How determining biological age saves lives

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I was 21 years old when I took my first spirometry test as part of a physiological practical session. It is the most common test to determine how well you breathe in and out. The device measures your maximum volume and speed of the air that can be inhaled and exhaled. Originally used for diagnosis of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the device now allows a medical practitioner to estimate the age of your lungs using the measurements obtained. After conducting the calculations, I was shocked to discover that I have the lungs of 65 years. How can this possible? I do not smoke. I jog regularly. Why is my lung age three times my actual age?

According to respiratory expert Dr. Adrian Draper, as age progresses, the breathing capacity of our lungs decreases. “Over the years, lung tissue becomes brittle. Breathing can be impaired so less oxygen gets into cells.” He also said that lung age can be influenced by factors such as height, weight, ethnicity, and lifestyle. This development has prompted suggestions to include lung capacity in the same category as blood pressure and cholesterol level in determining physical fitness.

The spirometer test is just one of many modern medical innovations which enable medical professionals to measure the aging rate of our bodies. Specifically, it is now possible to determine the age of our organs known as “biological age” and how much it differs from our chronological age. The study on aging rate has been expanded with researchers at Duke University, USA identified 16 biological markers to indicate the condition of a specific organ. For example, levels of creatinine, a waste product regularly present in urine are measured to estimate the function of kidneys while levels of triglyceride, a type of fatty acid are monitored to determine the condition of the heart.

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The Dunedin study involves a sample size of 954 individuals born in 1972-1973 based in Dunedin, New Zealand and tracked from birth to present. Using each biomarker levels derived from their respective organs, the team then correlates it with the chronological age of participants. This has led to the calculation that at 38 years old, the biological ages range from 21 to 60 years. The analysis of the biomarkers across chronological ages of 26, 32 and 38 years enable researchers to quantify each participant’s rate of physiological deterioration known as the “pace of aging.”

The pace of aging can be calculated to reflect physiological change relative to the passage of time. The study has shown that participants with advanced biological age experienced a more rapid pace of aging. A 38 year old with a biological age of 40 years was estimated to have aged 1.2 years faster throughout the study duration of the last 12 years. This shows that the aging process commences in young adulthood between 26 and 38 years old, contradicting popular belief that the process occurs later in life.

The novelty of this study is that it involves participants at early ages. Professor Daniel Belsky who authored the study said that previous researches on aging were conducted on seniors. “This makes detecting the mechanism of aging difficult because it can be hard to separate aging from a disease-specific mechanism”. He also stated that the significance of these findings can lead to early detection of age related illnesses at an, reducing potential health risks associated with pharmaceutical intervention at a later age. “The science of lifespan expansion may be focused on the wrong end of the lifespan. Instead of studying only on old humans, we should also study the young.”

The aging process may also be affected by a psychological factor. A study by University College London found that older people who felt 3 or more years younger than their chronological age have a lower mortality risk compared to those who felt older. The study which was conducted by epidemiologist Professor Andrew Steptoe compiled data consisting of 6,489 individuals, whose average chronological age was 65.8 years but whose average self-perceived age was 56.8 years. The mortality rate during an average follow-up period of 99 months were 14.3% in participants who felt younger, 18.5% in those who felt about their actual age, and 24.6% in those who felt older. While the mechanisms on the relations between feeling younger and the lower death rate have yet to be verified, Professor Steptoe said that interventions can be carried out in accordance with the change in self perceived age. “Individuals who feel older than their actual age could be targeted with health messages promoting positive health behaviors and attitudes toward aging.”

One might find comfort in the old saying “Age is just a number”. But these new developments in the study of biological age indicates that aging related problems can be addressed at an earlier age than we previously thought. So the key to health aging is a mix of lifestyle changes and being young at heart.

Exercise Slows Down Ageing, Study Shows


Frequent exercise can increase a person’s lifespan, according to a study by academic researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of California.

What is unique about this study is the investigation of the effects of exercise on the body on a cellular level. Physical activeness influences the production of telomerase, a cellular enzyme which regulates the elongation of a nucleotide sequence at the end of the DNA strand known as telomeres.

