Are scientists on the brink of discovering the elixir of youth? That is the tantalising question raised by research published this week. Scientists in Boston, US, claim to have extended significantly the lives of a pack of ageing rodents by feeding them antioxidant dietary supplements – acetyl – L – carnitine and alpha lipoic acid – that are available in health food shops.

“With these two supplements together, these old rats got up and did the Macarena,” said Professor Bruce Ames from Berkeley’s University of California. “This is the equivalent to making a 75 to 80 year old person act middle- aged.”

This research is based on reversing the damaging effects of oxidation. Every active cell acts like a furnace, giving off heat and a highly reactive – or ‘hot’ – version of oxygen. This oxygen can cause cumulative damage to surrounding tissues – anything that slows down the damage should lead to increased longevity. The antioxidants, as used by professor Ames, soak up and neutralise the damaging oxygen emitted by the cells.

The rewards to the scientist who succeeds in developing something capable of being marketed as an ‘elixir of youth’ would be huge and the demand for it greater than that for any previous drug.

But while we wait for scientists to turn fantasy into reality we can all help to increase our individual life expectancies by eating the right foods, cutting out tobacco and alcohol and exercising regularly.