Cells get damaged and become less functional over time, hence cancer development becomes more prominent with age. Cancer is uncontrolled cell growth due to accelerated cell division. Substantial research has proved the connection between aging and cancer. But, how do anti-aging supplements influence cancer cell growth and development?
Cancer incidence increases with age.
Aging can promote cancer growth and development through mechanisms of oxidative stress, telomere shortening, and senescence.
Anti-aging supplements may both inhibit and promote cancer development, hence it is recommended people that who already have cancer consult their doctor first.
How does aging promote cancer development?
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), advancing age is a very significant risk factor for cancer. Aging-related factors that can promote cancer development include oxidative stress, telomere shortening, and senescent cells which are major drivers of cancer cell growth and development.
Oxidative stress is the imbalance of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants. ROS release is a cellular mechanism that supports many biological processes like metabolism, inflammation, and immune response. However, ROS can damage our internal molecules like fats, proteins, and DNA. To keep ROS in check, cells also produce natural antioxidants. But with insufficient antioxidants, ROS accumulates leading to oxidative stress.
Certain substances like cigarette smoke, heavy metal ions, and pesticides can cause oxidative stress, but aging can also trigger oxidative stress due to high ROS levels and/or low antioxidants as we grow older. Over the years, the damage to our DNA caused by ROS accumulates leading to cancer initiation and uncontrolled growth.
Another evident hallmark of aging is telomere shortening. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of our chromosomes that protect our genes from getting damaged by external factors like ROS. Research has shown that telomere length is significantly associated with our biological age.
During natural cell division, telomere length decreases. In effect, the telomere becomes shorter and shorter throughout our growth and development. As observed, people that lived longer also had longer telomeres compared to those that did not.
When telomere length becomes so short, cells induce apoptosis or cell death to prevent further critical damage to our genetic material. But sometimes, apoptosis doesn’t happen and the cell becomes a cancer cell.
Cell senescence is an aging phenomenon wherein cells permanently stop dividing, often due to old age, but they don’t die. A double-edged sword, cell senescence is originally a mechanism to prevent cells from turning into cancer cells by arresting their cell cycle.
However, senescent cells accumulate through age and cause undesirable physiological effects like chronic inflammation and disruption of important cell signaling processes. Studies show that cell senescence may suppress cancer formation, but during old age, cell senescence can promote cancer development. Furthermore, scientists reported that senescent cells promote malignancy and the growth of cancer cells by secreting pro-cancer molecules.
Which anti-aging supplements can inhibit cancer cell growth?
Since cancer is driven by factors that promote aging, anti-aging supplements can also ameliorate cancer. Indeed, there’s a wide collection of data that supports the anti-cancer effects of anti-aging compounds. Here are examples of compounds that have anti-aging and anti-cancer properties.
Metformin can slow down aging and increase life span by improving insulin sensitivity and lowering blood glucose levels. In human intervention trials of metformin against cancer, data validated its tumor-killing properties in humans. Additionally, metformin can turn resistant cancer cells into sensitive cancer cells again. Because of that, metformin has effectively been used in combination with other chemotherapeutic drugs against tumors. Metformin has been demonstrated to inhibit the proliferation of cervical, pancreatic, and prostate cancer, among others.
Resveratrol is a plant micronutrient that functions in plant stress and disease resistance. It can activate the sirtuins, important proteins that promote longevity. As an antioxidant, it scavenges ROS and attenuates oxidative stress. One of the most notable therapeutic effects of resveratrol is that it can also inhibit cancer cell proliferation, migration, and invasion. Resveratrol consumption has been demonstrated to reduce tumor cell proliferation both in mice and humans.
Vitamin D may extend the median lifespan by 33%. Having lower vitamin D levels is also associated with age-related decline and cancer development. Research on vitamin D supplementation highlighted the reduction of metastasis risks and fatality due to cancer. For example, a study has previously shown that breast cancer tumor growth can be reduced by vitamin D intake, although this beneficial effect is not significant if the subject is fed with a high-fat diet, implicating context-dependent differences in therapeutic effects.
Anti-aging supplements can prevent, or promote cancer
While anti-aging supplements can effectively prevent cancer, there is also evidence that some compounds may also accelerate tumor development.
A lung cancer mice study described that antioxidants, like N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and vitamin E, can accelerate tumor growth and invasiveness. They suggested these antioxidants decrease ROS levels. Although ROS can induce DNA damage to promote cancer, it can also trigger the same effects on cancer cells to destroy them. However, antioxidants may disrupt this effect and promote cancer survival.
This study supports the increased lung cancer incidence during a cancer prevention study in Finland wherein male smokers took the antioxidants vitamin E and beta-carotene. However, it appears that the pro-cancer effects of antioxidants only happen when patients already have small, undiagnosed tumors during the time that they received anti-oxidants. Other studies also explained that antioxidants can promote the survival of metastasizing tumor cells.
Another promising anti-aging supplement is NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide), a compound that boosts NAD+ production and promotes longevity. Tumors are more metabolically active and consume more energy and nutrients than normal cells. NAD+ is a crucial component of a lot of chemical reactions that happen in a cell. Hence in a tumor, cancer cells require high NAD+ consumption to fuel their growth and metabolism. When cancer patients take NMN, tumors have more growth and malignancy.
Overall, anti-aging supplements can be harnessed to manage cancer cell growth and development, but they may be dependent on several factors. For people that don't have cancer, anti-aging supplements may be an effective cancer-preventive strategy, but for those that already have cancer, the effects of anti-aging supplements may vary, so it’s important to consult with their doctors.
- NIH. Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention.
- Frontiers in Aging. Combined Vitamin D, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and a Simple Home Exercise Program May Reduce Cancer Risk Among Active Adults Aged 70 and Older: A Randomized Clinical Trial.
- Cancer Biology & Therapy. Prevention of cancer by inhibiting aging.
- NIH. Age and Cancer Risk.
- Anticancer Research. Ageing as an Important Risk Factor for Cancer.
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- NIH. Age and Cancer Risk.
- Scientific Reports. The association between telomere length and cancer risk in population studies.
- NIH. Senescence and aging: Causes, consequences, and therapeutic avenues.
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- NIH. Vitamin supplements and cancer risk: the epidemiologic evidence.
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- NIH. Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging.
- NIH. Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention.