Global environmental changes hits seniors the hardest, according to a new study that looks at the impact of the environment such as storms and heat waves on older adults and where they live. Seniors need to examine whether current policies where they live are making changes to ‘age proof’ what help there exists so that they support older people throughout their lives. Policies also need to harness the contribution senior citizens can make to addressing environmental threats and reducing their vulnerability.
For example, what do seniors do when a norovirus breaks out in a nursing home, assisted living complex, ship, or neighborhood to protect themselves when there’s no vaccine? Or what happens when the flu vaccine is only 62% effective? There’s environmental impacts on older adults from storms and other weather disasters from heat waves to flooding and hurricanes destroying the homes of fragile older adults who have very little money to relocate or find food or other shelter. The issue is protection against vulnerability coming from natural disasters that happen every few months. Who’s actually helping those in need most?
Recent natural disasters illustrate vulnerability of older people: majority of deaths from the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011) and Hurricane Katrina (2005) occurred among older people. Researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre in Canada are calling for better awareness among policy makers and the public of the impact climate change and deteriorating environmental quality will have on an aging population.
One of the issues could be “brain drain” and lack of funding when it comes to finding enough scientists, researchers, economists, or health professionals who can solve ‘funding’ problems needed to set up protection for vulnerable seniors from the ravages of storms, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Where does an older adult go when the storm destroys the home or assisted living facility and the money runs out? See, Leading researchers warn of ‘brain drain’ as scientists struggle to find funding.
Recent natural disasters illustrate vulnerability of older people: majority of deaths from the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011) and Hurricane Katrina (2005) occurred among older people. Researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre in Canada are calling for better awareness among policy makers and the public of the impact climate change and deteriorating environmental quality will have on an ageing population.
According to UN projections, by 2050, nearly 25 per cent of the global population will be aged 55 or over. An aging population and environmental change are two key policy challenges which need to be addressed to ensure a safe, secure, equitable and sustainable future. But international policy makers have given little attention to the effects global environmental change will have on older people.
A new report from an international consortium led by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York and Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre, and including the Community Service Volunteers’ Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme (RSVP), highlights the need to raise awareness of the effects of a changing environment on older people across the world.
Dr Gary Haq, of SEI, explained in the January 31, 2013 news release, New study highlights impact of environmental change on older people, “Our study shows that older people are particularly vulnerable to environmental change – but awareness among policy makers and older people is lagging behind. There is an urgent need for policy makers to better understand the interaction between global ageing and the environment to prevent and minimize disproportionate negative impacts on older people.”
The results of a pilot international survey of older people’s attitudes suggest they are concerned about the environment, the threat of climate change and energy and water security. They are pessimistic about the state of the planet that future generations will inherit believing environmental challenges will have grown significantly by 2050.
Environmental changes impacts senior citizens as well as the new born more than young adults
Professor Gloria Gutman, Research Associate at Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre said in the news release, “Older people themselves, and especially those with chronic illnesses, need to recognize that environmental change can affect them personally. Data from around the world show that weather-related disasters kill older people at a disproportionate rate.”
The report calls for appropriate policies to encourage older people to reduce their personal contribution to environmental change, to protect older people from environmental threats, and to mobilize their wealth and knowledge and experience in addressing environmental problems.
The report highlights three areas where action should be taken.
1. Reduce the environmental footprint of the aging population by promoting greener attitudes and behavior and individual lifestyle choices. For example, ensuring homes are well-insulated which can also save on fuel bills or using more fuel-efficient cars or public transport. This could be done with targeted engagement of older people and providing appropriate infrastructure and incentives.
2. Protect older people from environmental change by adopting policies that reduce their environmental vulnerability. In developing countries, lack of basic infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation, health and social care combined with poverty and malnutrition make them vulnerable to environmental threats.
3. Mobilize older people in environmental protection by encouraging them to take part in environmental volunteering and making the most of their local knowledge of past environmental change.
The report underlines the need for more evidence-based research towards a better understanding of the unique geographical and socioeconomic factors affecting interaction between older people and environmental change. It calls for policies to be ‘age proofed’ so they support older people throughout their lives as well as harnessing the contribution they can make to addressing environmental threats and reducing their vulnerability.
Molecular fountain of youth of interests to seniors
Also of interest to older adult is the latest study, Discovery opens the door to a potential ‘molecular fountain of youth’. Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley found sirtuin protein can reverse age-related degeneration. Scientists want to find out whether they can understand the process of aging well enough so that they can actually develop a molecular fountain of youth. The goal is to find a practical way to turn new hope for the development of treatments for age-related degenerative diseases into action, finding a way to develop a molecular fountain of youth to slow down or reverse aging.
A new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, represents a major advance in the understanding of the molecular mechanisms behind aging while providing new hope for the development of targeted treatments for age-related degenerative diseases. Read the new study or its abstract, “SIRT3 Reverses Aging-Associated Degeneration,” in the current issue of Cell Reports. The findings have been published online Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 in the journal Cell Reports.
