Scientists have discovered that genes linked to youthful looks and supple limbs also appear to affect longevity.
The study focused on strategies known to boost the lifespan of the tiny laboratory worm Caenorhabditis elegans, including calorie restriction and use of the drug rapamycin.
Researchers found an increase in the activity of genes that produce collagen – vital to young-looking skin – and other elements of the extra-cellular matrix (ECM).
The ECM is the framework of scaffolding that supports tissues, organs and bones.
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Professor Keith Blackwell, from Harvard Medical School in the US, said: “Any longevity intervention that we looked at, whether genetic or nutritional or drugs, increased the expression (activity) of collagen and other ECM genes, and enhanced ECM remodelling.
“If you interfere with this expression, you interfere with the lifespan extension. And if you over-express some of these genes, the worm actually lives a little bit longer.”
Although C. elegans is a long way from a human being in evolutionary terms, it has been shown to mirror ageing processes in higher forms of life.
“That’s a strong predictor that this mechanism is relevant to people as well,” said Dr Blackwell.
Collagens are the main structural components in connective tissue and make up about a third of the proteins in the human body.
“Collagens are everywhere,” Dr Blackwell added. “They are like the scaffolding for our tissues, and they give us tissue elasticity and strength.”
ECM structures deteriorate with age and collagens have been implicated in conditions ranging from diabetes complications to heart and artery and kidney diseases.
Separate studies have shown that mice given a treatment that makes them genetically disposed to living longer develop stronger and more elastic muscle tendons.
But until now, no one has looked at the possibility that ECM remodelling might be a defence against ageing. Instead, work has focused on protecting and regenerating cells.
The discovery could lead to cosmetic products that also improve health, according to the team whose findings appear in Nature journal’s online edition.
“It says that beauty is definitely not skin deep,” said Dr Blackwell.
“In fact, the richest beauty is inner beauty, because if you want to look young you don’t start with the outside, you start with the inside.
“Cosmetic companies might even consider becoming more like pharmaceutical companies, and looking for drugs that enhance overall health.”
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