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Toxins in the Environment Further Age Humanity

May 28, 2014 02:12 PM EDT

Aging isn't just all about genes, exercise, and diet. Exposure to certain toxicants commonly found in the environment can accelerate physiological aging far more that you may think, a recent study suggests.

The study, published in Trends in Molecular Medicine, names arsenic in groundwater, benzene in industrial emissions, ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, and the estimated 4,000 toxins in cigarette smoke as "gerontogens" - toxins in the environment that can accelerate the aging process.

According to the study, there are countless gerontogens in a human's habitat that go beyond emissions and tobacco smoke, but those are certainly the most identifiable.

Study author Norman Sharpless told National Geographic that the toxins are so prevalent, if someone were to start taking an "anti-aging" pill that slowed natural aging, it would still take decades for the pill to bring their aging to a halt.

To determine just how impactful gerontogens are on a person's aging, researchers bred a strain of mice that produces a protein that glows whenever their body produces the protein p16. According to the study, p16 is seen in unusually high levels in senescence cells - cells that permanently stop dividing as we age. Cells that no longer divide add to the aging process, as dying cells are no longer replaced with fresh ones.

According to Sharpless, when the mice grew old, they began to "glow like crazy." However, when exposed to varying levels of gerontogens, they started glowing at younger and younger ages - indicating that the toxins were causing cells to go senescent much earlier than they normally would.

Does this mean that in a world without man-made toxins, we would be living significantly longer? Not necessarily. It is easy to forget that without these toxic by-products, much of the advancements that are helping humanity live longer and longer would not exist. Many of these gerontogens are also naturally occurring, meaning their presence is simply inescapable.

Still, the researchers argue that knowing what is a potent gerontogen can help people preserve their bodies better. It also gives scientists an opportunity to put anti-aging remedies to the test, Sharpless told TIME magazine. Red wine, green tea, even "an apple a day," may all actually help mitigate the effects of these toxins.

But we'll have to wait to find out.

The study was published in Trends in Molecular Medicine for early online review.

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