‘Zombie cells’ could prove key in quest for active, vital old age

‘Zombie cells’ could prove key in quest for active, vital old age

In an unfinished part of his basement, 95-year-old Richard Soller zips around a makeshift track encircling boxes full of medals he’s won for track and field and long-distance running.

Without a hint of breathlessness, he says: “I can put in miles down here.”

Steps away is an expensive leather recliner he bought when he retired with with visions of relaxing into old age.

He proudly proclaims he’s never used it; he’s been too busy training for competitions, such as the National Senior Games.

‘Zombie cells’ could prove key in quest for active, vital old age
Richard Soller, 95, runs in the 200-metre race for men over 85 at the National Senior Games in Miramar, Florida.(AP Photo: Marta Lavandier)

Mr Soller, who lives near Cincinnati in the US state of Ohio, has achieved an enviable goal chased by humans since ancient times: staying healthy and active in late life.

It’s a goal that eludes so many that growing old is often associated with getting frail and sick. But scientists are trying to change that — and tackle one of humanity’s biggest challenges — through a little known but flourishing field of ageing research called cellular senescence.

It’s built on the idea that cells eventually stop dividing and enter a “senescent” state in response to various forms of damage.

The body removes most of them, but others linger like zombies. They aren’t dead — but as the Mayo Clinic’s Nathan LeBrasseur puts it, they can harm nearby cells like mouldy fruit corrupting a fruit bowl.

They accumulate in older bodies — something mounting evidence links to an array of age-related conditions such as dementia, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

But scientists wonder: Can the zombie cell build-up be stopped?

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