The shortening of telomeres has been scientifically linked with age due to mitosis which is the process of cellular division to promote tissue growth. The declining length of telomeres can be accelerated by physical inactivity, stress, and smoking. Accelerated shortening of telomeres can also lead to age related chronic illnesses such heart diseases, diabetes, hypertension and cognitive deterioration.

The study involved analyzing data derived from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in which up to 6500 participants aged between 20 to 84 years old answer questions on their health, dietary habits, and physical lifestyle. They are also required to attend a health checkup so that the researchers can obtain a blood sample for analysis on telomere length.

The answers by survey respondents is ranked using the movement based behavior (MBB) index. Simply put, for every answer that states conduct of physical activities, a point is given. The MBB index point range from 0 to 4. Each participant’s response to the survey is then correlated with their respective telomere findings. The link between these two aspects was clear. Participants who obtain MBB points from to 1 to 4 saw a significant decline in short telomere formations. The more rigorous the activity carried out, the lower the risk of aging related illnesses.

The study further indicates that participants aged between 40 and 65 show the lowest risk of telomere shortages, suggesting that middle age may be the right phase in life to practice a physical and healthy lifestyle. “Exercise is good for your cells and more exercise in greater variety is even better”, says Paul Loprinzi of University of Mississippi and co-author of this study.

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Research Publications by Female Engineers Less Cited than Male’s, Study Shows


Research papers by female scientists received low citation rate compared to their male counterparts, according to a study by Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

Engineering Ph.D. Candidate Gita Ghiasi carried out her research by focusing on the study sample consisting of 679,338 research publications derived from the online database Web of Science. This is followed by a detailed statistical analysis of publication patterns regarding authorship, journal tier, the number of citation and impact factor. Citation rate is calculated by measuring the average annual number of citations by an article divided by the mean number of citations to all publications from the same year. Ghiasi also applied the databases of male and female first names which correlates with the author’s country of affiliation to verify citation rate according to gender.

The results show that the publication realm is dominated by male engineers with women made up of only 20% of authorship of engineering papers. Interestingly, the study also indicated that female engineers published their work in highly ranked journals but received less citation compared to publication by male engineers on less reputable journals. This is common among male dominated engineering subfields such as aerospace technology, mechanical engineering and nuclear technology.

Ghiasi said that male engineers are more likely to collaborate in publishing their work compared to female engineers. However, this differs from the engineering field where collaboration between female engineers are familiar in specialties with high female authorship such as material and chemical engineering and also exceeds the male-female collaborations in nuclear technology. The findings of this study reflect the declining representation of women in engineering. Ghiasi concluded that the outcome of this study shows that more policies supporting the engagement of women and enhance collaboration among them need to be implemented. “The introduction and implementation of gender-responsive policies into existing S&T discourse help address the cultural factors that impede women from participating or advancing in engineering and gear a society towards higher knowledge capacity, and scientific and innovative excellence, upon which a nation’s competitive edge in the global economy is grounded.”

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Female Scientists as Role Models “Lacking,” Studies Shows


Female scientists are not regarded as role models to women today according to various studies.

A study by Girlguiding UK shows that girls tend to emulate famous figures that are featured in reality TV and celebrity gossip shows. “The type of role models that they were talking to us about tend to come from the world of television, lavish lifestyles and personalities, rather than the broader range of role models, like women who work in business, sport and other walks of life,” Tracey Murray of the BBC said.

Media coverage plays a crucial factor in the publicity of female scientists and the recognition of their work by the general public. The current phenomenon is the amount of buzz which frequently surrounds the latest movies and music by top celebrities rather than the most recent scientific breakthrough by women in science. “It ‘s hard to report about scientific achievements than writing news about a new song by Beyonce,” said by Dr. Castro Alverado of City University London when asked about the factors contributing to this trend in the media.

Despite the participation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) profession are steadily increasing these past few years and achievements by female scientists have been acknowledged accordingly, women, in general, are unable to name any significant figure of their gender in which they can emulate. According to another survey conducted by women in science advocacy group Sciencegrrl in 2014, more than one in ten respondents named male engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel when asked to give an example of famous women in any STEM related field. The survey also highlighted that 68% of respondents named Marie Curie when asked if they can name a female scientist.

