Study: Being Cold May Promote Longevity

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Ditto wasabi

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Reuters

Roundworms, also known as nematodes, live longer in colder temperatures. According to new research from the University of Michigan, this is because cold air acts as a trigger for a gene receptor -- TRPA-1 -- that, once triggered, sets off a chain of reactions that culminates in the activation of a gene known to be tied to longevity.

The findings contradict the previous understanding that cold temperatures promote longer lifespan because they put the organisms' bodies in a sort of frozen hibernation. The researchers showed that this theory can't fully account for the phenomenon; what's more, mutant nematodes that lacked the TRPA-1 channel, when chilled, actually had shorter lifespans than them TRPA1-positive worms.

So what does this mean for us?

Well, despite the basically zero things we humans have in common with roundworms, we house a human version of TRPA1 (distinguished by its lack of a hyphen).

The old theory for why roundworms live longer in the cold wouldn't have applied to us at all -- the worms are cold-blooded, meaning that their bodies take on the temperature of the environment, allowing for that hibernation-like state. Warm-blooded mammals such as ourselves do our best to remain at a constant temperature, so that particular strategy wouldn't work too well.

But if it's true that activating TRPA1 would set off the same process contributing to longevity in the roundworms, a case could be made for standing out in the cold. The active ingredient in wasabi and mustard oil acts as a trigger for human TRPA1 as well. So as an alternative, in the expert advice of lead author Shawn Xu, "Maybe we should be going to sushi restaurants more often."

File this one under the mostly hypothetical, for now. But we do know that mice (mammals) can live up to 20 percent longer when their core temperature is lowered by just .9 degrees Fahrenheit. And calorie restriction -- theorized to extend life -- also functions to reduce core body temperature. It's all, at the very least, intriguing. And, if you're not into the calorie restriction idea, potentially delicious: wasabi goes best with omega-3-rich seafood.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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