In the early years of our domestic bliss, My Lovely Wife and I rented the lower level of an old farmhouse whose sole heat outlet was an imposing iron grate decorating the dining room floor. This caused us no concerns during the warmer months of the year, but when the Minnesota winter arrived, we found ourselves desperately seeking more heat distribution than this ancient infrastructure was able to offer.
The small coal fireplace in the living room had long since outlived its purpose, according to the chimney sweep we consulted. Under no circumstances, he warned, should we ignite any material in its firebox. But I was determined to expand our living space beyond the 62-degree atmosphere of the dining room, so I managed to convince MLW that we should spend a hundred bucks we didn’t have on a kerosene heater. She reluctantly agreed, and I wedged it into the barren firebox, confident that it would provide a modicum of coziness during the long winter nights.
I still retain vague memories of the two of us huddled on the floor in sweaters and blankets a few feet from the hearth, pretending that I’d solved the problem while doing our best to ignore the kerosene stench that inundated the room. It was, to put it mildly, a very chilly winter.
That episode came to mind last week as I perused a couple of new studies suggesting that our landlord back then may have been doing us a favor. Among longevity researchers, cold is having a moment.
In a University of Cologne study, published in Nature Aging, researchers lowered the body temperature of C. elegans nematode worms and also cooled a batch of cultivated human cells; in both instances, the lower temperature removed clumps of proteins linked to Huntington’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), potentially extending lifespan. And Washington State University researchers, writing in the journal Aging Cell, argue that we may someday be able to manipulate the nervous system to create the effects of a lower body temperature even as climate change produces sweltering weather.
Scientists have long associated lower body temperatures with a longer lifespan, but these new studies seek to explain more clearly why that might be the case. David Vilchez, PhD, and his University of Cologne team, using nematode worms and human cells that harbored the genes for Huntington’s and ALS, found that moderately lower temperatures triggered increased proteasome activity, which removed damaged proteins from cells. “We believe that these results may be applied to other age-related neurodegenerative diseases as well as to other animal species,” Vilchez says.
The Washington State study is less focused on the impact of cold weather on our lifespan than on ways to mitigate the long-term health effects of a warming planet. “Based on animal studies, scientists anticipate that human lifespan will go down in the future as climate change drives up the ambient temperature,” explains lead study author Yiyong (Ben) Liu, PhD. “We have found that warm temperatures leading to short lifespan is not a passive, thermodynamic process as previously thought, but a regulated process controlled by the nervous system. Our findings mean that down the road, it may be possible to intervene in that process to extend human lifespan as temperatures rise.”
The key, Liu and his team believe, is regulating a specific protein in the nervous system called NPR-8 that controls the production of collagens. When they reduced the prevalence of NPR-8, they found that the worms showed fewer signs of aging. “What we saw was that the absence of NPR-8 caused an increase in collagen expression, which increased the worms’ stress resistance and lifespan and made them look younger than wild-type worms that were the same biological age,” notes study coauthor Durai Sellegounder, PhD.
Worms are not humans, of course, though C. elegans nematodes exhibit many of the same cellular mechanisms as Homo sapiens and have long been used in longevity studies. That said, I’m hesitant to embrace the notion of nervous-system manipulation as a life-extension gambit. Why mess with my neurons as a strategy for surviving climate change when the Minnesota climate keeps us plenty chilled six months out of the year? Indeed, a recent survey found that people residing in northern climes live longer than those in warmer states — with the notable exception of Hawaii, where I suspect a different type of chill abides.
Besides, there are those who apparently thrive in the warmth. MLW and I eventually escaped from our frigid farmhouse, decamping to her ailing grandmother’s rambler where we provided what on-site caregiving we could while basking in the 80-degree heat the 86-year-old matriarch preferred. Recalling that transition now, I can’t help but wonder whether shivering is grossly overrated.
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