British scientists at the University of Birmingham have found an enzyme that they believe is responsible for the muscle wasting that happens in our bodies as we age. Muscle wasting is the reason it becomes harder to do basic things like lift grocery bags or run upstairs as you get older. Their research showed much higher levels of this enzyme in older women specifically, which led them to hone in on it as the trigger for degeneration. If they can figure out how to switch off the enzyme, it could be the answer to slowing down, stopping or even reversing some of the more adverse signs of aging.
The study, which looked at 134 healthy men and women between the ages of 20 and 80, involved testing muscle strength, body composition and biochemical profiling. Those who had reduced grip strength, poorer body composition and increased levels of cortisol (sadly all older women) had comparatively high levels of the enzyme 11β-HSD1. Levels actually increased 2.72 times in women over 60 versus women between the ages of 20 and 40, whereas men showed no change.
Researchers aren't really sure why the rising enzyme levels only seem to affect women. Dr. Zaki Hassan-Smith, from the University of Birmingham, told the Daily Mail, "As yet, we don't know why it appears to only occur in women, it is obviously an interesting area for further research." They think it might have something to do with higher estrogen levels in women, but that's only a theory.
The increased cortisol levels in conjunction with the 11β-HSD1 enzyme is what initially caught researchers' attention. They saw how its levels rose in patients with Cushing syndrome — the genetic disorder that causes muscle wasting, thinning bones, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — and thought there might be a connection to normal degeneration caused by aging.
"We knew how it works in relation to Cushing's Syndrome, which is characterised by similar symptoms, and thought it would be worthwhile applying what we knew to the aging population," said Dr. Hassan-Smith to the Daily Mail. The whole point of the study was to see if they could discover new ways to increase how long people can have active, healthy lifestyles, which is an admirable use of research money if I ever heard one.
This new enzyme connection may be the answer to staving off sarcopenia — the scientific term for age-related muscle wasting. And work is already being done by pharmaceutical companies to figure out how to block it, and thus halt the muscle deterioration it causes. Beyond that, this discovery could do wonders for other degenerative diseases like diabetes, to which researchers are giving specific attention.
The next step is of course a series of clinical trials to test these inhibitors that the pharmaceutical companies develop. Naturally, Dr. Hassan-Smith has high hopes for the study going forward. "It's an as yet unexplored area that could yield beneficial results for a problem that is becoming more prevalent as our lifespans increase." True statement. What's the point of living longer if you can't really live?
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