Aging is one of the most complex and nuanced processes that our body goes through, radically transforming us over the course of several decades. Whilst some of the basic mechanisms are well understood, like accumulated damage to DNA during its reproduction, the rest remains something of a mystery. Indeed once we get into the extreme end of the spectrum the factors that seem to influence longevity become a lot more muddled, with many octogenarians engaging in behaviours that would appear to be the antithesis to living longer. Still our quest for the proverbial fountain of youth has had us searching through the many different mechanisms at play in the aging process and it seems that the blood of our young might hold the clues to a longer life.
Two pieces of recent research point towards some interesting evidence that shows the radical differences between the blood of the young and the elderly. Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was once the oldest woman in the world, reaching the ripe old age of 115 in the year 2005. She was in remarkable condition for her age, remaining mentally aware and alert right up until her death. In a great boon to the greater scientific community she donated her body for study giving us unprecedented insight into what happens to us as we age. That, combined with some recent research data coming at this from a different perspective, shows that the contents of our blood changes dramatically as we age and, possibly, that we could reinvigorate ourselves with transfusions from our younger selves.
At the end of her life all of Hendrikje’s white blood cells, the ones responsible for fighting off infections, came from a mere 2 stem cells. It is estimated that we begin our lives with around 20,000 such cells with around 5% of them working at any one time to replenish our white cell supply. The fact that Hendrikje had only two function stem cells remaining points to an upper limit on the natural human age as once you stop producing white blood cells it wouldn’t take long for your body to succumb to any number of diseases. Curiously though this also hints a potential pathway to reinvigorate individuals whose white cell count has deteriorated, by injecting them with their own blood (or potentially someone else’s) taken from many years previous.
That part was mostly conjecture on the part of the researchers but recent results from a study at Stanford University have shown that old mice injected with the blood of younger mice show significant improvement in cognitive function. Whilst this isn’t likely to be the same mechanism that the previous research may have indicated (blood plasma with the proteins denatured in it didn’t achieve the same result) it does point towards a potential therapeutic pathway for combating some age related maladies. Of course whether this translates into a human model remains to be seen and who knows if this kind of thing would get passed an ethics tribunal.
Indeed research of this nature opens up all sorts of ethical questions as if it’s shown that blood transfusions can improve the quality of life of patients then it becomes imperative for doctors to use it. With blood supplies always being in high demand the question of where they can do the most good comes to the forefront, a troubled area that really has no good answers. Still if you could better the life of another, most likely a relative, by simply giving blood I’m sure many of us would do it, but the larger question of voluntary donations still remains.
There’s also some potentially dark sci-fi film in here about people being bled dry in order to feed an underground transfusion market but I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.