Red wine the elixir of youth?

Boston: A substance in wine could prove to be an elixir of youth that holds back many of the effects of ageing, new research suggests.

Obese mice on high-calorie diets lived longer and had healthier hearts and livers when given the compound, resveratrol.

The molecule reversed gene activity patterns associated with diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related conditions.

Dr David Sinclair, one of the US researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, said: “The ‘healthspan’ benefits we saw in the obese mice treated with resveratrol, such as increased insulin sensitivity, decreased glucose levels, healthier heart and liver tissues, are positive clinical indicators and may mean we can stave off in humans age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but only time and more research will tell.”

Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant produced by certain plants as a defence against the effects of injury and fungal infection.

It is commonly found in grape skins, peanuts and mulberries, and is especially plentiful in red wine.

Drinking red wine has been suggested as one explanation for the French Paradox – the fact that heart disease death rates are lower in France than in other industrialised countries with similar risk factors.

In 2003, researchers found that yeast treated with resveratrol lived 60 per cent longer than normal. Later experiments showed that the compound also extends the lifespans of worms and flies by almost 30 per cent, and fish by nearly 60 per cent.

The new findings, published in the journal Nature, are the first to show increased survival in mammals.

“Mice are much closer evolutionarily to humans than any previous model organism treated by this molecule, which offers hope that similar impacts might be seen in humans without negative side-effects,” said Dr Sinclair.

The scientists found that at 60 weeks of age, overfed mice given resveratrol began to survive three to four months longer than those not receiving the compound.

This trend continued, and at 114 weeks, which represents old age in mice, more than half the animals not treated with resveratrol died.

In contrast, at least two thirds of those in the resveratrol group continued to survive.

Overweight treated mice were generally healthier than overweight mice that were not treated.

Untreated mice had higher blood plasma levels of insulin, glucose and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), all markers that in humans predict the onset of diabetes.

At 18 months of age, the livers of high calorie, untreated mice were twice the size and weight of those given resveratrol. The treated mice had livers similar to those of animals on standard diets, and their livers were more normal at the cellular level.

Tests also showed that mice fed resveratrol were physically more co-ordinated and had better motor skills.

Dr Richard Hodes, director of the US National Institute on Ageing (NIA), which took part in the research, said: “There is currently intense interest in identifying interventions that can be applied to improve health and survival, especially as our society ages.

“Today’s basic science findings are a notable step in this effort.”

Dr Sinclair is a co-founder of Sirtris, a company which has developed a formulation of resveratrol now being used in an early clinical trial involving diabetes patients.