Age is just a number Oct 19, 2018
Prof. dr. Piet STINISSEN
Yesterday we celebrated ‘Happy Aging Day’ at the UHasselt, an amazing initiative organized by the Happy Aging community. On this day experts from far and wide come together to share their insights on aging. Among them is Prof. Nir Barzilai, one of the leading experts on this planet when it comes to longevity. So we could not let the opportunity pass to sit down with him for a moment and talk about the future of becoming old.
CHERISH YOUR ELDERS
“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Prof. Nir Barzilai is known across the globe for his research on the biology and genetics of aging, with a specialization on people with exceptional lifespans. He founded various institutes such as the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the NIH Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging and the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Human Aging Research. Yet where did his passion for the process of aging come from?
“When I was in medical school I had to work in various hospital departments during my internships. Most physicians did not like the geriatrics unit, but I certainly did. So I often switched with other physicians in the rotation schedule to spend more time there. It was during this time that my interest in researching aging was sparked, partly thanks to my attendant.”
“Whenever we would see a patient he would introduce them, tell me how old they were and then ask me if they looked younger or older than their respective age. At first, I didn’t understand, but after some time it suddenly dawned on me. Age is just a number. It is not our chronological age that matters, but our biological one. The fact that someone can look older our younger implies that people age differently. This revelation that there is something waiting to be discovered prompted me to conduct research in the field of aging.”
LOOKING THE OTHER WAY
“However, at the time, there simply were no research groups that focused on the process of aging. Aging was viewed as something complex and inevitable. There was nothing you could do about it. So I started to study our metabolism, as this was one of the only fields in which you could investigate some aspects of aging. After a few years, I initiated my own research to unveil the mysteries of aging and I have never looked back since. We started to look at aging as it being a modulated process and this changed everyone’s perception. The result? The current booming of the aging research field.”
Prof. Barzilai was not only a pioneer when it came to conducting research on the process of aging but also the way in which he approached it. While most scientists in the field studied specific cases such a Progeria, a rare aging disease, he looked into the opposite direction.
“I was fascinated by centenarians. These remarkable people have an extended lifespan of 30 % and a better health span as well. It was not caused by the way they lived, as around 50 % of them suffered from obesity, were smoking or did not do moderate exercise. So I knew that there had to be something special about their genome. A hinge that was confirmed by our findings later on.”
THE GREATEST WEALTH IS OUR HEALTH
With all this research going on an important question we must ask ourselves is “why are we afraid of aging?”. It is not seeing the numbers increase that frightens us, but the diseases that are accompanying it. Aging is the strongest risk factor for all age related diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s,….
“When you take a moment to contemplate about this, you realize that when you treat one disease at a time, the most you can expect is to exchange one disease for another. Up until this day, we never really thought of treating aging itself. I hope to use my knowledge to make the translation from science to working treatments. That is why I founded CohBar, a biotech company that focuses on the development of drugs for age-related diseases. In the end, it is not about making people live longer, but making them live longer healthy. If we can achieve this, I would be very grateful and a very happy man. It’s not science-fiction anymore, it’s science now”
Happy Aging is a community for and by the elders of our society. Together with a vast network of companies, healthcare institutes, policy makers and (inter)national stakeholders, such as Prof. Nir Barzilai, they try to facilitate sustainable innovations that lead to more entrepreneurship and better qualitative healthcare. In the unique living lab of Happy Aging, they put the focus on themselves, the end users, testing out products and services in real life.