Healthspan Happenings: Queen Bees, Drinking Dilemmas, and Missing Mistakes

Drinking Dilemma

Welcome back to Healthspan Happenings, our weekly rundown of what’s going on in the world of longevity research and the science of aging. This week, we’re talking about how queen bees defy aging, how alcohol consumption effects healthspan, and how older adults deal with making mistakes.


If the Queen’s longevity makes you want to scream, “Long Live the Queen”…


You could actually be talking about queen bees. The relatively long lifespan of a queen bee could be attributed to her microbiome—or the bacteria in her gut—according to researchers at the University of Arizona. Their findings suggest that probiotic bacteria could extend the lives of bees and (hopefully) humans too.

The lifespan of a worker bee is a buzz kill compared to that of the queen. Worker bees usually live for a number of weeks, but the queen bee can live for years. The recent study showed that harmful bacteria outnumbered worker bees’ probiotic microbes as they aged—similar to what happens in humans over time.

Surprisingly, queen bees managed to run a tighter ship. They maintained higher levels of probiotic microbes in their guts over longer periods of time than the worker bees. This maintenance, researchers believe, increases the queen’s longevity exponentially. We don’t actually know the ins-and-outs of the mechanism yet, but this research could mean that the naked mole rat—basically longevity royalty—is in good company with the queen bee!


If your preferred toast is “To good health”…


You’re riding a fine line between “needs further research” and wishful thinking. A new study has garnered a large—and oversimplified—media response, which boils down to this: drinking in middle age might reduce dementia risk. The study found that people who drank a moderate amount of alcohol in middle life had fewer cases of dementia in later life than those who abstained or drank heavily. However, researchers didn’t actually claim causality or have enough information to do so.

This London-based study followed over 9,000 London civil servants beginning in 1985. By aggregating participants’ medical history data, researchers discovered that middle-aged teetotalers were 45% more likely to develop dementia than those who consumed alcohol within healthy limits. The results seem striking, but it doesn’t prove or even suggest that alcohol protects against dementia. Instead of looking at alcohol consumption, we might better understand the connection by investigating other factors. Perhaps moderate drinking is a sign of other social determinants in action.


If you think older adults are stuck in their ways…


You’re overlooking the complexity of the situation. Older adults had a harder time recognizing when they made mistakes than younger participants, according to a study by the University of Iowa. These older adults kept up with their younger counterparts when completing tasks. However, they noticed their own errors far fewer times.

Researchers verified their behavioral observations by tracking subjects’ pupil dilation. Like most animals, humans’ eyes dilate in the face of surprise or fear—even the fear of making a mistake. Younger participants’ pupils dilated when they recognized a mistake, but older adults’ eyes didn’t dilate as much. Sometimes they didn’t dilate at all, signaling that the older participants didn’t recognize that they had erred.

We must be cautious when equating biological deterioration with sociological conditioning. We already know that society stigmatizes aging. People treat the elderly as incapable if they can’t perform in certain ways. Another reason why older adults are less likely to recognize their mistakes? They may think that the more mistakes they make, the higher the risk of losing independence and agency.