|Robert Arking '58
In the 1960s, when Robert Arking ’58 was a young developmental biologist, he found the science of aging fascinating. But the scientific establishment thought it about as exciting as “watching a stream evaporate,” he recalls. “They saw aging as just eroding away.”
Now the science of aging seems all the rage, at least if you read Newsweek, which featured an article about it under the heading “What’s New in Medicine” in mid-December, shortly after the Associated Press ran a lengthy story about “age management.”
Both articles discussed ways to promote healthy aging that jibe with what Arking is pursuing with fruit flies in his lab at Michigan’s Wayne State University, where he has taught biology and conducted research since 1975.
His name is familiar to many undergraduate and graduate students at Wayne State—and far beyond—for he is the author of Biology of Aging, a popular textbook published by Oxford University Press.
Thirty years ago Arking began making the transition to what he is today, a biogerontologist—testing the aging mechanisms of fruit flies in hopes that his findings will have relevance for humans. For the last 20 years, he and his team of five undergraduate and graduate students “have been trying to figure out how this particular strain of flies that we’ve created is so robust and long-lived.” About $600,000 in grants has helped them progress.
“Clearly, delaying the onset of senescence is a multigenic approach that involves altering normal patterns of gene expression,” he says. Their intention is not to discover Ponce de Leon’s fountain of eternal youth but to extend one’s health span by delaying aging and its attendant maladies, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. “Our goal is to identify mechanisms in the body that enhance cell maintenance and repair under conditions of high stress, such as famine, and then find ways to induce them in the absence of high stress,” he says.
Resveratrol, a compound in red wine that can be taken in supplement form, looks promising. “You can’t get enough resveratrol from drinking wine. You’d have to drink 700 bottles a day, and your liver would fall out. But studies measuring the effects of resveratrol on mice suggest that it may be a powerful antidiabetic remedy.”
Drug companies are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into development of derivatives of resveratrol, he says. Arking, who uses a resveratrol supplement that he buys online, also takes fish oil—a source of molecules that cut down on chronic inflammation, which is probably the underlying cause of all the major age-related diseases, he says.
He also takes lipoic acid, an antioxidant molecule that he couples with alpha carnitine, a nonessential amino acid. Carnitine and lipoic acid work together to reduce oxidative damage in the cells, he says. “Anecdotal evidence also suggests that taking carnitine increases one’s energy.”
He does caution that before taking any supplements “do some research on your own and decide to undertake the risk. Not all drugs react the same way in every person. Some people, for instance, can’t take penicillin.”
One anti-aging prospect that Arking tried and quickly abandoned was calorie reduction. He just couldn’t abide the feeling of being hungry all the time. “I have a couple of acquaintances who are still on this, and all they can think about is food.” Still, reducing one’s caloric intake by 40 percent or more appeals to the 2,000 worldwide members of the Calorie Restriction Society, a typical member of which is 5 feet 11 inches tall and 140 pounds.
While Arking acknowledges that calorie reduction seems to be consistent with very low risk of diabetes and vascular disease, “the [definitive] data is not there yet. And it’s not an unblemished panacea. First, all animals on caloric restriction are highly susceptible to infection. Caloric restriction also seems to increase the incidence of osteoporosis.”
One thing he definitely will never consider is human growth hormone, which has sparked controversy in professional baseball but also is touted as an anti-aging remedy. “Here’s what we know about human growth hormone in animals—it shortens the lifespan,” he says. “People who do this are foolish.”
Some sure-fire interventions fall under the heading of common sense. “You can do what your mother told you to do—eat properly, which means more veggies, less meat, exercising [Arking rides a stationary bike 75 to 125 miles a week], not smoking and wearing seat belts,” he explains. “None of those will alter the aging process, though exercise is believed to stimulate the stem-cell activities of the heart, muscle and brain. A constant supply of new cells cannot but help to keep our tissues demographically younger and better functioning.”
Citing a long-term study of nuns, Arking notes that he is a big proponent of education and the active mind. “The nuns who were linguistically more complex at younger ages had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s at older ages, and those that did get Alzheimer’s still didn’t show the behavior because they had more [brain] circuitry going.”
But no matter how well read, at a certain age everyone has those senior moments. “Forgetting where your car keys are is normal,” asserts Arking. “But forgetting what your car is for is not.”
Arking, at age 72, is in his senior years. But like his wife, a nurse administrator, he has no plans to stop working. “I can’t imagine a better gig than being a full-time, tenured professor. I can’t see walking away from that. As long as you carry your weight, that’s OK.”