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Autophagy and Aging: unlocking the fountain of youth

Many of us are looking for the anti-aging secret: something that will allow us to have a higher quality of life for longer, or even better, a way to increase our lifespan. The secret may lie in something known as autophagy, a necessary biological process that happens at the cellular level in our bodies.

This article will explore the link between autophagy and aging and how certain supplements may support your anti-aging journey.

What is autophagy?

When we think about aging, things like wrinkles, vision loss, hearing loss, and decreased mobility may come to mind. While these are manifestations of older age, several factors are at play beneath the surface that contribute to aging. One such process is autophagy.

The word autophagy comes from two Greek words: auto, which means “self”, and phagein, which means “to eat”. Combine these two words together and you get “self-eating”. In simple terms, that is precisely what autophagy is. Autophagy refers to the process in which the body breaks down different parts of its own cells.

Our cells are comprised of organelles, proteins, and other machinery that work together to create a living and functioning cell. While these components serve essential roles, they can sometimes become defective. Thankfully, autophagy provides a way to clear these defective components so that they don’t cause harm.

Autophagy leverages lysosomes, which are small yet powerful organelles within our cells. Lysosomes are the “recycling center” of our cells. Similar to how you sort through your recycling to separate plastic, paper, and glass, lysosomes sort through and degrade waste material within our cells.

There are three primary forms of autophagy: microautophagy, macroautophagy, and chaperone-mediated autophagy (CMA). Each utilizes lysosomes to break down and clear the body of cellular waste. In doing so, autophagy helps maintain cells’ and tissues’ overall health and wellness.

How are autophagy and aging linked?

Because autophagy relates to waste breakdown and the health of our bodies, you can imagine that autophagy and aging are closely related. When autophagy becomes impaired, our bodies cannot rid themselves of waste as effectively. This leads to cellular dysfunction, which can translate to physical and clinical manifestations of aging.

Studies in animal models have helped answer many of our scientific and biological questions, including those about autophagy. In particular, scientists have found that in aging mice, autophagy does not function as well as it should. Their bodies are less effective in eliminating waste, leading to disease development.

Many diseases we see in mice mimic those in humans, including those associated with aging. With impaired autophagy, we can see age-related issues in the brain, heart, and muscles. Let’s explore two age-related conditions associated with autophagy: cognitive decline and cancer.

Cognitive decline

As you get older, you may find it more and more difficult to remember and recall certain things. This phenomenon is common and referred to as cognitive decline. Cognitive decline refers to a decrease in memory capacity, which often happens as we age. Autophagy may be implicated in this gradual loss of memory.

Spermidine is a compound that promotes autophagy in humans. Scientists studied what would happen if they administered spermidine to mice with Alzheimer’s disease. Spermidine supported autophagy, increasing the body’s ability to break down defective cellular components and improving memory in mice.

These findings suggest that autophagy is essential to maintaining our memory over time and preventing cognitive decline.

Cancer

Though cancer can occur at any age, tends to become more common as we get older. Autophagy, or lack thereof, can play a role in cancer. Autophagy can both protect against the development of cancer and also promote it.

When autophagy is not working correctly, the buildup of toxic waste in the body causes oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is like the rusting of the inside of the cell. This rusting can damage our DNA, making it unstable and ultimately leading to cancer.

It is important to note, however, that autophagy can also promote cancer. In cancer cells, autophagy is upregulated, meaning that cancer cells undergo the waste removal process more rapidly and efficiently. As a result, cancer cells can grow and spread. You can read more at this study.

Supplements to boost autophagy for health and longevity

Knowing the link between autophagy and aging, you may wonder how best to support this process in your body. There are several supplements that may promote autophagy. Thus, they may be able to extend your quality of life and lifespan. Let’s review some of them and the data supporting their use.

Spermidine

Spermidine is a substance that naturally occurs in our environment and is contained in foods such as soybeans, almonds, and broccoli. Spermidine has additional benefits outside of autophagy, supporting other cellular functions like the stability of our genetic material, our immune responses, and the growth and proliferation of cells.

As aforementioned, spermidine may help with autophagy and aging, specifically regarding cognition. We previously discussed how spermidine supported memory in mice, but what about humans?

Alzheimer’s disease is an age-related neurologic disorder characterized by loss of cognitive function. Given the contributions of impaired autophagy in memory, experts hypothesized that spermidine could support cognitive function in humans.

One study evaluated how spermidine supplementation affected cognitive performance in human subjects with mild to moderate dementia. Findings showed that taking spermidine improved people’s performance on mental state exams. Lower spermidine intake correlated with the same, if not worse, performance.

Resveratrol

Recall that autophagy plays a role in the development of cancer. Resveratrol, a compound found naturally in foods and drinks like grapes, can help regulate autophagy in this context.

Dysfunctional autophagy is common in tumor cells, leading to the accumulation of a protein known as p62. Too much p62 activates pro-cancer pathways, leading to cancer progression. Supplementation with resveratrol may help to promote autophagy, decrease p62, and prevent activation of these pathways.

Metformin

Metformin, a medication used primarily in diabetes, is another potential supplement to help with autophagy and aging. It works similarly to resveratrol in that it acts on p62. Metformin therapy can decrease p62, helping to remove damaged and cancerous cells.

Using supplements for autophagy

If you choose to start a supplement for autophagy and aging, take the supplement as directed by the manufacturer. Dosing and timing of doses will vary depending on the exact supplement. You should always consult your doctor before starting any new medication or supplement.

It is important to note that preventing aging extends beyond promoting autophagy via supplementation. The best way to prolong your quality of life and extend your lifespan is to lead a healthy lifestyle, integrating regular exercise with a proper diet.

If you want to support your autophagy pathways to facilitate easier aging, consider starting a supplement that promotes autophagy.

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