According to the World Health Organisation, there were 600 million people aged 60 years or more in the year 2000, and by 2025 it is estimated that there will be 1.2 billion. Coping with impending old age is a natural part of the progression of life, but scientists in America hope that they could increase longevity and limit the effect of age-related illnesses through a simple pill that contains molecules found in red wine. But what has been discovered so far and how far away is any potential pill?

What were the headlines?

The research was widely reported in UK newspapers and websites, gaining headlines such as, “Yeast in red wine yields the secret of a long life”, “Mediterranean diet ‘extends life'”, “Red wine ‘cure for nuke blitz'”, “Toast to long life with red wine” and “Wine’s link to long life”.

Some elements of the study were only briefly reported, with some of the reports focusing on the potential benefits of drinking red wine and consuming a Mediterranean-style diet instead.

What is the bigger picture?

The research was reported at a scientific conference in Arolla, Switzerland and subsequently appeared in the advanced online issue of the journal Nature on 24 August 2003. The study was jointly carried out by scientists from the Harvard Medical Schooland BIOMOL Research Laboratories, a biochemical reagents company in Philadelphia, America.

In a series of laboratory experiments, they discovered that certain types of molecules, called polyphenols, could extend the life of yeast by 70 per cent. These polyphenols are found in foods such as red wine, olive oil, fruits and vegetables. On further investigation it was found that the most potent polyphenol was resveratrol – found in red wine – which helped yeast cells live as much as 60-80 per cent longer. Quercetin, another polyphenol, found in olive oil, had a similar effect.

Polyphenols are already recognised as having antioxidant benefits and as being helpful in the battle against illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, but the new study adds to this knowledge and suggests that certain ones could have additional properties.

When yeast and laboratory worms are fed a restricted calorie diet, their speed of ageing is slowed and they have extended lifespans. It has been found that restricting their diet increases the activity of a certain family of enzymes called sirtuins. The researchers say that polyphenols appear to stimulate these sirtuin enzymes and extend the organism’s lifespan. Their experiments showed that 17 molecules stimulated a human sirtuin called SIRT1 and a yeast sirtuin called Sir2.

“We think sirtuins buy cells time to repair damage,” said molecular biologist David Sinclair, assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. “There is a growing realisation from the ageing field that blocking cell death – as long as it doesn’t lead to cancer – extends life span.”

His co-author, Konrad Howitz, director of molecular biology at BIOMOL, said,”The sirtuin stimulation provided by certain, but not all, polyphenols may be a far more important biological effect than their antioxidant effect.”

Other species, such as mammals, are already known to live longer when their calorie intake is restricted. The researchers theory is that plant polyphenols may increase in response to stressful conditions and stimulate sirtuins in a bid for survival – a hypothesis they term xenohormesis.

“The sirtuin enzymes are found in almost every species, including plants, fungi and humans,” explained Dr. Sinclair. “Their role seems to be to protect cells from damage and keep them alive, which results in less disease and longer life.”

“Humans have seven sirtuins (SIRT 1-7) and the hope is that they also function to protect our cells and prevent disease. But it is too early to say for sure. At the very least, the study suggests a new line of research that may eventually lead to a major advance in medicine.”

Although resveratrol was the most effective, Dr. Sinclair says quercetin, which is found in foods such as onions, apples, tea, berries, olives, broccoli and lettuce, is also promising. “The molecule seems to have many health benefits in lowering cholesterol, preventing blood cells from sticking together similarly to aspirin, and suppressing cancer in rodents,” he explained.

“Although there is still a long way to go from simple organisms to humans, this study has brought the possibility of delaying age-related diseases with a pill to a point where we can say, as scientists, it is a real possibility. The discovery points to a new line of research into drugs that could one day make people significantly healthier in their old age,” he said.

He was keen to emphasise that any work would focus on improving health, not manipulating genetics. “We will only make people live longer by making them healthier. We are mimicking calorie restriction which, in rats and monkeys, slows diseases of old age, including heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer,” he said.

The next stage is to start testing on mice. If that proves successful and the mice do live longer, then Dr. Sinclair says he anticipates, “starting human trials sometime shortly thereafter.”

What does this mean?

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Hannah Theobald, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation said, “A lot more research needs to be conducted before these findings can be translated to humans, but it is an exciting finding.”

“Polyphenols are produced by plants in response to attack by viruses, fungi and bacteria,” she explained. “They exhibit antioxidant properties and may help protect against some cancers and heart disease. Resveratrol is found in red wine, red grape juice and peanuts, while flavones are found in olive oil.”

One of the aspects highlighted by the research, and perhaps the factor most applicable to people today, is that it adds to the idea of consuming a Mediterranean-style diet – which tends to be rich in olive oil, red wine and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“There is a plethora of research suggesting that Mediterranean-type diets are associated with lower rates of chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease and certain cancers,” said Hannah. “This research adds further weight to this and offers a new potential mechanism whereby diets rich in olive oil, fruits and vegetables, cereals, grains and moderate amounts of wine may offer protection and increase longevity.”

Similarly, Belinda Linden, head of medical information at the British Heart Foundation, said, “Mediterranean diets can be healthy as they include a high level of fruit and vegetables and we also know that moderate alcohol consumption (1-2 units per day) may have a protective effect against coronary heart disease.”

However, she warned, “We also need to keep in mind that, while it is nice to enjoy a drink on occasions, too much alcohol can have an adverse affect on the heart.”

Amanda Wynne, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, said, “It will be interesting to see more research in this area, especially on humans.”

What does this mean to me?

With no quick-fix anti-ageing pill available and no guarantees that one will become available in the future, preparing for old age and limiting the risks of related illnesses largely comes down to looking after your health.

“There is good evidence that a diet based on lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals is conducive to good health and will reduce the risk of developing cancer and heart disease in the longer term,” explained Amanda Wynne.

“Light to moderate consumption of wine does confer to some protective effect against diseases such as coronary heart disease,” she added. “Advice is, however, to keep within the sensible drinking guidelines, so no more than 2-3 units a day for women and no more than 3-4 units a day for men. Have some drink-free days too, and avoid binge drinking.”

Although some supplements containing resveratrol and quercetin are available, “at the current time we cannot recommend taking supplements as there is no evidence that these will be effective or safe,” advises Amanda. “Dietary strategies are definitely the best approach.”

Summary

The American longevity research is certainly proving interesting, but as it’s still in its early stages much more research is needed before it will be clear whether or not this can be applied to humans. In the meantime, it does highlight the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet – something that can be applied to life today.