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Leading human ageing expert says physical activity is key to preventing heart disease, cancer, dementia and arthritis

By Irish Pharmacist - 01st Sep 2022

Ageing

Dr Steve Austad is the Protective Life endowed Chair in Healthy Ageing Research at the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, US. He recently visited Ireland and took part in a Science of Business podcast interview with fellow scientist and entrepreneur Louise Grubb. 

Dr Austad is a renowned researcher in the area of ageing and is currently seeking to understand the underlying cause of ageing; specifically, his long-term goal is the development of medical interventions that slow the onset of the decay of human health. He is the author of more than 200 scientific articles and more than 150 newspaper columns on science. His book Why We Age, about the body’s journey through life, has been translated into eight languages. His new book Methuselah’s Zoo, focused on what nature can teach us about living longer, healthier lives, will be released later this year. 

Speaking on efforts in preventing age-related illness, Dr Austad said: “I don’t think people appreciate that the biggest threat to human health these days is ageing. It’s not cancer. It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, not heart disease. It’s because ageing underlies all those things. So if we can actually target these fundamental ageing processes, then all these things can be delayed together. 

“I don’t think it’s a mystery, but I do think it’s something that often gets overlooked and when we start talking about drugs, we need to consider that these things are going to work together with lifestyle choices… some people will say ‘exercise’, but I prefer to say ‘physical activity’ because it doesn’t have the connotation that you have to be dripping sweat and go to the gym to do it. But how that affects so many things, not just your muscles in your heart and your lungs… it’s even a fantastic preventative for dementia. We now know that your muscles, when they’re working, produce hormones. These hormones actually cross the blood-brain barrier and get into your brain. So, we now have some good ideas about how physical activity can lead to preserving mental agility, and I don’t think anyone would have predicted that. I certainly wouldn’t have, and those are the kinds of things that anyone can do,” he said. 

“Nobody is for keeping people alive in a more and more frail and feeble state for longer and longer and longer,” he continued. “That would be a fool’s errand and from the evidence from the animals that we have, it looks like what we’re really doing is preserving health, not preserving frailty. So that’s the sort of lifestyle choices we make and there are some obvious ones there, like maintaining a healthy weight and eating well — they’re all related.” 

Dr Austad also discussed ageing research and the fact that the one chosen mammal, the mouse, out of all 5,000 mammals, is one of the “most unsuccessful mammals at ageing”. While he feels that the mouse holds a role in scientific research, in order to be more accurate in research for human ageing, then “companion animals are an obvious choice, because they share so many diseases with people”. 

Among other topics, Dr Austad also discusses ‘The Dog Ageing Project’, how females have a greater chance of living longer, even as premature babies, and why that is. He also talks about his array of past careers, from lion-tamer, to New York cab driver, to author and scientist. 

The Science of Business podcast is hosted by Waterford native Louise Grubb. The podcast series offers business insights, career stories and start-up successes from some of Ireland’s top entrepreneurs and business people. Episodes are now available to listen to at https://scienceofbusiness.ie/ or wherever you get your podcasts.

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