level of mental well-being at the start of the study (baseline). For women who were moderate drinkers and quit drinking, quitting was linked to a favourable change in mental well-being in both Chinese and American study populations. These results were apparent after adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics, body mass index, smoking status, and other factors.

“Global alcohol consumption is expected to continue to increase unless effective strategies are employed,” says Dr. Ni. “Our findings suggest caution in recommendations that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life. Instead, quitting drinking may be associated with a more favourable change in mental well-being, approaching the level of lifetime abstainers.”

Source: Science Daily

Opinion: Why Ditching Processed Foods Won’t Be Easy — Barriers To Cooking From Scratch

Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton wrote . . . . . . . . .

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Michael Pollan, one of America’s most influential food writers, famously advised more than a decade ago. This pithy advice is perhaps the clearest distillation of a food philosophy that is so intuitive that it has become ubiquitous. To fix the problems in the food system, we need to consume whole, fresh foods grown on a farm rather than the engineered pseudofoods that populate the interior aisles of supermarkets.

A recent study now offers hard scientific evidence in support of Pollan’s message. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health conducted a randomized, controlled trial, the first to directly assess the effects of processed food on people’s health as compared with whole foods. Participants were randomly assigned a diet for a two-week period. One group was given a diet composed of ultra-processed food, while the other group ate unprocessed or minimally processed food. When the two-week period ended, the groups switched to the opposite diet. When people were on the ultra-processed diet, they ate an average of 508 calories more per day and gained an average of 2 pounds over the two-week period, providing evidence that there may be something about processed food that drives people to overeat and gain weight.

The study confirms what we’ve been hearing for years: Cooking from scratch and eating “real food” is better and healthier. The problem is that knowing this doesn’t make it any more doable for the average family.

Families in the United States spend quite a bit of time cooking, with many cooking almost every day. The most recent surveys suggest that Americans are actually cooking slightly more than they were a decade ago. But a large proportion of our diets — almost 60% of total calories — comes from ultra-processed foods. People living in poor households consume more processed foods than wealthier people, but the amount of processed foods that Americans eat is increasing overall.

Between 2012 and 2017, we conducted interviews and ethnographic observations with more than 150 mothers and grandmothers of young children from all walks of life. All were working hard to feed their families, often under very difficult circumstances. Their stories are a stark illustration of where Pollan’s advice, seemingly simple, falls short. While many people frame food decisions as a relatively simple matter of personal choice, our new book, Pressure Cooker, shows what it really takes to put a home-cooked meal on the table.

First, it takes money. Healthier diets — diets rich in fresh produce and lean proteins — generally cost more. The researchers who conducted the processed-food study recognize this: They note that the unprocessed diet they fed participants cost 40% more than the ultra-processed diet. And lots of American families don’t have more money to spend on food. Many of the families in our study were experiencing food insecurity, meaning that they lacked food to feed everyone in their household. Across the United States, one out of every eight people does not have enough food to eat, and many more do not have enough money to regularly afford healthy foods.

Lots of families in our study cooked almost every night, in part because it was the cheapest option. But when their cupboards ran bare, they ate ramen and hot dogs, not a pan of roast chicken and vegetables, as food gurus recommend. Mothers said that if they had more money, they’d buy fresh fruit for their kids, but this was just an occasional splurge, not an everyday reality. Even the more financially stable middle-class mothers in our study talked about making trade-offs between the foods they wanted to buy for their families and the foods they felt they could afford.

Cooking from scratch takes time. The photos of the unprocessed meals in the study represent hours of labor: the labor of shopping (often at multiple stores), researching recipes, chopping vegetables and prepping ingredients, and, of course, cooking. Researchers find that it takes extra time to cook the way that food reformers advise. Not surprisingly, it is usually women who take on this additional labor. And although women today spend less time in the kitchen than women did in the 1960s, they actually have less leisure time, as expectations around work and parenting have ramped up.

As real wages have stagnated, households often depend on every adult family member working, sometimes in multiple jobs, to make ends meet. And nonstandard employment arrangements, with unpredictable scheduling, are increasingly common, especially for low-wage workers. It’s hard to plan meals when you don’t even know who will be home for dinner. The middle-class families in our study had more resources and more options but felt completely overwhelmed by hectic schedules and competing demands that left little time to cook.

Finally, cooking from scratch requires resources that food experts take for granted. At a minimum, it requires a working stove and enough money to pay the electric bill to run the stove. One family in our book experienced homelessness during the time we spent with the family. Patricia Washington, her daughter and her two grandchildren moved into a hotel room after being evicted when they couldn’t keep up with both the rent and the heating bill. Dinners consisted of frozen pizzas or TV dinners heated in the microwave. Although most of the families in our study had a relatively stable place to live, many lacked basic kitchen tools like sharp knives or cutting boards, which made chopping vegetables both tedious and dangerous. Like Washington, some didn’t have a kitchen table or enough chairs for everyone in the family.

The idea that we have a responsibility to prepare wholesome, nourishing meals is appealing, and now there is more evidence to support that. For some food gurus, the decision to simmer homemade spaghetti and meatballs on the stove rather than heat up a can of ravioli in the microwave is evidence of a person’s moral fortitude.

But inequality is baked into our food system. If good health depends on eating real food, it’s time to make sure all families get the support they need to eat well. This means making healthy food more affordable, but it also means addressing the other challenges families face: for example, by guaranteeing workers a living wage and fair working conditions and by investing in families through universal free school lunch and subsidized child care, so that parents don’t feel like they’re doing it all on their own.

Source: npr