Since the beginning of history, people have sought a path to everlasting life. Myths like those of Ponce de Leon or the Macrobians of Herodotus’ lore have persisted since the dawn of humanity. But in recent decades, science has taken up the torch from legend and set it’s sight on the study of aging, called geroscience, in order to address the basic human desire to extend our lives. It is natural to think of this goal in terms of the fountain of youth. Although these scientists aren’t trying to reverse the process so much as to slow it down, the goals seem to underly the same basic human need for longevity.
The study of the aging process has yielded promising results in laboratory settings. But according to a study published last month in the Journal Mammalian Genome, the key to progressing further and “impact[ing] health and quality of life for people” is the domestic dog. The authors cite the unique position that dogs take in our lives and how that role can help get results out of the lab into the real world. They write “…In particular, companion dogs share our environment and play an important role in improving the quality of life for millions of people”
Why is understanding the process of aging important anyway?
The answer to this question is simple but not immediately obvious, medicine has traditionally targeted specific diseases that result from age for treatment, but genoscience aims to address the underlying risk factor of age itself. The authors state “…age is the greatest risk factor for nearly every major cause of mortality in developed nations. Between the age of 45-90, the typical person will experience a several thousand percent increase in his or her risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, or cancer”
A telling fact for the usefulness of studying the aging process is shown by pointing out that “For a 50 yr old woman, curing all forms of cancer would only increase life expectancy by a few years whereas slowing the aging process comparable to what has been accomplished in laboratory animals may yield 15-20 extra years of life.”
Where do dogs fit in?
According to the AVMA, there are 70 million companion dogs and 43 million households with dogs in the United States. These dogs and households represent an enormous variation in living conditions, environmental factors, etc that “provides a rich background for studying the factors that influence normative aging in dogs”.
Dogs also bring a slew of other advantages with them as subjects for studies involved in aging. One of the most recognizable is the speed at which they age. Although it is a myth, nearly everyone has heard that “1 human year=7 dog years”(For those interested in the myth’s origin, you can find out more here) which shows that dogs age at a much faster rate than their human counterparts. This provides geroscientists with the ability to study the aging process over a much shorter timescale than a human life. Another, less obvious, advantage to the way dog’s age is that it is “quite similar in many ways to aging in people”. Dog show the same sort of decline in organ system fuction and develop the same sort of diseases and physical problems that their owners will face in their golden years.
Some other advantages of using dogs to study aging, according to the researchers, are that they share our environment and veterinary care for geriatric dogs is, quite often, the same or similar treatment as in humans. The researchers believe that a large scale study done over the course of a dog’s life should be the next step in geroscience for the reasons outlined above.
In their conclusion, the researchers cite the value of a large-scale longitudinal–the animal is followed throughout his or her life– which “would yield a wealth of data on genetic and environmental parameters that modulate the aging process within a decade”
As I age, it is an exciting thought that my canine companions could be the key to unlocking the biological secrets to longevity. It is especially appealing to me that the same studies that are aimed at increasing my life expectancy would directly translate into more time with my dogs as well.
I look forward to following the research that comes out of this field in the future!