Tennis: A Secret to The Fountain of Youth?

The fabled map of Mao Kun from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, approximating the location of the Fountain of Youth as illustrated by the eternal struggle between life and death.

In New England the warm, full sails of another shimmering summer drew lazily to a close.  The never-ending hope of its general populace is that in approximately three months the warm, salty breeze will give way to the cool and crisp, at which time lobster rolls eaten on a sandy shoreline will give way to apple picking, cider pressing and leafy metamorphoses.

Fingers crossed.

The perpetually changing weather perfectly parallels the perpetual tennis season truism that the show must go on.  Currently, the reported Novak Djokovic of old has just made a bit of tennis history with a finals win over Roger Federer (6-4, 6-4) at the Master’s Cup in Cincinnati – the last big tournament hurrah leading up to the summer-ending spectacle that is to be the 2018 US Open.

Although Djokovic was the winner, it is Roger and his seeming agelessness through the seasons that drove the question of whether he was tapping into the fabled Fountain of Youth.  At time of publication he was…

37 years 0 months 16 days
or 444 months 16 days
or 1932 weeks 6 days
or 13,530 days
or 324,720 hours
or 19,483,200 minutes
or 1,168,992,000 seconds

…which in the tennis world is the equivalent of being over the hill.  For example, Julien Benneteau (36 y.o.), Mikhail Youzhny (36 y.o.) and even iron man David Ferrer (36 y.o.) are reportedly playing in their final US Opens this year.  Sniff.

Yet Roger continues stockpiling Guinness World Records in an extraordinarily grueling sport where fans constantly argue over the need for a youthful physiology in order to compete at the highest levels.  This spawned a few age related questions:

  • What exactly is aging and what is science doing about it?  Is there a pill to turn back the clock yet?
  • Is there a secret to The Fountain of Youth that doesn’t involve a pill?
  • If there is a secret, is Roger using and is it inversely correlated with the length of his hairstyles through time?

What causes aging?

The nine hallmark biological processes involved in aging.  Lopez-Otin et al. Cell 153, June 6, 2013.

Although one could simply say “time” causes aging, the biological truth remains incomplete.  In point of fact, aging is an exceedingly complex process that no single theory explains fully.  Decades of research to date provide a combined theory of aging that is thought to be the intertwined actions of the nine hallmark biologic processes shown above.

Briefly, some of these biological processes are naturally programmed from birth in our cells.  Some of these processes slow down with age as a result of accumulating minor damage throughout life.  But importantly, each of the processes above could be a potential solution that holds aging at bay.  Although the answer is likely a combination of the nine processes above, the challenge for researchers today is defining which hallmark biological process or processes to intervene on in order to provide the greatest anti-aging effect.

What is science doing about this?

The Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach the Elder circa 1546.  Take a dip, and feel hip.

Science is attempting to do precisely what this purportedly humorous work depicts.  Interpret Cranach the Elder’s work as you will, but it brings to mind a saying attributed to Mark Twain: “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.”

Alas, were reversing or maintaining youthfulness as simple as a swim in those opaque, grayish, brackish waters.  But rest assured that as the world’s average life expectancy continues to increase, a breath-taking amount of business and scientific effort is being poured into halting and/or reversing aging – with research efforts boldly challenging the idea of mortality itself with pharmaceuticals forthcoming.

One specific example of a current scientific endeavor can be seen in an age-related condition called degenerative joint disease (DJD), more commonly referred to as osteoarthritis (OA).  A clinical trial is currently ongoing based off of a recent study reporting a method that eliminates senescent cells (one of the nine hallmark biological processes involved in aging) to treat DJD of the knee.  The study (which found roots in 2016 Nature findings) presented both mouse and human evidence showing that removal of senescent cells delayed development of traumatic osteoarthritis, improved pain control and promoted cartilage growth within the knee.  Importantly, while this technique does not necessarily extend your lifespan, it is stated currently to help you live healthier during your natural lifespan.

But in the era of the organic, the non-pharmaceutical, the free-range, are there any other more…natural options?

The Secret of the Fountain of Youth

The answer is a resounding yes, with one of the secrets of The Fountain of Youth being physical exercise.

Calm down people, calm down!

I know that was outrageously anti-climactic but hold on the lynch mob and read just a bit further first…

While even those who participated in the Ancient Olympics circa 776 BC are also rolling their eyes at this revelation, it is the depth of scientific evidence today that surprises.  On the clinical level (i.e. what your doctor may tell you) some of the reasons aren’t quite so surprising:

  • Decreases blood pressure. Improves cardiovascular function and body fluid regulation.
  • Improves respiratory function overall.
  • Enhances and can reset innate metabolism by increasing muscle protein synthesis and oxidizing fat – of increasing import with the obesity pandemic leading to chronic disease.
  • Improves muscle strength and hence maintains or improves balance, motor control, bone density, joint mobility – all exceedingly important as we age.
  • Slows cognitive degeneration, increases neuronal growth.  Quite notable as previous scientific thought believed neurogenesis to be an impossibility as an adult.

But that’s a very shallow way to think.

The gauntlet-to-the-face if you will, is that exercise has known effects on a cellular and sub-cellular level.  In fact, it has positive anti-aging effects on every one of those nine hallmark biological processes we talked about as derived from the paper seen below:

Open source access to the paper granted via Cell Press.




As Rebelo-Marques et al. write on what exercise should include per American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines:

(exercise should) “…include aerobic exercise, muscle strengthening, endurance training, flexibility and neuromotor exercises.”

Sounds suspiciously like a secret of The Fountain of Youth is akin to tennis both on a clinical and molecular level.

They further write that exercise:

“…should be seen as a polypill, and the elderly community should be encouraged to engage in the continuous and regular practice of healthy physical activities.”

Although exercise doesn’t fully wind back the hands of time, it is exciting to see the findings extending to the molecular level.  Couple this with the burgeoning amount of research in longevity and you have even the infamous Pirate Captain Hector Barbossa (don’t let his sea weather-beaten countenance fool you he has not a day over three hundred years) and has been quoted as saying:

“Feast your eyes upon this (secret), mateys. There is more than one way to live forever!”

– Hector Barbossa

One need look no further for anti-aging results than Captain Barbossa himself upon instituting a ship-wide exercise regimen.  As quoted completely out of context upon retrospection:  “Too long my fate has not been in me own hands… No longer!”

The future of longevity truly excites.

Related Miscellany

  • Population level research: take note of the recent Times article and new study findings 9/17/18 that came out after this blog posting, supporting that tennis is indeed the sport (over others) that is associated with a longer life.
  • Population level research: a small study published on 11/26/18 noted that seniors with lifelong exercise habits had a cardiovascular system that appeared to be 30 years younger. Keeping good habits are clearly of even more import now that we are trending towards longer life.
  • Charles Eugster: Although he has since passed, we remember he who inspired many and at the spry age of 93 proudly proclaimed in the TED Talk below that “A beach body at 90 is no longer a dream.”  I wonder what Roger is going to be doing at that age…

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