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Hypothalamus may hold key to slowing down aging, as will these 8 tips

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Certain region of brain may slow down aging

Researchers may have found the key to the body's Fountain of Youth in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that controls multiple bodily functions. This discovery could open the door to slowing the aging process and even extending one's lifespan.

For the first time, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have discovered that the hypothalamus of mice controls aging throughout the body. Their discovery, which was published May 1, 2013 in the online edition of Nature, opens up new strategies for combating diseases of old age and boosting longevity.

"Scientists have long wondered whether aging occurs independently in the body's various tissues or if it could be actively regulated by an organ in the body," said lead author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein. "It's clear from our study that many aspects of aging are controlled by the hypothalamus. What's exciting is that it's possible, at least in mice, to alter signaling within the hypothalamus to slow down the aging process and increase longevity."

The hypothalamus is an area of the brain that produces hormones that control body temperature, hunger, moods, sex drive, sleep, thirst, and the release of hormones from the pituitary gland and other glands. Due to the powerful influence the hypothalamus exerts throughout the body, Dr. Cai suspected it might also play a key role in aging.

"As people age, you can detect inflammatory changes in various tissues,” Cai explained. “Inflammation is also involved in various age-related diseases, such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, neurological disease and many types of cancer," he added.

Indeed, Dr. Cai and his colleagues have, over the years, shown that inflammatory changes in the hypothalamus can result in a combination of health problems that can lead to heart disease and diabetes.

Accordingly, Dr. Cai decided to study hypothalamic inflammation by focusing on a protein complex called NF-κB in an effort to find out how the hypothalamus might affect aging.

"Inflammation involves hundreds of molecules, and NF-κB sits right at the center of that regulatory map," Cai explained.

For the study, Dr. Cai and his researchers demonstrated that activating the NF-κB pathway in the hypothalamus of mice significantly hastened the aging process, as revealed by a variety of physiological, cognitive, and behavioral tests.

"The mice showed a decrease in muscle strength and size, in skin thickness, and in their ability to learn, all indicators of aging. Activating this pathway promoted systemic aging that shortened the lifespan," he said.

By the same token, Cai and his team found that blocking the NF-κB pathway in the hypothalamus of mouse brains slowed down the speed of aging – and, compared to controls, it also boosted average longevity by approximately 20 percent.

Moreover, they found that activating the NF-κB pathway in the hypothalamus resulted in reduced levels of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is synthesized in the hypothalamus. Release of GnRH into the blood is typically associated with reproduction.

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Because the research team suspected that reduced release of GnRH hormone from the brain might contribute to whole-body aging, they injected the hormone into a hypothalamic ventricle of aged mice to test their hypothesis.

Remarkably, they found that the hormone injections protected the aging mice from the impaired cognitive functioning that is usually associated with aging. And when the aging mice received daily GnRH injections for a prolonged period of time, they experienced additional therapeutic benefits, which included a further slowing of age-related cognitive decline.

Dr. Cai says that preventing the hypothalamus from causing inflammation and increasing neurogenesis via GnRH therapy are two potential strategies for increasing lifespan and treating age-related diseases.

In the meantime, here are some common sense tips from CVS, which can also help slow down the aging of the brain:

1. Stay Socially Active – One study has found that having a limited social network is a risk factor for dementia in older persons. Risk factors include living alone or not having any close social ties. Therefore, maintaining many social connections and participating in social activities are recommended. Researchers suggest that social activities help prevent cognitive decline by stimulating the mind and challenging people to communicate.

2. Keep Learning – Participating in leisure activities like reading, playing board games, and playing musical instruments are associated with decreased risk of dementia. One study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that frequent participation in mentally stimulating activities are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Mental stimulation is not limited to formal education and can include everyday activities such as:
• Reading books, newspapers, or magazines
• Playing games (eg, cards, checkers, crossword puzzles)
• Going to museums

3. Exercise – Some studies show improved cognitive functioning in older adults who exercise. It is possible that exercise may contribute to cognitive vitality by improving mood and reducing stress and other risk factors that contribute to cognitive decline. Although more research is needed, data suggest that engaging in physical exercise, including enjoyable leisure activities, may help prevent cognitive decline.

4. Ask Your Doctor about Herbs and Supplements – Vitamins and other herbal supplements get lots of attention as possible cures or ways to prevent cognitive decline. But are supplements really helpful in people who are not deficient in certain vitamins? Researchers have studied whether antioxidants, like vitamin E, are able to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. The results have not clearly shown that they are of any benefit. Ginkgo biloba has also gotten a lot of attention as researchers try to find out if this herb has any effect on age-related mental decline. As with vitamin E, the there has been no proven benefit for Gingko in studies. Nor has there been any benefit on cognitive performance found in people taking fish oil supplements. If you are considering herbs and supplements, talk to your doctor first. There may be safety issues related to other conditions that you have and other medicines that you are taking.

5. Eat a Low-Fat Diet – A nutritious, low-fat diet may protect against cognitive decline by providing necessary nutrients and reducing the risk of diseases that contribute to cognitive decline, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and atherosclerosis.

6. Get Help for Sleep Disorders – Sleep disorders and sleep disruption are common in older people. These may adversely affect cognitive function, particularly memory and learning. Daytime sleepiness, which may be a symptom of a sleep disorder, has been associated with an increased risk for dementia. Older adults may benefit from good sleep strategies, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.

7. Seek Help for Other Conditions – Cognitive decline in older adults is often associated with underlying medical conditions, such as high blood pressure. Furthermore, many have more than one of these conditions, which may increase their risk for cognitive impairment. Cognitive decline may be slowed when these conditions are treated.

8. Talk to Your Doctor – If you are concerned about memory loss or other cognitive impairment, do not try to diagnose or treat yourself. Your doctor can provide assessment, counseling, and treatment.

SOURCES: Guo Zhang, Juxue Li, Sudarshana Purkayastha, Yizhe Tang, Hai Zhang, Ye Yin, Bo Li, Gang Liu, Dongsheng Cai. Hypothalamic programming of systemic ageing involving IKK-β, NF-κB and GnRH. Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12143. Amy Scholten, MPH. Use It or Lose It: Preventing Cognitive Decline, Health CVS