A 96-year-old gymnast or a 92-year-old professor – some people seem to be fitter in old age than many who are significantly younger. One explanation is that their biological age is lower. A Max Planck scientist is currently researching a marker in the blood that determines this age.

How can we slow down aging? And how to age healthily? The researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing are dealing with these questions. One of them is the physician Joachim Steiner.

As one of the few doctors among scientists, he is researching a marker in the blood that determines our biological age (in comparison to the chronological age in years of life). “Someone who has lived a very healthy life could still be biologically 65 at the age of 80,” says the expert in an interview with FOCUS online. But the opposite is of course also possible: “Someone who was often ill, lived an unhealthy life or was simply unlucky can also be prematurely aged.”

Steiner’s long-term goal: “Blood is taken and you have a value that precisely indicates your biological age. Just like you go to the family doctor to have your liver values ​​checked.” The biological age is “much more interesting from a medical point of view because it is much more precise”.

This plays a role in therapies, for example cancer treatments. Here the decision whether to have surgery or chemotherapy is often a question of age. Or in the emergency room, where algorithms are used to determine the risk of bleeding or a stroke, for example. And one factor is age. “So we look at age to give the best treatment option. And the better you know your age, the better treatment decisions you can make.”

The measurements could also help to determine the effect of a diet or exercise session. “A test person comes to us, we measure the value. Then he goes on a specific diet or exercise program and comes back to us four weeks later. Then we measure again and see whether his biological age has changed.” It’s not just about finding out how people live as long as possible, but above all how they can age healthily, says Steiner.

For his research, Steiner examines blood samples. “Comparatively easy, because it’s ‘just’ a jab, so to speak. “With a normal blood donation, there is always a waste product left over and you could use that – taking into account the ethical principles.

The blood is then centrifuged to separate red blood cells, whitish immune cells, and cell-free plasma. The researcher is particularly interested in immune cells and certain proteins. “We are investigating whether the number and structure of these proteins changes with age, which could affect their functionality. And also whether the processes proceed evenly with increasing age or whether there are more erratic or even exponential changes.”

Steiner has been researching it for more than two years. The project itself has been around for about four years. Previous research at Director Adam Antebi’s laboratory also plays a role. Aging processes in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans are examined there. “The worm is ideal for aging research because it only lives for around 30 days. If he’s only ten days older, that’s an extreme increase in life in percentage terms.”

Joachim Steiner is a scientist and doctor. He works at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging (Department of Molecular Genetics of Aging by Adam Antebi) and as a resident in Clinic II for Internal Medicine: Nephrology, Rheumatology, Diabetology and General Internal Medicine at the University Hospital in Cologne. His research combines basic scientific and patient-related aspects through close cooperation with the “Translational Nephrology” department headed by Roman-Ulrich Müller.

But how do you actually stay biologically young? Several factors also play a role here. Some cannot be influenced due to environmental influences or genetic predispositions, others can. The researcher emphasizes: “You don’t have to think that only radical changes make a difference.”

His tip: “According to the current state of knowledge, what feels good for you is actually what slows aging the most.” The researcher gives sufficient exercise, a balanced diet, brain training and social contacts as examples. Smoking, alcohol and direct UV radiation should be avoided.

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“We’re still in the basic part,” says the scientist. All in all, it is a very long way. “We’re not talking about years, rather about decades.”

Nevertheless, Steiner is optimistic: “We are now at a point where we know what we have to measure and the measurement also works. It’s not that easy.” The next step will be to test whether the theory is true and can be transferred to an even larger number of people.

There are questions about aging research that come up again and again and are discussed a lot. We put three of them to Mr. Steiner.

Will we soon be 200 years old?

Steiner: “I would say no, even if some companies claim otherwise. I would justify my position as follows: There are intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (due to external influences) aging processes. And the intrinsic aging process is much more difficult to stop. Studies on the mouse show that even if they live under the best of circumstances, they don’t live forever.”

Is there a “magic bullet” that will make us live longer?

Steiner: “Of all the trials, perhaps the most promising concept at the moment is reduced food intake – very important: without malnutrition, of course! In the mouse you can see that a calorie reduction of 70 percent prolongs life very significantly. You can imagine that in humans too. Intermittent fasting also has a direct positive effect even on intrinsic aging processes. But of course you shouldn’t go hungry. Being unhappy or actually mentally ill is not only bad, it has also been shown to shorten lifespan.”

What keeps you young and how can we age healthily?

Steiner: “It’s important for me to emphasize that you don’t have to think that only radical changes make a difference. You can also eat a fried schnitzel with fries, but not every day. What feels good to you is actually what is known to slow down aging the most. These include the classics such as sufficient exercise, a balanced diet, brain training and social contacts. You should avoid smoking, alcohol and direct UV radiation.”