Professor José Viña on frailty, centenarians and why we need supplements – and why exercise is one of those longevity supplements.
José Viña is a Professor of Physiology at the University of Valencia, where he combines his teaching duties with research work, the latter in two main lines: aging and exercise. Professor Viña leads a successful research group named FRESHAGE working on different aspects of aging, including healthy aging, longevity supplements, exercise and Alzheimer’s disease.
Longevity.Technology: Professor Viña is SFRR International President and is contributing to next week’s 20th Biennial Meeting for the Society for Free Radical Research International (SFRRI 2021) in various ways, both chairing and presenting. Engaged in some of the most exciting research in the longevity space, Longevity.Technology was keen to catch up with Professor Vina to discuss his research.
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Online Congress: 15–18 March 2021
The FRESHAGE research group is working on identifying and then upregulating longevity-related genes, continuing the research they started 15 years ago. Using transgenic mice, the team has identified genes that promote both longevity and healthspan.
“We are working on p53, which is the gene that controls the integrity of the genome,” says Viña, “and telomerase, which is involved in maintaining the capacity of cells to reproduce themselves many times and GRAS, a signalling molecule which, when altered, causes cancer. And what is key, is that there is room for intervention, as one of our latest papers shows.”
Moving from experiments in the lab to human trials can be tricky, especially when it comes to studying longevity.
“In our intervention study – in which we gave one group of nuns two glasses of red wine a day – we found upregulation of longevity genes by analysing their metabolic profile.”
“Performing longevity studies in humans is very difficult because you have wait such a long time – unless you use nuns and monks, who are really the only groups of people in a controlled environment,” explains Viña. “In our intervention study – in which we gave one group of nuns two glasses of red wine a day – we found upregulation of longevity genes by analysing their metabolic profile.
“The important thing is these studies show room for intervention, which we can test and then think about some sort of intervention therapy.”
So what do Professor Viña’s years of research lead him to conclude about longevity?
“Healthy aging comes down to diet, exercise, control of stress and supplements,” he says.
“For optimal nutrition – and I’m not talking about minimal nutrition, which is easily achievable just by eating well – but for optimal nutrition, and therefore to have the chance to be 100 years old, we need supplements.”
Stress is a physiological response to threat, but allogenic stress, which builds up as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress.
“Control of allogenic stress is very important,” explains Viña. “Stress shortens telomeres, it has a biological basis – you have to control it. I am not talking once-in-a-lifetime events, where the stress response helps you to cope with a serious threat or danger, I mean the constant levels of high stress on a daily level.”
“The genes that control apoptosis are especially well-tuned in centenarians; their control of apoptosis is fascinating …”
“Studying centenarians gives us the chance to study human aging, and it’s not just about living longer, it’s about compressing morbidity and staying healthier for longer,” continues Viña. “My own mother is an example of this; she’s nearly 99, but always describes herself as ‘perfectly well’.
“We are studying the immune defences of centenarians, and we actually have genetic results that show that the genes that control apoptosis are especially well-tuned in centenarians; their control of apoptosis is fascinating. They downplay the internal or intrinsic mitochondrial apoptosis, but can activate external apoptosis when facing a threat such as genotoxicity. We found this by using big data to analyse thousands of genes, but it is clear that some centenarians can maintain their cells unless in danger on a cellular level.”
The FRESHAGE research group proposes the idea that exercise is so good for you that it can be considered as a drug.
“We first published this idea in 2012, in The British Journal of Pharmacology,” explains Professor Viña. “Important things to note are firstly, exercise acts as a drug. Secondly, it has an important pharmacological benefit for the elderly. Thirdly, exercise acts as a drug to delay frailty. More accurately, exercise is a supplement, since you need a doctor to prescribe a drug, but a supplement you can just take yourself.”
“The upshot is that either you are taking exercise as advised by an expert, or you are taking it yourself as a supplement. Either way, you are taking exercise, and that is key.”
Exercise is important in delaying the syndrome of frailty.
“Frailty – judged on capacity to stand, gait speed and grip strength – leads to disability, and this is a disaster, both for the person, and society,” Viña says. Exercise and nutrition are treatments for frailty. We have done a clinical trial, which is published, which shows that frailty is delayed by exercise and that in an older population, exercise cuts the number of visits to a primary care physician or hospital in half.
“40% of Europeans over 65 years of age are deficient in proteins, so even if they exercise, they are limited by a lack of proteins and vitamins and minerals. Seeing if protein supplementation would help is something we are investigating at the moment. Teaching older people to eat more, eat better and drink more to counter diminishing thirst… these are things society will need to do.”
The second half of this interview, in which José Viña discusses his group’s current Alzheimer’s research is available HERE.