Researchers turned back the clock by infusing blood stem cells of old mice with a longevity gene
Researchers were able to turn back the molecular clock by infusing the blood stem cells of old mice with a longevity gene and rejuvenating the aged stem cells’ regenerative potential. The study noted that “despite recent controversy about their function in some organisms, sirtuins are thought to play evolutionarily conserved roles in lifespan extension.”
Whether sirtuins can reverse aging-associated degeneration is unknown. Tissue-specific stem cells persist throughout the entire lifespan to repair and maintain tissues, but their self-renewal and differentiation potential become dysregulated with aging. We show that SIRT3, a mammalian sirtuin that regulates the global acetylation landscape of mitochondrial proteins and reduces oxidative stress, is highly enriched in hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) where it regulates a stress response.
SIRT3 is dispensable for HSC maintenance and tissue homeostasis at a young age under homeostatic conditions but is essential under stress or at an old age. Importantly, SIRT3 is suppressed with aging, and SIRT3 upregulation in aged HSCs improves their regenerative capacity. This new study at UC Berkeley illuminates the “plasticity of mitochondrial homeostasis controlling stem cell and tissue maintenance during the aging process and shows that aging-associated degeneration can be reversed by a sirtuin.”
Can helping the bloodstream cope with stress increase longevity?
The biologists found that SIRT3, one among a class of proteins known as sirtuins, plays an important role in helping aged blood stem cells cope with stress. When they infused the blood stem cells of old mice with SIRT3, the treatment boosted the formation of new blood cells, evidence of a reversal in the age-related decline in the old stem cells’ function.
“We already know that sirtuins regulate aging, but our study is really the first one demonstrating that sirtuins can reverse aging-associated degeneration, and I think that’s very exciting,” said study principal investigator Danica Chen, UC Berkeley assistant professor of nutritional science and toxicology, according to the January 31, 2013 news release, Discovery opens the door to a potential ‘molecular fountain of youth’. “This opens the door to potential treatments for age-related degenerative diseases.”
Chen noted that over the past 10 to 20 years, there have been breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of aging. Instead of an uncontrolled, random process, aging is now considered as highly regulated as development, opening it up to possible manipulation.
“A molecular fountain of youth”
“Studies have already shown that even a single gene mutation can lead to lifespan extension,” said Chen, according to the news release. “The question is whether we can understand the process well enough so that we can actually develop a molecular fountain of youth. Can we actually reverse aging? This is something we are hoping to understand and accomplish.” Chen worked with David Scadden, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
Sirtuins are a family of proteins
Sirtuins have taken the spotlight in this quest as the importance of this family of proteins to the aging process becomes increasingly clear. Notably, SIRT3 is found in a cell’s mitochondria, a cell compartment that helps control growth and death, and previous studies have shown that the SIRT3 gene is activated during calorie restriction, which has been shown to extend lifespan in various species.
To gauge the effects of aging, the researchers studied the function of adult stem cells, which are responsible for maintaining and repairing tissue; it is a function that breaks down with age. They focused on hematopoietic, or blood, stem cells because of their ability to completely reconstitute the blood system, the capability that underlies successful bone marrow transplantation.
The researchers first observed the blood system of mice that had the gene for SIRT3 disabled. Surprisingly, among young mice, the absence of SIRT3 made no difference. It was only when time crept up on the mice that things changed. By the ripe old age of two, the SIRT3-deficient mice had significantly fewer blood stem cells and decreased ability to regenerate new blood cells compared with regular mice of the same age.
What is behind the age gap?
It appears that in young cells, the blood stem cells are functioning well and have relatively low levels of oxidative stress, which is the burden on the body that results from the harmful byproducts of metabolism. At this youthful stage, the body’s normal antioxidant defenses can easily deal with the low stress levels, so differences in SIRT3 are less important.
“When we get older, our system doesn’t work as well, and we either generate more oxidative stress or we can’t remove it as well, so levels build up,” said Chen. “Under this condition, our normal antioxidative system can’t take care of us, so that’s when we need SIRT3 to kick in to boost the antioxidant system. However, SIRT3 levels also drop with age, so over time, the system is overwhelmed.”
Old mice, new blood
To see if boosting SIRT3 levels could make a difference, the researchers increased the levels of SIRT3 in the blood stem cells of aged mice. That experiment rejuvenated the aged blood stem cells, leading to improved production of blood cells.
It remains to be seen whether over-expression of SIRT3 can actually prolong life, but Chen pointed out that extending lifespan is not the only goal for this area of research. “A major goal of the aging field is to utilize knowledge of genetic regulation to treat age-related diseases,” she said.
Study co-lead author Katharine Brown, who conducted the research as a UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in Chen’s lab, said SIRT3 has some potential in this regard.
“Other researchers have demonstrated that SIRT3 acts as a tumor suppressor,” said Brown in the news release. “This is promising because, ideally, one would want a rejuvenative therapy where you could increase a protein’s expression without increasing the risk of diseases like cancer.”
The other co-lead author of this study is Stephanie Xie, a post-doctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Regenerative Medicine at the time of the study. Xie is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto. A number of funding sources supported this study, including the Searle Scholars Program, the National Institutes of Health and the Siebel Stem Cell Institute.
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