A large proportion of plastic surgery procedures take place because of the effects of the aging process on our bodies. They say that from the moment we are born we start to age but why does this happen? Aging is a problem that is as old as time, so to speak, but what is it in our genetic makeup that makes our bodies change and why do some people seem to age at a faster rate than others? Some new research reveals some interesting clues.
In the search for answers as to what is going on with aging, researchers are studying what are known as “epigenomes”. An epigenome is a layer of biochemical reactions which turn genes on and off. This triggering of the genes affects the aging process. In order to conduct their research they looked in great detail at the epigenomes of a newborn baby boy and a 103-year old man.
Epigenetics, as this field of medical study is known, is basically about changing the way our genes function by turning them off or making them more active. Genes are the blueprint for building the human body. Bone cells will use different bits of the blueprint to nerve cells or skin cells.
The research, conducted by the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute in Barcelona, has shown that this control over the blueprint decays over time. Adding small chemicals, methyl groups, to specific sites of DNA is one of the main ways of turning a gene off. The scientists compared the number of these sites, which had an added methyl group in the white blood cells, in a 103-year old man and a newborn baby boy.
The findings, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed the newborn had methyl groups turning genes off at more than 80% of all possible sites. This compared with 73% in the centenarian. That may sound insignificant but it is actually a difference of nearly half a million sites between the two. Another test on a 26-year-old showed 78% of sites were methylated.
The implication of the study is that very tight control of genes at the beginning of our lives may be being lost as we age, with more genes being switched on over time. This leads to our bodies ageing and this is where the implications for cosmetic surgery come in. If we knew which genes were triggered by which epigenome it may eventually lead to discoveries which could slow, or even halt, the aging process.
Epigenomes are not written in stone as it were, it is possible to change them. Studies have already shown how a pregnant mother’s diet can affect her child’s risk of obesity. While this research is still in its infancy the possibilities are very exciting. There are already epigenetic drugs for cancer and other conditions in development. In terms of lifestyle changes, research has already shown that exercise can switch off the main obesity genes epigenetically. It will be interesting to see if this, and similar research, can contribute to the discovery of that longed-for treatment – a “cure” for the aging process.