The anti-aging benefits of environmental enrichment

Aging is not just an irreversible disturbance of homeostasis but it can also be considered as a process where biological and functional complexity is progressively diminishing. With the passage of time, our systems and organs loose information and this makes us less able to function. As time-related damage accumulates, and the processes of repair become progressively less able to deal with this damage, organisms begin to experience dysfunction, degeneration and chronic clinical diseases. It stands to reason that, one possible way of remediating this loss of function is to (somehow) increase our biological complexity.

One way this can be achieved is through exposure to meaningful information which can, through various mechanisms, up-regulate many aspects of our biology, with a consequent improvement in function. This basic premise (that age-related loss of complexity may be counteracted by exposure to stimulation and information) has been studied in a variety of levels and under many different guises.

It is possible to increase exposure to meaningful information through mild and repeated challenges or mild stress, i.e. through a hormetic process. Here, a challenge is a situation that carries some biological value for an organism, so that the organism is inclined to act, and thus improve its fitness.

In medicine and biology hormesis is defined as ‘an adaptive response of cells and organisms following a moderate, intermittent challenge’. Hormesis describes phenomena where there is a low dose stimulation and high dose inhibition, and it suggests that nutritional, physical, mental and chemical challenges, if appropriately timed, may result in mild damage to the organism which upregulates repair mechanisms. In an attempt to repair this damage, age-related damage is also repaired. The concept of hormesis in aging has been discussed at some length by several scientists (for example here) including myself.

An additional way of increasing exposure to valuable information is based on an interesting concept, that of environmental enrichment. This concept has been studied initially with regards to animals in captivity such as zoos, but also in domestic animals with the aim of increasing productivity. In the initial experiments, animals in captivity were placed in a cage rich in visual, auditory and habitat-related stimuli. In later experiments, laboratory animals have been studied extensively using this method. However, the concept has also been applied on humans. The majority of experiments confirm that an enriched and stimulating environment (i.e. an information-rich habitat) has many positive effects on health, specifically on brain and immune function. This includes research published this month by several different laboratories.

It is possible to apply the principle of environmental enrichment on humans, and particularly modern humans living in a hyperconnected world and in modern megacities. This group of humanity is exposed to an environment which is rich (albeit sometimes excessively rich), in information, which may have a significant impact on our biology. Benefits include a wide variety of neurological effects, immunity enhancement, genetic and epigenetic changes, and behavioural improvements.

Is there any practical way we can benefit from this process? Both research and common sense say there is.

We can increase exposure to high quality information by enriching our environment in several ways, including personal through hyper-connection (see below), social, ambiental and cultural such as high exposure to technology and to new learning methods.

The overall aim is to find ways hereby humans, in a modern context, can harness the power of challenging information, and use it to upregulate their functional complexity (both in the biological and in the social sense). As a result, damage repair becomes maximised, the risk of dysfunction diminishes and the incidence and prevalence of age-related degeneration and disease is kept to a minimum.

Some social ways of enriching our environment include the construction of smart cities, expanding the notion of the Web of Things, and by developing new concepts in educational domains. This improves the information exchange between us and our surroundings and helps augment brain function, not just physically in individuals, but also virtually in society.

In a practical sense, we can help increase our own exposure to relevant information by:

  • Cultivating a robust social media base, in as many forums as possible
  • Be respected and valued within our virtual environment
  • Increase the number of our connections both in virtual (online) and in real terms (face to face)
  • Stay consistently visible online
  • Share meaningful information that requires action
  • Avoid the use of meaningless, trivial or outdated platforms
  • Increase the unity of our connections by using only one (user)name for all online and physical platforms.

These methods can help increase information-sharing and facilitate our integration within a hyperconnected society.

This methodology is conceptually different from many existing approaches which depend on physical, pharmacological, genetic or cellular methods and other disruptive technologies for defying aging. The essential characteristic of this methodology is that it is less based on physical items and more on environmental and virtual elements. The method can be used by anybody, and it will, perhaps inevitably, progressively become more widespread as we are increasingly engaged with technology. Thus, there is a definite connection between technology and information on one hand, and health and aging on the other.

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