July 17 (UPI) -- Most people don't just want to live a long time, they want to age well. They want to stay healthier for longer. The quality of a person's life as they age is called healthspan, and new research suggests different genes control lifespan and healthspan.
While tracking the healthspan of an aging population, including factors like mobility and immune resistance, is difficult, researchers suggest interventions designed to improve healthspan could prove more effective.
For the study, scientists analyzed a protein called TCER-1 in the worm species Caenorhabditis elegans. Previous studies have linked TCER-1 expression with enhanced longevity in the transparent nematodes. Earlier tests also showed the protein is essential to the worm's fertility.
For the newest experiments, scientists blocked TCER-1 expression in C. elegans specimens. In other animals, longevity genes help protect against infections. As such, scientists hypothesized that with lower TCER-1 levels, the test worms would become less resilient and more vulnerable to environmental stressors.
Instead, worms with suppressed TCER-1 expression were much more resilient to environmental stressors, including bacterial infections, DNA-damaging radiation and high temperatures.
"I was sure I'd made a mistake somewhere," Francis Amrit, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said in a news release. "But I repeated the experiments and realized that TCER-1 was unlike any other longevity gene we'd seen before -- it was actually suppressing immune resistance."
For comparison, scientists increased TCER-1 expression in some worms. The specimens with abnormally elevated TCER-1 levels became more vulnerable to environmental stressors.
The latest tests, detailed this week in the journal Nature Communications, suggest TCER-1 has greatest impact on worm health when they are young.
"I liken TCER-1 in C. elegans to a DJ who controls the base, treble and other tones to get the music to sound just right," said Amrit. "During its reproductive age, TCER-1 tunes all the molecular dials to ensure that the animal reproduces efficiently to propagate the species, partly by diverting resources meant for stress management."
Though the study authors suggest it's too soon to make direct connections between their findings and human healthspan, they hope the work will lead to an improved understanding of the molecular mechanisms that control the human aging process.
"It will be interesting to understand how the body allocates resources," said Arjumand Ghazi, associate professor of pediatrics, developmental biology and cell biology at the Pitt School of Medicine. "For example, could women one day take a pill once they decide to stop having children that would improve their healthspan by diverting resources used for reproduction toward improved stress resilience?"