PUMPING IRONY: Yet Another Fountain of Youth

You could live forever and never run short of anti-aging studies.

Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I stumble upon a story touting the latest anti-aging research, I can’t look away. It’s like driving past a car accident. I just have to slow down and gawk. I can’t help myself. And I’ll bet I’m not alone. Who doesn’t want to learn the secret of a long (and presumably happy) life?

So, when I saw a piece in Science Daily touting the longevity-enhancing qualities of niacin, I was immediately transfixed. Not just because the Swiss researchers were more enamored with their findings than most gerontologists, but because what they were asserting was so counterintuitive.

It’s pretty much conventional wisdom among students of aging that the most pernicious enemy of longevity (at the cellular level, anyway; fractured hips are another thing altogether) are the pesky free radicals that damage healthy cells through a process called “oxidative stress.” Imagine the rusty remains of cars in a junkyard and you’ve pretty much captured the concept. It’s also been fairly widely accepted that consuming various types of antioxidants — the resveratrol in red wine being my personal favorite — can help keep your cells from gathering rust.

But these niacin boosters argue that our current infatuation with antioxidants is basically a bunch of hooey. “The claim that intake of antioxidants, especially in tablet form, promotes any aspect of human health lacks scientific support,” lead researcher Michael Ristow, a professor of energy metabolism at ETH Zurich, told Science Daily. And, he added, a little oxidative stress is actually a healthy thing.

That’s where niacin comes in.

According to Ristow and his colleagues, a healthy dose of the B vitamin (B3 to be exact) will trick the body into believing it’s exercising, thus unleashing those free radicals in a “health-promoting” way. “Cells can cope well with oxidative stress and neutralize it,” Ristow said.

Hey, it works in roundworms: Ristow’s team found that the worms juiced up with niacin lived one-tenth longer than usual. That’s about three extra days for a worm that has to cram all of its life experiences into one short month, but imagine extending your lifespan by eight years or so just by ramping up your dosage of B3. The possibilities, as they say, are endless — just like the number of anti-aging studies.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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