Resveratrol, a natural part of many foods including grapes, pomegranates, and red wine, may influence aging on a genetic level and could give protection to the heart, according to a study released on June 4, 2008 in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

The so-called "French paradox" entertains the seeming contradiction that the typical French diet, high in saturated fats, somehow produces people with remarkably good cardiac health. Part of the key may be resveratrol: previous studies have shown that this substance in high doses will extend lifespan in invertebrates and prevent premature mortality in mice who are provided a high fat diet.

In this study, conducted by a group of researchers from both academia and industry, further investigated these findings -- namely, they examined the effects of resveratrol in low doses in middle age. Middle aged mice were administered low doses of resveratrol and the researchers observed the effects on the heart, muscle, and brain by looking for changes in gene expression of these tissues over time as the genes were switched on or off. These changes were compared with mice who were simply fed a reduced calorie diet, approximately 20-30% fewer calories than a typical diet.

It was found that these low doses actually mimic the benefits of the reduced calorie diet. For example, in normal control mice, there are at least 1,029 known gene expression changes with age which correlated with diminishing function in the organ. On the restricted diet, the mice showed differences in 90% of those changes in gene expression, while mice with low doses of resveratrol showed different patterns in 92% of the normal aging changes in the heart. These findings could help explain the prevention in the decline in heart function related to age.

The effectiveness of these lower doses indicates that there is much promise for research regarding resveratrol: "Resveratrol is active in much lower doses than previously thought and mimics a significant fraction of the profile of caloric restriction at the gene expression level," according to author Tomas Prolla, a UW-Madison professor of genetics. Experts note that this makes the research regarding resveratrol more accessible to people. "This brings down the dose of resveratrol toward the consumption reality mode," says senior author Richard Weindruch, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of medicine and a researcher at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital. "At the same time, it plugs into the biology of caloric restriction."

Notably, due to the similar genetic effects found through resveratrol consumption and caloric restriction, there is some chance that there are similar mechanisms governing their actions. "Here must be a few master biochemical pathways activated in response to caloric restriction, which in turn activate many other pathways," continues Prolla. "And resveratrol seems to activate some of these master pathways as well." While there is much promise that these mechanisms share important similarities, it is important to note that more research is needed before the agent can truly be evaluated in comparison to the benefits of a low calorie diet.

In conclusion, a glass of wine, portion of food, or nutritional supplement that includes even a small dose of resveratrol could become "a robust intervention in the retardation of cardiac aging." This finding could help explain the notably relative cardiac health of people living in certain regions of France, where diets are high in saturated fats -- in France, meals are traditionally accompanied by a glass of red wine.

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A Low Dose of Dietary Resveratrol Partially Mimics Caloric Restriction and Retards Aging Parameters in Mice.
Barger JL, Kayo T, Vann JM, Arias EB, Wang J, et al.
PLoS ONE 3(6): e2264.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002264
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Written by Anna Sophia McKenney