Do bees know how to reverse aging?

Plenty of medical and psychological studies have connected the benefits of socialization to the ongoing mental health of seniors. Plenty of other studies have linked social isolation and depression. In general, research agrees that seniors who socialize on a regular basis will have better memories, better ADL functions and less depression than those who don’t have regular, social-based events in their lives. 

Depression affects 6.5 million people over age 65, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The ramifications of senior depression can be emotionally and physically costly at best, and deadly at worst. Medication and psychological therapy can’t seem to do enough.

Meanwhile, a big hint about our future senior care plans might be coming from Apis mellifera, the humble honeybee. The recent buzz is that the social nature of roles within the bee community can actually reverse brain aging.

Scientists at Arizona State University recently conducted an extensive study on bees, who live in very complex social communities containing roles-based tasks. Some bees are foragers, going out into the wild to gather pollen. Others are nurses (usually younger bees), assigned to tend the cells of infants within the hive, etc.

What would happen to the minds and memories of older bees, if they were asked to switch roles later in life? The results were stunning—and could be relevant to their human senior counterparts.

According to the study, slated to be published in the August 2012 issue of the Experimental Gerontology journal, the older, foraging bees degraded physically (lost body hair and wing integrity) and degraded mentally (lost the capacity to learn) while out in the field. But when these elder bees were brought back into the hive and had to perform the social nursing role of tending to the young, 50 percent of them regained their overall physical health and regained their mental capacity to learn after only 10 days in their new roles.

A scientific analysis of the bees’ chemistry also revealed that an actual change had occurred in the bees’ brain proteins when they left the foraging field and shifted to the community-based role of taking care of others. Researchers saw an appearance of the Prx6 protein (shared by humans and thought to protect against human dementia, by the way). They also discovered the emergence of another protein that can act as a shield for other proteins when the body or brain is exposed to excessive stress.

In a way, their bee-brains had somehow managed to reverse the basic aging process, and had reversed some of the mental “learning loss” they’d acquired after spans of time working as foragers.

“Maybe social interventions—changing how you deal with your surroundings—is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger,” said Gro Amdam, the lead investigator for the study. “Since the proteins being researched in people are the same proteins bees have, these proteins may be able to spontaneously respond to specific social experiences.”

We’ll return to human seniors now. Everyone who works in long-term care has seen the damaging effects of elder isolation, probably first hand. By the time we combine the costs of anti-depression medications, possible hospitalization for depression, or self-inflicted injuries… Well, there must be some tidbits we can examine and possibly learn from, here.

  • Social activity programs matter—even though they’re often the first programs on the chopping block when budgets are tight.
  • Meaningful and personal social communication for seniors matters—If that can’t be provided in “physical life” by family member visitations, then perhaps a Web-based communications device (an in-room tablet or portable device) will go further than we think to keep seniors healthily connected to the folks that are important in their individual lives.
  • Anything that encourages nurturing (tending a garden, interacting with children, sharing a skill or hobby with others) can foster self-worth and relevance while serving a social purpose.
  • It’s a long-researched fact that seniors who don’t have social connections are not as mentally or physically healthy as they could be. And they could cost the healthcare system (and themselves) tons down the road—not only in the cost of potential depression care, but also perhaps in the long-term personal cost of dementia.

So, that odd study about bees got my attention. What say you?

Topics: Activities , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Clinical , Executive Leadership