This common protein could be the secret to a much longer, healthier life

People look to maintain their youth in a variety of ways, from Instagram filters and anti-wrinkle creams to more extreme solutions like plastic surgery, but ultimately the hands of time wait for no one. Despite our best efforts, growing old is an inescapable, unchangeable fact of life..or is it?

While immortality is still science fiction, a newly released study is potentially opening the door toward longer, healthier lives. Researchers from The University of Edinburgh have discovered that maintaining the right amount of iron in one’s blood appears to promote a longer lifespan and delayed aging in general.

The study’s authors, which also includes scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging, say their work may open the door for new anti-aging medications capable of mitigating one’s risk of age-related diseases and increasing the chances of living a longer, disease-free life.

“We are very excited by these findings as they strongly suggest that high levels of iron in the blood reduces our healthy years of life, and keeping these levels in check could prevent age-related damage. We speculate that our findings on iron metabolism might also start to explain why very high levels of iron-rich red meat in the diet has been linked to age-related conditions such as heart disease,” says Dr. Paul Timmers, from the Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh, in a release.

No two people age at exactly the same pace. While one person may develop gray hair around the age of 50 another could start seeing gray hair at 35. Others start feeling aches and pains in their body at a much earlier age than their peers. Beyond just gray hairs and the occasional ache, though, the biological aging process is also strongly correlated with the development of age-related diseases like dementia or heart disease. 

So, fully understanding what influences fluctuations in the aging process across individuals can go a long way toward slowing the occurrence of numerous diseases and health problems. To that end, researchers examined genetic data on over one million people to get a better sense of the specific genes tied to biological aging. The research team focused specifically on three aspects of biological aging; full lifespan, healthspan (years lived fully healthy/disease free), and longevity (living to very old age).

After combining three separate public datasets, the research team had information on roughly 1.75 million lifespans (including 60,000 people who lived to very old age) to work with.

With this enormous data collection in hand, the study’s authors pinpointed 10 areas of the human genome that appear to be directly tied to healthspan, lifespan, and longevity. Importantly, genes associated with iron kept coming up, or were “overrepresented,” during their investigation into biological aging.

The connection between iron and delayed aging was then further validated via a statistical method known as Mendelian randomization. An analysis conducted using this method suggested that the very same genes in charge of metabolizing iron in the blood are also somewhat responsible for healthier, longer lives.

Both abnormally high or low iron levels in one’s blood have long been linked to many age-related diseases like Parkinson’s or liver disease, as well as an overall drop in the body’s ability to fight off infections.

With all of this mind, researchers say that a hypothetical drug capable of mimicking the influence of certain genes on iron metabolism could, in theory, delay the aging process. However, before that can happen, more research is needed to refine and expand upon these findings.

“Our ultimate aim is to discover how aging is regulated and find ways to increase health during aging. The ten regions of the genome we have discovered that are linked to lifespan, healthspan, and longevity are all exciting candidates for further studies,” concludes Dr. Joris Deelen from the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging.

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.