The function of every living organism is to survive but the only inevitability of survival is that we will also stop doing so. 

Every fear and for some, neuroses, emanates from the fear of death. It is difficult for all of us to comprehend a world where we are no longer present.

So, one of the holy grails of science has been the quest to (at least) slow down, even stop and possibly reverse the ageing process. 

For human beings, the peak of our life, physiologically, is around 30 years old and it’s all downhill from there. 

All high-performance athletes are at their best in their 20s and not as good after the age of 30. 

No one at 80 looks as good as they did at 60. No one at 60 as good as they did at 40 and no one at 40 as good as they did it at age 20.

So, why is this? It’s all to do with our DNA. DNA is a single molecule made up of 3 billion base pairs. If you straightened out one single DNA molecule it would be 2 metres long.

Up to the age of 30, our DNA is very tight and packed in. All the structures within each cell in the normal state are highly regulated and constantly moving. 

The DNA moves like the intricate machine it is and the combination of the specific structure and movement sends appropriate signals throughout the cell to maintain the normal, intended function of the particular cell in question.

As we age, there is shortening of the caps at the end of each molecule that maintains this tight structure. These are known as telomeres. With the telomere shortening, our DNA becomes looser and often mutations occur. Also, vitally important to a discussion of ageing is the function of our cellular powerhouses-the mitochondria.

The function of our mitochondria (which are vital components of each cell) is to make energy to drive our cellular reactions. It doesn’t matter what sort of car you drive, without fuel or some type of energy source, the car won’t move. It’s exactly the same for our cells.

As we age, our mitochondrial DNA also ages leading to reduced supply of energy. This is one of the main reasons most of us beyond age 50 don’t have the same energy as we did in our 20s.

Recent research (as you may expect from the varying opinions you often hear from most areas of science) is suggesting conflicting ideas as to whether we can stop or possibly reverse ageing. 

On one side of the argument, a report published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that you can’t slow or stop ageing. 

The report argues that as we age, some of our cells are winding down and losing function. 

This is seen obviously in the appearance of wrinkles and grey hair at a superficial level. At its most profound, in the loss of neuronal function, as seen with Alzheimer’s disease. But, on the other hand, some cells appear to be going haywire with rapidly dividing cancer cells and also the disordered immune reactions seen in autoimmune disease.

Thus, the Catch 22 of ridding the body of the failing, sluggish cells but allowing the cancer cells to proliferate and vice versa.

But, other groups argue, such as a recent UK group published in the journal BMC Cell Biology, that analogues to the well-studied natural chemical Resveratrol found in particular fruits and vegetables, reactivate a process known as mRNA splicing, very active in the young but becoming increasingly defective as we age. 

These compounds make older cells appear young again.

Another very interesting study has suggested that the mitochondria within cells (those vital fuel packs) presented with mild but not overwhelming stress also reverses the ageing process. The study from the Journal “Cell Reports” was done on the well-studied Nematode, C. Elegans.

A study recently published in the journal “Genes and Development” researched the vital body process of autophagy. Autophagy is a mechanism that clears out used and damaged proteins to be recycled, creating new products for cellular use.

It appears that autophagy promotes health and fitness in the young but drives the process of ageing later in life. The theory of evolution has demonstrated that natural selection results in the fittest individuals being able to pass on their healthy genes.

The more beneficial a trait is at promoting reproductive success, the stronger that trait is passed on to the offspring. 

Interestingly, once you have survived your reproductive years then the traits that were beneficial for fitness and reproduction may have a paradoxic effect on promoting ageing.

One of the lead authors of the paper, Jonathan Byrne, stated that ageing is an evolutionary oversight. In this particular paper he found 30 genes that demonstrated this paradox by only examining 0.05% of the genes in the aforementioned particular worm known as C. elegans.

The genes that are involved in regulating autophagy, maintaining fitness and reproductive ability in the young, tend to accelerate the ageing process. 

These genes are essential for young ones to reach maturity but after reproduction they tend to malfunction with age.

This is where it becomes very interesting in that it appears to be better to switch off the autophagy genes in the regulator neurones of worms completely than allow them to rundown to the point where they are defective and promote ageing.

When the researchers switched off the autophagy genes in the ageing worms they prolonged their life by 50% but also their cells functioned better and more efficiently.

Regardless of whether through some medical intervention we can or cannot slow, stop or even reverse the ageing process, there is no doubt the people on the planet with the longest lifespan and healthspan and the best quality of life, are those people who have picked the right relatives giving them a solid genetic foundation and then follow the five keys to being healthy.

As I say often, it’s your genes that load the gun and your environment that pulls the trigger.