Stay young at heart - cut the calories

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Eating less helps us stay young, report researchers this week.
There is already much evidence to support the theory, but a new
study shows how reduction of calories slows down the ageing process
in the heart and identifies the genetic changes that occurs in
heart cells during the ageing process. The information could
influence the development of new drugs for heart disease, say
researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of

A team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison this week said they have found evidence to show that eating less, or reducing calorie intake, delays the ageing process and is likely to extend life expectancy.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences​, a research group led by genetics professor Tomas Prolla, and Medical School professor Richard Weindruch, report on a study in which middle-aged mice, put on a calorie-restricted diet, exhibit signs of a remarkable uptick in heart health in old age.

"It looks like caloric restriction just retarded the whole ageing process in the heart,"​ said Prolla whose group employed powerful molecular techniques to study nearly 10,000 genes at work in the heart. The work represents the first global analysis of gene expression in the ageing heart.

Results from the study provide new insight into the pattern of genetic change that occurs in heart cells as the organ ages, and how those changes can be slowed down by eating less.

Importantly, the study identifies genetic pressure points for stemming age-related heart disease, the leading cause of death in several developed countries. The research may help scientists identify medicines that can prevent the genetic changes that bring about heart disease.

Numerous studies, on primates, mice, spiders and other animals, have already demonstrated significant health benefits and a general slowing of the process of ageing when diets are reduced in calories. In 1982, Weindruch and his colleague Roy Walford discovered that caloric restriction, begun in middle age, could extend the life span of mice by up to 20 per cent.

According to Prolla, the new study provides compelling evidence that - even starting in middle age - cutting calories can confer significant health benefits for the heart and extend its working life. It does so, according to the study's results, by exerting influence on the genetic programme that governs heart cells.

In animals on a full diet, ageing appears to alter the activity of a series of genes - activating some and turning others off - that affect the ability of the hardest working cells in the body to carry out their functions and remain healthy over time. The Wisconsin group observed genetic changes with ageing, for example, that effectively shift the source of energy for heart cells and damage their ability to communicate with the central nervous system.

Moreover, genes that play a role in increasing the size of heart cells, a condition that often precedes heart disease, come into play as the hearts in animals on a regular diet age, Prolla said.

But in mice on a restricted diet, many of the age-related genetic changes observed in animals on a normal diet were prevented. Caloric restriction, among other things, inhibited the genes involved in cell death and that prompt inflammation, suggesting that the heart cells of animals on a restricted calorie diet are healthier overall.

"The most surprising thing to me is that caloric restriction, even when started in middle age, has a very strong effect on changes that occur with ageing,"​ said Prolla.

The work strongly suggests, Weindruch added, that influencing the genetic events that occur with ageing - whether through dietary restriction started in middle age or through new drugs - can retard ageing of the heart.

The Wisconsin study was conducted using 'gene chip' technology, which permits scientists to assess the activity of thousands of genes at once. The gene-scanning technique can rapidly scan DNA to assess changes in gene activity, and provide clues to how genes function and turn on and off over time.

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