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No. 2997:

by Andrew Boyd

Today, some things never get old. Some things do. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Though the story's almost certainly myth, Ponce de León's name will forever be linked with the search for the Fountain of Youth. Yet the thought of magical waters that help us live longer with more vitality is a captivating idea. That's why we see so many anti-aging remedies stocked on the shelves of health food stores.

Fountain of youth
Lucas Cranach the Elder's painting The Fountain of Youth. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/The Yorck Project

We really are seeking a Fountain of Youth — and the medical community is finding it. In 1970, average life expectancy in the U.S. was 71. By 2012 it was just a hair under 80 — an increase of 9 years. The reasons are many. And we're researching new ideas all the time, including one particular eau de vie: hormones. Hormones are just one of the aging remedies under investigation by the National Institute on Aging. The Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, our nation's foremost agency responsible for health related research.

We're all familiar with hormones since they're responsible for life altering changes to our bodies. Puberty, complete with a physically maturing body and a host of new mental states, is set in motion by a chain reaction of hormones. Menopause occurs when a woman's ovaries reduce production of the hormone estrogen.

Hormones are produced by the body's endocrine glands. Somewhat circularly, the endocrine glands are defined by their ability to produce hormones. Hormones travel from the glands to different parts of the body through the bloodstream. From there, they regulate activities like metabolism, the immune function, and growth.

So it's no surprise that hormones have been the focus of considerable research. Perhaps by introducing hormones into the human body, the thinking goes, we can cheat death — or at least hold it at bay for a while.

So where does the National Institute on Aging stand on hormone therapies. Do they help prevent aging? The answer is both clear and unequivocal: we don't know. But in taking this position, the Institute adds that until more is known, it's important to keep in mind potential health risks as well as benefits. Pumping testosterone into aging men may lead to a more energetic lifestyle, but it may also lead to prostate cancer.

And the list doesn't end with hormones. Does the use of antioxidants to reduce free radicals help prevent aging? We don't know. Does extreme dieting and fasting help prevent aging? Yes, for some single-celled organisms and fruit flies. For humans? We don't know.

So we continue our search for the Fountain of Youth. And while we may not find it gurgling in some remote jungle, we'll certainly continue to discover new ways to live longer, healthier lives. That's good, as long as we remember the more important search; the search for a life that's happy and fulfilling. After all, life isn't measured by how long we live, but by what we do with the time we have.

Happy Child
Happy child finds joy. Photo Credit:Wikimedia Commons/Steve Hillebrand

Lovely Old Couple
Affectionate old couple with the wife holding on lovingly to the husband's face. Focus on the husband's eyes. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ian MacKenzie

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For a related episode, see ABOUT AGING

Can We Prevent Aging? From the National Institute on Aging website: Accessed February 26, 2015.

This episode was first aired on March 12, 2015