Dolphins are helping scientists answer the age-old question: can we stop the clock when it comes to aging? A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes some potential breakthroughs in the field of aging science, in an investigation that used some unlikely subjects — US Navy dolphins.
While a myriad of factors including diet, genetics, and lifestyle can influence human aging, this particular group of dolphins was particularly valuable to the researchers leading the study. Unlike dolphins in the wild, this group lived under unique circumstances, where environmental influencers of aging were tightly controlled.
The lead author of the study, Stephanie Venn-Watson is the co-founder and CEO of Epitracker, a life sciences company that has over 20 years of experience in uncovering the parallels between both dolphin and human health.
Why dolphins? Like us, these mammals also develop conditions associated with aging such as chronic inflammation, high cholesterol levels, and even neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
"These similarities support that dolphins and humans share similar aging-related mechanisms," said Venn-Watson.
The research team uncovered a panel of four blood biomarkers that can serve as a measure of the rate of aging. These include hemoglobin (a protein that transports oxygen in red blood cells), immune cells called lymphocytes, platelets, and a liver enzyme, alkaline phosphatase.
Importantly, by using these biomarkers as a metric, the scientists were able to identify two distinct groups of dolphins within the population of over 140 animals — the slow agers and the fast agers.
"While it has long been believed that some people age faster than others, it has been difficult to prove that people indeed age at different rates," said Venn-Watson, highlighting the potential implications of these results in humans.
Of these four biomarkers, the quantities of hemoglobin and lymphocytes decline over time. In those that have a genetic predisposition for accelerated aging, these numbers decline sharply, putting both dolphins and humans at an elevated risk of anemia and life-threatening infections.
According to Venn-Watson, clinical interventions to boost dwindling numbers of these biomarkers could be the key to keeping us healthier for longer.
"We hope our study may help physicians and longevity researchers prioritize clinically relevant indices in older people, including declining hemoglobin and lymphocytes," Venn-Watson says, "to not only prevent and treat anemia and declining immunity but possibly to help delay aging rates as well."