At the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, burrowed in the deep murk without any hint of a brain, live quahogs could change Alzheimer’s research. Some turtles, crocodiles, and salamanders demonstrate remarkably low aging rates that might help humans slow their aging processes. Meanwhile, gray wolves remind us that longevity is a gift to respect and use wisely.
Even though humans are the longest-lived land mammal, we have plenty to learn about longevity from animals. Researchers in this growing field are turning toward the wild to study how quahogs, turtles, tubeworms, sharks, and other species combine long lifespans with long healthspans. If science can isolate and mobilize these creatures’ secrets, perhaps humanity can live longer, freer from disease and atrophy, while maintaining sharpness of mind.
Some scientists are confident this research could lead to instruments and therapies that cure aging. Count biologist Steven N. Austad among them.
“You are going to live much longer, much healthier than you expected,” Austad says, “so it’s time to start thinking about what you’re going to do with those extra healthy years.”
Austad, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explores this domain in his book “Methuselah’s Zoo: What Nature Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Healthier Lives.” Austad, who specializes in healthy aging research, analyzes the subject through the lens of long-lived wild animals. He believes they might unlock insight into human aging.
Consider Ming the clam, a 507-year-old ocean quahog. Researchers studying the ocean quahog (or Arctica islandica) made a potentially life-changing discovery. They purposely attempted to cause protein misfolding in the quahogs, seeking to replicate a common cellular occurrence in humans that rises with aging and contributes to disease. But the quahog resisted. If science can determine how and why the quahog combats misfolding, the discovery could lead to therapies treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases.
Scientists study wild animals looking for fresh approaches to slow human aging and disease. Why, as Austad examines, are bats and mole-rats better equipped to absorb free radicals than humans? Why have elephants and whales developed better cancer resistance? And what can a 190-year-old turtle teach us about healthy aging?
In the most comprehensive study of wild-animal longevity yet conducted, an international team gleaned knowledge that could apply to human research. The scientists studied 77 species of reptiles and amphibians worldwide, concluding that “turtles, crocodilians, and salamanders have particularly low aging rates.” One example is Jonathan, the Seychelles giant tortoise that turned 190 earlier this year.
“Understanding the comparative landscape of aging across animals can reveal flexible traits that may prove worthy targets for biomedical study related to human aging,” says Anne Bronikowski, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State and the study’s co-senior author.
But aging isn’t just a biomedical process. It’s also a social construct, one that many animals employ as a resource rather than dismiss as a burden. We can learn, or rediscover, much from that as well.
Kira Cassidy, a researcher with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, has studied how gray wolves harness the wisdom of pack elders when hunting or fighting. According to data, the project has compiled over 16 years, wolf packs with at least one elder were 2½ times more likely to win a fight against an equal-sized pack. Further, the presence of an elder that doesn’t fight can help even when the pack is outnumbered. To wolves, experience matters.
“As a culture, we have forgotten what animals have known along: The oldest among us shouldn’t be pushed aside, ignored, humored, as if they had nothing left to offer society,” Cassidy says. “I’m proposing we do like the wolves do: Get back to an attitude of reverence for the elderly among us.”
We have plenty to learn from animals about living longer and healthier lives. In his book, Austad notes that whales possess 1,800 times more cells than humans yet live twice as long. Which prompts an intriguing question: What might studying whale cells teach us about cancer prevention?
“Nature is smarter than we are,” Austad writes, “and by paying attention to the ways in which evolution has produced healthy aging across the animal kingdom, we might discover new ways to enhance and extend our own health.”