Resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine, may be the key to living longer.

© iStockphoto/anzeletti

Resveratrol and Longevity

If caloric restriction, shown to increase life spans in lab animals, is effective due to an increase in SIRT1 and SIR 2 genes, how do we get those genes to kick in more often? It turns out there's an intermediary: Caloric restriction increases the amount of nictotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, in each cell. That's because NAD is normally converting all that glucose in your food into energy. With fewer calories, there's more NAD available, looking for something to do, and what they end up doing is spurring activity of SIR2 and SIRT1. Thus, the current task for researchers is to find something that acts like NAD in terms of activating these anti-aging genes. If they can find this magic bullet and put it into pill form, then humans could take this pill, maintain their current diets and live longer.

One potential sirtuin regulator receiving a good deal of attention is resveratrol. You may be familiar with resveratrol as an ingredient in grape skins; it's present in greater amounts in red wine as opposed to white. In the lab, our old friends the yeast cells lived 70 percent longer when given resveratrol [source: Wade]. Mice benefit as well: Lab mice who were fed a high-fat diet lived about as long as you'd expect them to, while mice on the high-fat diet in combination with resveratrol lived longer, seeming to indicate that resveratrol can simulate caloric restriction and activate those anti-aging genes [source: Wade].

Scientists still have work to do in terms of applying these results to humans, simply because humans already live so much longer than mice and yeast cells -- imagine how many years we'll have to sit around to see if increased resveratrol had any difference in the case of a 50-year-old man. However, we do know that the answer isn't just a glass of red wine a day to stimulate SIRT1. To consume as much resveratrol as those mice were getting, a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person would need to drink 750 to 1,500 bottles of red wine each day [source: Wade].

In addition to the time needed to study this subject, researchers interested in life extension have an uphill battle to climb in terms of perception. It's very easy for people to dismiss the idea of taking a pill to live longer as wishful hocus-pocus, and it may not seem like a very pressing need when there are so many diseases that need treatments. However, as we mentioned previously, a good deal of disease comes upon us as we age. It's possible that slowing down the process of aging in the cells would eliminate these conditions.

For more on aging and how we might live longer, see the stories on the next page.