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Longevity by Design: Dr. Vera Gorbunova — Applying Lessons From Long-Living Animals to Combat Human Aging

By Longevity by Design, November 23, 2021

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Did you know that there are species of whales that can live to be over 200 years old? Or that naked mole-rats can live up to ten times longer than other mice? These facts and more led scientist Dr. Vera Gorbunova to investigate the mechanisms behind long-lived species and how these can be applied to what we know about aging in humans. 

In the latest episode of Longevity by Design, our co-hosts, Dr. Gil Blander and Ashley Reaver, are joined by Dr. Vera Gorbunova, Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester and co-director of the Rochester Aging Research Center.

Tune in as Dr. Vera Gorbunova discusses commonalities between long-lived animals and how humans can apply these principles into their lives today. 

 

Meet Longevity by Design’s podcast guest, Dr. Vera Gorbunova

Dr. Vera Gorbunova is an endowed Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester and co-director of the Rochester Aging Research Center. Her research focuses mainly on the understanding of mechanisms of longevity and genome stability in long-lived mammals. Dr. Vera Gorbunova applies what she's learned about the differences in traits between long-lived species from short-lived ones to the human aging process. 

Dr. Vera Gorbunova was inspired by her parents, who were physicists. Growing up, she always knew she wanted to become a scientist. Today, she takes unconventional approaches to complex questions. "We always wanted to do something more interesting than conventional," Vera explains. To this end, her research encompasses long-lived animals, including the naked mole-rat, bowhead whales, and other extraordinary species that help her analyze and understand the mechanisms of longevity. 

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How Dr. Vera Gorbunova’s research on long-lived animals applies to human aging 

Different species age at different speeds

Vera explains that species use two strategies that define their lifespan. "There are some species that live fast, reproduce fast, and die fast. And then some species take things more slowly. And humans are clearly in the second category because it takes a long time for the young generation to mature."

Lessons from the longest-living mammal

There are many different species of whales, with the longest-lived one being the bowhead whale. Bowhead whales can live to be 200 years old, but Dr. Vera Gorbunova hypothesizes that their actual lifespan might be even longer.

Dr. Vera Gorbunova discusses what she's learned from bowhead whales, the longest-living mammal on earth. "There is this relationship that larger animals tend to live longer. So for a whale, it may be less surprising. They'll be long-lived because, generally, big animals are long-lived." However, this lifespan is quite the outlier. "If you make a regression line between body mass and lifespan, the expected lifespan for a whale would be around a hundred years."

Surprisingly, bowhead whales are unusually high in one particular substance that humans also produce. Coincidentally, this substance is also a common addition to many beauty products on the market today. Check out the full episode to find out what substance Dr. Vera Gorbunova is speaking about and what that may mean for delaying aging in humans.

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What characteristics make one rodent species live ten times longer than another?

One fascinating way to understand longevity is by comparing the traits of animals within the same species that have vastly different lifespans. “We do a lot of comparative research where we analyze traits that are of interest using a panel of species that are very diverse in their lifespans."

To this end, Dr. Vera Gorbunova is particularly interested in the differences between naked mole-rats and other rodents. Although similar to other rodents in many ways, naked mole-rats can outlive their rodent counterparts ten-fold. 

Dr. Vera Gorbunova hypothesizes that the significant lifespan difference is partly due to naked mole-rats' DNA repair mechanisms. "One consulting mechanism that we identified was DNA double-strand break repair. We found that in longer-lived rodents, it was enhanced, and the correlation was very strong. And the longer those species live, the better was their DNA double-strand break repair."

Additionally, sirtuin-6 and its enzymatic activity tend to be higher in longer-lived animals like the naked mole-rat. As Dr. Vera Gorbunova points out, the higher enzymatic activity of sirtuin-6 is also a commonality of centenarians, some of the longest-living humans. 

This research shows that body size isn’t always indicative of a longer lifespan. “It’s important to research long-lived animals that are also very small. For example, a very small animal that can live to be 40 or 50 years old is exceptional."

 

Three behaviors to implement today to delay aging, according to Dr. Vera Gorbunova

When it comes to the top behaviors to implement to combat aging, Dr. Vera Gorbunova narrows it down to three, and you've likely heard of them before: a fruit and vegetable-rich diet, moderate exercise, and stress management. 

"It's very good to eat fruits and vegetables, especially wild berries. There is a lot of evidence that there are small molecule flavonoids in them that have life-extending effects." Dr. Vera Gorbunova also points out that seaweed has many health benefits through activating sirtuin-6, which is characteristic of long-lived animals and humans. 

On stress management, Dr. Vera Gorbunova concludes, "A common trait of centenarians is that they're very optimistic and have a positive attitude; there's something to be said!"

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Longevity by Design

Longevity by Design is a podcast for individuals looking to experience longer, healthier lives. In each episode, Dr. Gil Blander and Ashley Reaver join an industry expert to explore a personalized health journey. The show helps you access science-backed information, unpack complicated concepts, learn what’s on the cutting edge of longevity research and the scientists behind them. Tune into Longevity by Design and see how to add years to your life, and life to your years.