The intriguing connection between hibernation and aging in animals—and what it teaches us about ourselves

 

Those of us who are able to hibernate often feel envious when the dark, chilly winter months roll around.

An illustration of how nature finds clever answers to challenging challenges is this protracted period of profound sleep. In this instance, how to make it through a lengthy, cold, and dark time with few supplies of food and drink.

Contrary to popular belief, hibernation really has deeper roots in human history.

A peculiar human hibernation similar to torpor termed “lotska” was prevalent among Russian farmers in Pskov in 1900, according to an article in the British Medical Journal. Sleeping throughout the dark portion of the year was a solution to the issue of food scarcity in this region during winter.

They would rise from their slumber once each day to partake in a little meal consisting of bread and water. Everyone in the family took turns tending to the fire after the basic dinner and then went back to sleep.
The Inuit people of Greenland, who are also indigenous to Alaska and Canada, supposedly went into a deep slumber during the cold, dark winter months, much as a bear or polar bear would.

From the middle of November to the very end of January, darkness falls over various regions of Greenland.

A research conducted in 2020 proposes the possibility that our predecessors, the hominini, may have slept for a while when they first settled the planet around 400,000 years ago.

A periodic pause in development pattern in bones found in a Spanish cave suggests that our hominin ancestors may have adopted a method similar to that of cave bears to endure the harsh winters.

Hibernation and animals

The metabolic alterations that occur during hibernation are more extensive and intricate than those that occur during regular sleep.

Multiple factors associated with longevity, including lower caloric intake, low body temperature, and slow metabolism, are brought together by this lengthy duration of rest.

When compared to other species of the same size, hibernating animals often have a higher life expectancy.

Hibernation may delay the aging process in marmots and bats, according to other recent research that used epigenetic clocks, which trace gene activity across time.

This suggests that hibernation might provide useful information on anti-aging strategies.

Chronological age and biological age are distinct concepts.

Actually, all it means is that the number of Earth orbits around the Sun since our birth is what is known as our chronological age.

We age due to “wear and tear” rather than the passage of time.

Wear and tear are quantified by biological age. Better than chronological age as a predictor of lifespan, it provides a more comprehensive and individual assessment of health.

According to research published in 2023, a person’s biological age may change over time. For instance, it might temporarily rise after surgery or a stressful period, but then it will decrease again once the individual is back to normal.

 

Symptoms of “wear and tear”

“Wear and tear” is the root cause of age-related lifestyle disorders including cardiovascular disease, obesity, dementia, and chronic kidney disease.

Inflammation, altered microbiota composition in the intestines, and elevated oxidative stress are all outcomes.

When your body has an excess of free radicals, which are unstable atoms that may harm cells, you will experience oxidative stress.

Diseases brought on by “wear and tear” may soon be treatable, according to new research based on epigenetic clocks and insights gained from hibernating animals.
A possible solution would be to make use of anti-aging medications.

One example is metformin, which is often prescribed as a first line of defense against type 2 diabetes.

Reduces oxidative stress-induced DNA damage and controls inflammation and insulin sensitivity.

More and more research suggests it may aid in the management of other “debilitating” conditions, such cardiovascular disease, and that the medicine may reduce cognitive decline with prolonged use.

To better protect organ transplant recipients, cure traumatic brain injuries, prevent excessive blood loss, maintain lean body mass, and more, human medicine might benefit from a deeper understanding of hibernation.
Research conducted in 2018 indicated that kidney transplants from donors who had passed away seemed to be better preserved when kept in an environment similar to hibernation.

Bears that hibernate seem to have switched off the genes that cause skeletal muscle degeneration, which is a common occurrence in mammals.

 

Longevity and animals

Rougheye wrasse [Sebastes aleutianus], Greenland sharks, naked mole rats, Icelandic clams, and other long-lived species that don’t hibernate may teach us a thing or two.

These animals have evolved better defenses against the effects of aging.

For the most part, it seems like all animals with a long lifespan benefit from systems that prevent inflammation, oxidative stress, and the age-related changes to proteins.

According to genetic research conducted on the rougheye wrasse, a fish species capable of living for over 200 years, flavonoids, a class of plant-based nutrients, may have a role in extending life expectancy.
Flavonoids, found in abundance in citrus fruits, berries, onions, apples, and parsley, protect organs against harm (such as that caused by chemicals or aging) and have anti-inflammatory characteristics.

Researchers in 2023 discovered a cluster of genes in rougheye wrasse that may have something to do with flavonoid metabolism and lifespan.

 

Dinner options

Hence, we may learn something about how to extend our lives from a long-lived fish.

Key roles in longevity include cellular preservation, metabolic control, and genetic adaptations, as we may learn from nature and hibernating species.

The greatest way for us to mimic some of these systems is via our food and way of life.

While much remains a mystery about hibernation, the correlation between regular sleep and lifespan is well-established.
For instance, research conducted in March 2023 found that males may gain five years and women can gain 2.5 years of life expectancy just by getting a decent night’s sleep.

A good night’s sleep was defined by the researchers as seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, the absence of daytime drowsiness, and the absence of pharmaceutical requirements on at least five days per week.

From eight months of hibernation for bears and marmots to two hours of sleep a day for elephants, there is a wide range of sleep durations seen in animals.

Scientists are still baffled as to how elephants sustain such a lengthy lifespan with so little rest.

If scientists could figure out how nature dealt with these extremes, it would lead to better health solutions for us.

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