Not only are naked mole rats basically immune to cancer, they’re also capable of defying the laws of aging.
Naked mole rats may look like this, but they have unexpected superpowers. [Photo by National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo]
As you age, you get closer and closer to death. This is true for humans, other mammals, other animals—most living things on Earth, really. There are animals, plants, and other organisms that may live for hundreds of years, but they all age and eventually shuffle off the mortal coil. For mammals in particular, there’s something called the Gompertz-Makeham law that governs mortality. According to this mathematical law, mortality rate increases with age as a mammal reaches adulthood. In humans, the risk of death doubles every eight years after we turn 30.
Naked mole rats, however, have turned out to be the exception to this rule. According to a new study, these wrinkly rodents grow older, sure—but their death doesn’t become more likely. Findings show that the rodents have a lower mortality than any known animal. They may thus hold clues to extending human life.
What can naked mole rats tell us about living longer?
Naked mole rats reach sexual maturity at about six months of age, and they’ve been found to age 25 times past this point. Their biology is comparable to that of mice, and mice have a life expectancy of about four years. The expected life span of naked mole rats should be just around six years based on their size, but many live to be over 30 years old. They’re even able to breed up until this relatively old age, and they don’t show signs of aging.
Mice may be biologically similar to naked mole rats, but their life spans are much shorter.
Lead researcher Rochelle Buffenstein has been studying naked mole rats for 30 years, and has kept meticulous records of each rodent that has died in her care. According to Buffenstein, her records on 3,299 mole rats show that their mortality risk remained at one in 10,000 for their entire lives. Not just that; there were instances when this mortality risk even went down a little.
"Our research demonstrates that naked mole rats do not age in the same manner as other mammals, and in fact show little to no signs of ageing, and their risk of death does not increase even at 25 times past their time to reproductive maturity," said Buffenstein. "These findings reinforce our belief that naked mole rats are exceptional animals to study to further our understanding of the biological mechanisms of longevity."
Hopefully, naked mole rats will be able to help us stave off age-related diseases.
Would these findings be able to benefit humans? After all, we’ve long been looking for ways to extend our life spans. We’re also more susceptible to debilitating diseases like dementia as we age. Is it therefore possible for naked mole rats to help us find a way to reduce the risks of age-related illnesses and maybe even help us live longer and healthier lives?
Maybe. However, it’s still unknown why and how exactly naked mole rats defy the laws of aging and mortality. We also still don’t know if the rodents can indeed help us increase our life spans. There have been suggestions as to what fuels this remarkable trait in naked mole rats, but further research is necessary.
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