This further fuels public perception that engineering is a “job for boys “and the lack of well-known figures in the field are discouraging women from participating in STEM related careers. The overwhelming mention of Marie Curie shows that contribution of other famous women in science such as Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall and Dorothy Hodgkin whose achievements are just as significant as Curie’s have yet to be properly acknowledged.

This phenomenon is reaffirmed by a survey by EDF Energy as part of their #prettycurious campaign in which Curie has the third highest mention behind male scientists Stephen Hawkings and Albert Einstein. The survey also shows that one-third of the respondents who are girls between the age of 11 and 16 did not think they are smart enough to be a scientist. “There aren’t many visible role models who can explain how exciting and rewarding these careers are,” said Ruth Wilson of the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign.

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Another yardstick to measure society’s acceptance to women in science is their exposure on social media. A quick search on the internet shows that celebrities like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift dominating the Twittersphere with up to 80 million followers. In contrast, planetary scientists Carolyn Porco currently has up to 31,000. This pales in comparison with male astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson who has 2.4 million followers according to a survey by the Science Magazine which compiles the top 50 scientists on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, there are only four female scientists who made the list. Astronomer Pamela Gay, also an active Twitter user with 17,000 followers said that women are more likely to face sexist attacks which discourage their participation in the online medium. “At some point, you just get fed up with “why you are hot” and“why are you ugly” comments.”


Drones: The Next Step In Elderly Care


By Zakwan Zainal Abidin

Drone technology may be the answer to resolving the problems of caring for the elderly, according to researchers at the Intelligent Robotics Lab.According to Professor Naira Hovakimyan, undertaking research in developing drones to enhance the care for older people is vital in light of their growing numbers.

“It is projected that by 2030 the population aged over 65 will double, which can potentially create an overload for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Advanced technology can help people stay in their homes longer and live independently,” she said.

Professor Hovakimyan who heads the project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign (UIUC) was recently awarded a $1.5 million research grant from the National Science Foundation to design small, autonomous drones which can perform simple chores such as picking up objects from under a table and mowing the lawn. With the growing application of drone usage today from transporting items to surveillance, the robotics professor believes that in 20 years or so drones will become as common as today’s cell phones.

“I have no doubt about it. If you check Nixie drone, you’ll see that a drone is reduced to the level of wearable technologies, which means that it can be made of plastic soft materials, be miniaturized in size and be used as a watch and camera. I have no doubt that the wearable drones can have smart watches inside.”

When asked whether drones could replace the human workforce in the care of the elderly, Professor Hovakimyan was sure that drones will not entirely usurp humans. “Only humans can spend time on conversations, psychological support and keep people company. Delivering pills and other similar tasks can be done by drones.”

Professor Hovakimyan’s research is just one of many scientific undertakings currently being conducted worldwide to improve the care of the elderly. Japan has been at the forefront of this endeavor due to the country’s growing population of elderly citizens and the declining number of youth due to the low birth rate. This has prompted the Japanese government to pour in millions into elder care robotics development. Successes born from this initiative includes a touch-sensitive robotic seal named PARO designed to keep dementia patients company and Encore Smart, a walker robot which can assist the elderly across a difficult terrain such as hillsides and beaches.

While the advancement of modern science is crucial in ensuring the well-being of elderly citizens within their homes, it hinges on how well the intended target user group can operate the devices. But it shouldn’t be a problem. “They can be managed from an iPhone and iPad,” said Professor Hovakimyan. She also assures that the technology will be affordable for the general public. “Certainly! Today in our lab we use a $2000 platform to deliver a pill to a person in need. Given the falling prices of hardware, this means that within the next 10-20 years, we will be able to afford such technologies for $420.”

It’s still too early to tell how drones can improve the care of the elderly, but Professor Hovakimyan expressed optimism about the benefits that can be gained from this scientific venture. “Keep in mind that by the time the technology is ready, it will be my generation in need of it. And if today I am developing it, then I won’t be scared of it, and I will be able to manage it perfectly.”

Photo Credit to Pixabay