"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Could the fountain of youth be your faucet?

Feb. 18, 2011
Courtesy of Frie­drich Schil­ler Uni­vers­ity Je­na
and World Science staff

A sub­stance in tap wa­ter may pro­mote longe­vity, sci­en­tists say: a study in Ja­pan found that peo­ple live long­er where tap wa­ter has more of the el­e­ment, lith­i­um.

Re­search­ers stud­ied 18 Ja­panese cit­ies with tap-wa­ter lith­i­um con­centra­t­ions meas­ured to range from less than one mil­lionths of a gram per li­ter, to 59 mil­lionths. 

Kim Zarse of Je­na Uni­ver­si­ty checks a round­worm un­der a mi­cro­scope. The an­i­mal's im­age ap­pears on the com­put­er screen at right. (Jan-Peter Kas­per/U­ni­ver­si­ty Je­na)

This anal­y­sis could­n't show cause-and-ef­fect rela­t­ion­ships be­tween the lith­i­um and the long life, the sci­en­tists cau­tioned. That is, they could­n't rule out that, say, some third fac­tor leads to both more lith­i­um in water and long­er life. So to check for a cause-and-ef­fect rela­t­ion­ship, they stud­ied ef­fects of lith­i­um in round­worms and found that the ti­ny an­i­mals al­so lived long­er.

“The sci­en­tif­ic com­mun­ity does­n't know much about the phys­i­o­logical func­tion of lith­i­um,” said proj­ect man­ager Mi­chael Ris­tow of Frie­drich Schil­ler Uni­vers­ity Je­na in Ger­ma­ny, one of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors. The sub­stance is one of many nu­tri­tional trace el­e­ments and comes into us mainly through veg­eta­bles and drink­ing wa­ter, re­search­ers say.

The new find­ings are pub­lished on­line in the Eu­ro­pe­an Jour­nal of Nu­tri­tion. Fur­ther re­search will be needed to find out wheth­er di­e­tary sup­ple­ments with lith­i­um make sense, Ris­tow said. He added that an ear­li­er U.S. study found that con­centrated lith­i­um pro­longed life by around 36 per­cent in the round­worm C. el­e­gans, but such a dos­age “may be poi­son­ous for hu­man be­ings.”

Ris­tow and col­leagues an­a­lyzed the mor­tal­ity rate in 18 cit­ies in one region of Ja­pan. “The mor­tal­ity rate was con­sid­erably low­er in those mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with more lith­i­um in the drink­ing wa­ter,” with the number of deaths per age and gender group dropping by over 10 per­cent, said Ris­tow. This de­crease was par­tially due to a low­er su­i­cide rate, he added, an as­pect of the study that con­firmed old­er find­ings and sug­gests low-dose lith­i­um may al­so im­prove men­tal health.

The sci­en­tists then ex­am­ined the same range of con­centra­t­ions in C. el­e­gans, of­ten used in an­i­mal stud­ies. “The av­er­age longe­vity of the worms is high­er af­ter they have been treated with lith­i­um at this dos­age,” Ris­tow said.

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A substance in tap water may promote longevity, scientists say: a study in Japan found that people live longer where tap water has more of the element, lithium. Researchers studied 18 Japanese cities with tap-water lithium concentrations measured to range from less than one millionths of a gram to 59 millionths. This analysis couldn't show cause-and-effect relationships between the lithium and the long life, the scientists cautioned: they couldn't rule out that, for instance, some third factor contributes to both higher lithium in tap water and longer life. So to check for a cause-and-effect relationship between lithium and longevity, they studied effects of lithium in roundworms and found that the tiny animals also lived longer. “The scientific community doesn't know much about the physiological function of lithium,“ project said Michael Ristow of Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, one of the investigators. The substance is one of many nutritional trace elements and is ingested mainly through vegetables and drinking water, researchers say. The new findings are published online in the European Journal of Nutrition. Further research will be needed to find out whether dietary supplements with lithium make sense, Ristow said. He added that an earlier U.S. study found that concentrated lithium prolonged life in the roundworm C. elegans, but that higher dosage “may be poisonous for human beings.“ Ristow and colleagues analyzed the mortality rate in 18 adjacent Japanese cities in relation to the amount of lithium contained in tap water from the respective regions. “The mortality rate was considerably lower in those municipalities with more lithium in the drinking water,“ said Ristow. This decrease was partially due to a lower suicide rate, he added, an aspect of the study that confirmed older findings and suggests low-dose lithium may also improve mental health. The scientists then examined the same range concentration of concentrations in the roundworm C. elegans, often used in animal studies. “The average longevity of the worms is higher after they have been treated with lithium at this dosage,“ Ristow said.