When asked if he’s searching for the fountain of youth, Nathan LeBrasseur
doesn’t say no. At least not right away.
“For some people, that explanation might make sense,” he offers after a pause.
LeBrasseur, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, collaborates with multiple teams at his lab at Mayo Clinic in Rochester to research aging from a cellular level. They’re doing everything from testing grip strength in mice and studying age-damaged “zombie cells” to using biomarkers to try to determine the biological (vs. chronological) age of older adults.
It’s all in the name of adding life to years, not years to life.
The question they’re trying to answer: Is it possible to “prevent, attenuate or reverse the effects of aging,” he says. It isn’t about wrinkle-free skin, hair that doesn’t gray or everlasting life. It’s about helping people stay as healthy as they can for as long as possible. That’s why LeBrasseur thinks hard before weighing in on the fountain of youth. He knows what Mayo is discovering involves more than sipping a magic elixir. “There’s an expectation in our society that there will be a simple solution to the effects of aging, a pill,” he says. “But if you ask me how we can best prepare ourselves for aging, it’s physical activity, healthy eating and social engagement. Anything we develop in the lab will only work with a healthy lifestyle, healthy choices.” Bad news for chain-smoking, binge-drinking couch potatoes.
“Failure for us would be having people live to 120 — and feel like 120,” LeBrasseur says. “That’s not our goal.”
The biology of aging
Aging damages some cells. And, as we age, it’s harder for us to get rid of those damaged cells, which affect the healthy cells around them (hence the zombie moniker). Aging also is “by far the greatest contributing factor” in Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer.
That’s why LeBrasseur and his colleagues are looking for ways to delay the onset of age-related disease, whether it be specific exercise regimens or “interventions” such as repairing damaged cells or even removing zombie cells. When we die in old age, it’s often from multiple causes. It typically takes most of us 50 or 60 years to develop a first disease, but they tend to develop more quickly after that: four years to develop a second, one year to develop a third and three to six months to develop a fourth.
Rather than waiting for diseases to develop, LeBrasseur and company are attempting to flip the medical model upside down by trying to create reliable methods for determining if a person is likely to develop a specific disease and intervene earlier.
“We’re not close to testing 40-year-olds to see how they’re aging,” he admits, but they have made progress in “understanding the fundamental aspects of aging and disrupting that process.”
Coupon to the future
While LeBrasseur considers himself a “nuts-and-bolts” scientist, the Minnesota-born, Boston University-educated Ph.D. now spends much of his time applying for grants and fundraising for the lab.
That means he’s gotten good at explaining complicated scientific concepts in terms most of us can understand. He’s even designed a series of slides with simple diagrams to show how aging, zombie cells damage the cells around them.
Polished, articulate and energetic, when he wears a jacket (as he often does), he could pass for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But he exudes the everyday warmth of a guy from Cloquet, which he describes as “the home of Jessica Lange, a paper mill, the only Frank Lloyd Wright gas station in the country and a few hockey players.”
Though he didn’t play hockey, LeBrasseur was a jock, which fueled his initial interest in physical therapy. As the first in his family to go to college, LeBrasseur admits he had no idea what he wanted to do. His brother, who joined the military, encouraged him to go away to college. It was a coupon that determined where.
He came across a $39 coupon for a Greyhound trip anywhere in the country. On a whim, he took it to Boston, one of the few cities outside of the Midwest that he’d visited at the time. After that, he decided he “had to go to Boston University.”
When he was getting his undergraduate degree in health studies and his masters in physical therapy, he was interested in human performance, or, as he puts it, “how to run faster, throw farther and jump higher.”
‘From muscle to molecule’
As a physical therapist at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., he took part in rounds in acute care wards, where he worked with older adults. That interaction made him start to wonder: “What is human performance for a 70-year-old? It wasn’t about preparing for the marathon. It was about ‘how do I get out of bed.’ ”
He went on to earn a Ph.D. in applied anatomy and physiology, studying age-related muscle loss and how exercise can preserve muscle health and function in older adults. It was an easy move, he says, “to go from muscle to molecule,” studying not the muscles themselves but the processes that regulate them.
That’s why he’s now involved in research into physical resilience in older adults and how “prehabilitation” (improving an older adult’s physical fitness before a stressor such as surgery or chemotherapy) can help shorten recovery time. LeBrasseur, who’s 45 and lives with his wife and two daughters in Rochester, can see a future in which the research Mayo is undertaking has real and lasting impact.
“I joke that every 6 months, I’ll go to the dentist, get my oil changed and get my senescent [damaged] cells flushed,” he says.
In the meantime, though, he recommends that we do what we already know we should be doing: choosing a healthy lifestyle. “You can control your rate of aging by how much you exercise, how well you eat and sleep and go about your life,” he says. “It’s really powerful stuff.”