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An Age-Old Question Can We Conquer The Aging Process? UI Gerontologist Has His Doubts, But He’s Discovering More And More About Body’s Journey Through Life

In barely half a century, Steve Austad has lived through a lot.

The night shift as a New York cabbie.

The 15 minutes with his knee locked in a lion’s jaw.

The stint as a stunt double for television’s Bionic Woman.

“I’m just lucky,” the University of Idaho biologist says. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

But nothing - nothing - has saved him from the relentless, grinding onslaught of age.

The hair loss, the bags beneath his eyes, the lost step on the handball court.

“I used to be one of these guys like Michael Chang who would chase down everything. Now I just don’t have the speed to do it.”

Then there’s the thought that can really nag a scientist: Every day, in every region of his body, tiny explosions are laying waste to 10,000 of his body’s 100 trillion cells.

It’s enough to make a guy shave in the shower, to cut down on mirror time.

And enough to make Austad, 50, write a book on the subject.

“I would guess my way of dealing with this is to intellectualize it,” he said recently in the book-lined study overlooking the bird-loud woods around his Viola, Idaho, home. “That’s what academics do. You turn it into an intriguing intellectual problem.”

The result is “Why We Age,” ($24.95, John Wiley & Sons), an exhaustive but readable look at the old myths and emerging realities of longevity. With a storyteller’s flair and lots of hard-nosed science, the former UCLA literature student and Harvard professor ranges freely from the alleged longevity of Caucasus farmers to the role of genetics to controversial hormone-replacement therapy.

Readers won’t find the fountain of youth.

Indeed, if there is a central point of the book, it’s that one doesn’t exist yet.

“Life, no matter how it is lived, is damaging to our health,” he writes.

That’s true across all cultures, including the Pakistani Hunza. Wherever decent record keeping can be found, the rate at which we age has stayed the same for ages, Austad asserts.

That rate, known as the mortality doubling rate, is pretty much fixed at eight years. In other words, every eight years, the typical modern person’s chances of dying double.

Which is not to say we aren’t living longer. Supermarkets, sewage systems, lifesaving surgery and antibiotics have seen to that by warding off starvation, infection and accidents.

Austad himself owes much of his longevity to having avoided accidental death in his life before gerontology.

Driving a cab in New York, he once had a police officer jump in his car and shout the proverbial “follow that car!” Off they went after a madman who had just thrown a firebomb at the Iraqi consulate, the cop trying to get off a clean shot.

Armed with a cattle prod, Austad also once rode shotgun in a Mercedes hauling a lion from Portland to Los Angeles.

That got him into lion training, which led to a lion named Orville pinning him down by the knee until it was startled away by rescuers brandishing a fire extinguisher.

Austad fared better wearing a wig and wrestling lions as a stunt double for Lindsay Wagner.

Life among lions led him to study biology at Purdue. There he met his future wife, Washington State University veterinarian Veronica Kiklevich, with whom he now has two children and an assortment of geriatric pets.

Purdue also led to studies on spiders in Indiana, wrens in Venezuela, opossums in Georgia and a stint as a Harvard professor. He left in 1992 to escape the “industrial Northeast” but not before doing a landmark study on why opossums have such a hard time growing old.

It started when Austad noticed that, at 18 months, opossums in the wild look fine. But months later, their hair falls out, they lose weight, and they develop cataracts, parasites and skin lesions.

Austad’s research bolstered the natural selection theory of aging, which holds that a gene with bad effects late in life does not get weeded out before reproduction takes place. Moreover, a species that faces an early death - like mice or opossums living among predators - will focus on early reproduction rather than fighting late-onset diseases.

Austad’s use of aging models built around evolution and different animals was a fresh departure for a field dominated by work on rats, mice and fruit flies, said Richard Sprott, director of the Biology Of Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging.

“Steve Austad is one of the really bright, bright people in his generation of researchers,” Sprott said.

Austad confirmed his natural selection theory by studying opossums on an island off Georgia. There, away from killer automobiles and other predators, the genes for late maturation and slow aging could be passed from generation to generation.

“It’s not so much that they’re living longer,” Austad said. “Of course, they would be if they have fewer predators. But they’re also aging more slowly, too, reconstructing their aging process and providing clues to things that cause aging.”

Key to the aging process, he said, are the twin forces of browning and rusting.

Browning is the buildup of glucose molecules, which basically gum up key proteins and lead to problems like stiff ligaments, the brain lesions of Alzheimer’s disease and damaged DNA.

Rusting is a byproduct of metabolism that produces free oxygen radicals, or oxidants, that daily wreak havoc on the DNA of thousands of our cells.

“Potentially the right damage to any individual cell can lead to fatal cancer,” Austad said, “yet we manage to put that off for decades. That’s a remarkable rate of repair.”

