Ames can confidently claim that 41 vitamins and minerals can ensure healthy aging because of “Triage Theory,” a hypothesis he described in a 2006 PNAS study. It states that when the body runs low on a certain vitamin or mineral, it’s forced to make a decision about how to use its meager supply: Should it be used to fix immediate issues, or should it be used to keep everything else running smoothly? Ames believes that if the body is always well-supplied, it should never have to make that choice.
Take magnesium, for example: If a person is deficient, the body might funnel its remaining stores into fixing a problem like a cramp, which can be caused by magnesium deficiency. But by doing this, the body isn’t using magnesium to help fight other, less immediate issues, like DNA damage, which causes cells to age and die in the longer term.
“That’s an old theory of aging: that there are tradeoffs between reproduction and maintenance of the body,” Ames says.
In 2009, a team at Ames’ lab illustrated triage theory in action by demonstrating that enzymes dependent on vitamin K are more essential to life than others. This observation led him to theorize that the body prioritizes those enzymes over others when resources are scarce. In the study, mice with a simulated vitamin K deficiency were able to maintain essential blood clotting functions but couldn’t protect against heart disease.
Ames laments that the rest of the field hasn’t replicated his study for other vitamins. “We figured that people in each field would do their own vitamin or mineral, but no one really has since we did ours,” he says.
Jeffery Blumberg, Ph.D., a professor who studies the biochemistry of antioxidants at Tufts University’s Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, is on board with Ames’ theory.
“A novel hypothesis that can explain a lot of what we know about the problems of poor nutrition during pregnancy and the first two years of life increasing the risk for chronic diseases in later life,” Blumberg tells Inverse.