Rhesus monkeys provide insight into the relationship between caloric intake and aging

A UW-Madison study published just two weeks ago in the journal "Cell Metabolism" reveals a clearer picture of the cellular mechanisms behind nutrition and how it relates to age-related disease. Regular calorie restriction, as seen in the rhesus monkeys used in this set of experiments, proves to be an effective contributor to increasing lifespan.

Rozalyn Anderson, an associate professor of medicine and long-time researcher of caloric restriction, studies the molecular effects of limiting the diets of these monkeys using tissue and blood specimens.

“The reason that the study began in the first place is that it’s been known since 1935 that reducing the amount of food provided to rodents — let’s say rats — expands their lifespan. So, it’s remarkably simple; so long as you don’t starve or malnourish them, if they eat less, they live longer,” Anderson said.

This study with its current set of rhesus monkeys began in 1989 with 76 monkeys and has expanded over the years. Naturally, it has been winding down due to the decreasing numbers of rhesus monkey participants that are left. However, even though this segment of the project is ending, the research is not over. “We’ve got very few animals left and we’ll come to a close as the last of them die, but we have other studies that we’ll do to investigate the biology now that we’ve catalogued their aging,” Anderson said.

Although it had widely been agreed upon for ages that eating less proves to improve health, “this is the first time anyone has been able to show the ability to change aging in a positive direction in primates. It’s very important," Anderson added.

Before recent advances in biotechnology, most results from caloric restriction experiments were based on basic observation. Reduced food consumption was thought to have anti-cancer effects, but without methods to measure things like chemicals in the bloodstream and cell health, only theories could be posited. Now, Anderson hopes that her team can soon have a better understanding of why it is that when individuals become older, they are more vulnerable to disease.

“Cancer, degeneration, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis … all those things have a common feature: that the older you are the more likely you are to have them,” Anderson said. She admits that we don't have all of the answers yet, but she and her team have every intent to continue uncovering our metabolic links to aging and disease.

Anderson hopes future findings will reveal what specifically makes older people vulnerable to a variety of diseases, and what can be done to prevent these age-related changes from happening.

“If we can prevent that change from happening, then we should be able to solve a whole bunch of different diseases instead of trying to solve each disease one at a time, which is what is done traditionally.”

The biology of aging is a new frontier for research in human health. Classic assumptions about diet and health in the later years of life are being clarified and the rhesus monkey model paired with modern-day technology are taking Anderson and the rest of the interdisciplinary UW-Madison research group to that new frontier.

“That’s the whole nature of research, right? New connections, new pathways, new insight into how different things that we thought might be disconnected are actually related. It’s actually a lot of fun, it’s really cool to work with something like this."

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