Some animals seem to fix themselves better than others, and this is where Austad suspects advances in aging therapy lie. Birds in particular can have twice the metabolic rate - and live three times as long - as most mammals of the same size.

If a gene responsible for this can be found - and Austad is looking for it now in parakeets - scientists may some day be able to transfer it into humans, preventing many oxydative diseases that are the result of aging.

“Now if we want to have people setting world records in sprints at the age of 50, we’re going to have to do this at an early age,” he said.

“… But all this stuff is certainly within the realm of possibility. It’s just that it’s not here yet.”

Meanwhile, Austad, like so many of us, gives little thought to the everyday realities of aging, including his own.

It has a way of sneaking up on him, like when he watched his 7-year-old daughter give a recital recently at a nursing home.

There, looking at a room of people shouting and drooling and showing other signs of deterioration, he was struck by the hard facts of his field.

“I couldn’t pay much attention to the performance,” he said.

“… I think about this as an intellectual problem, but in reality there’s a lot of human suffering that ultimately might be prevented.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color photos Graphic: Life expectancy at birth

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TV APPEARANCE University of Idaho biologist Steven Austad is scheduled to discuss his book, “Why We Age,” on NBC’s “Today Show” on Wednesday, sometime between 8:30 and 9 a.m. The program can be seen on Spokane’s KHQ.

2. VIRGINS, SEX AND … AGING Here are some fun facts about aging, from University of Idaho gerontologist Steven Austad: Sleeping between two virgins, contrary to ancient folk wisdom, does not rejuvenate aging men. Sex, at least the equipment required for male sex, kills. Data from 300 men castrated at a Kansas mental institution showed that they, on average, lived 14 years longer than uncastrated inmates. Some of our body’s cells can achieve immortality - as cancer. Cancer cells pulled from the terminally ill Henrietta Lacks in 1951 continue to grow in laboratory dishes today. Males are the weaker sex. They die at a higher rate in the womb and after premature births. Diet and exercise may slow diseases like heart disease and cancer, but aging continues apace. Eliminating all cancer would extend human life two years. Eliminating heart disease would add another three or four years. A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to live to 110. Genetics do play a role in aging, but there is no single “aging gene.” The University of Washington’s George Martin estimates that 7,000 of our 100,000 genes may influence our aging rate. A variety of chemicals produced by the body do a remarkable job of fighting free oxygen radicals, highly damaging molecules that contribute to aging. But over-the-counter “anti-oxidant” vitamins get broken down by the body before they can be effective. Supplements of the purported “anti-aging” hormone DHEA warrant further research but have yet to show clear benefits. “Too much of the current work is done by True Believers, not properly agnostic scientists,” Austad writes. Hormone-replacement therapy for post-menopausal women is so effective at fighting bone loss and cardiovascular disease that, statistically, it is worth the potential risk of breast and cervical cancer. “If it were herbal and had a Chinese name, and with the clinical record it has, it would be considered the anti-aging miracle of the century,” Austad says.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TV APPEARANCE University of Idaho biologist Steven Austad is scheduled to discuss his book, “Why We Age,” on NBC’s “Today Show” on Wednesday, sometime between 8:30 and 9 a.m. The program can be seen on Spokane’s KHQ.

2. VIRGINS, SEX AND … AGING Here are some fun facts about aging, from University of Idaho gerontologist Steven Austad: Sleeping between two virgins, contrary to ancient folk wisdom, does not rejuvenate aging men. Sex, at least the equipment required for male sex, kills. Data from 300 men castrated at a Kansas mental institution showed that they, on average, lived 14 years longer than uncastrated inmates. Some of our body’s cells can achieve immortality - as cancer. Cancer cells pulled from the terminally ill Henrietta Lacks in 1951 continue to grow in laboratory dishes today. Males are the weaker sex. They die at a higher rate in the womb and after premature births. Diet and exercise may slow diseases like heart disease and cancer, but aging continues apace. Eliminating all cancer would extend human life two years. Eliminating heart disease would add another three or four years. A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to live to 110. Genetics do play a role in aging, but there is no single “aging gene.” The University of Washington’s George Martin estimates that 7,000 of our 100,000 genes may influence our aging rate. A variety of chemicals produced by the body do a remarkable job of fighting free oxygen radicals, highly damaging molecules that contribute to aging. But over-the-counter “anti-oxidant” vitamins get broken down by the body before they can be effective. Supplements of the purported “anti-aging” hormone DHEA warrant further research but have yet to show clear benefits. “Too much of the current work is done by True Believers, not properly agnostic scientists,” Austad writes. Hormone-replacement therapy for post-menopausal women is so effective at fighting bone loss and cardiovascular disease that, statistically, it is worth the potential risk of breast and cervical cancer. “If it were herbal and had a Chinese name, and with the clinical record it has, it would be considered the anti-aging miracle of the century,” Austad says.



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