The Biggest Question: How Long Can We Live?

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Dear Reviewer,

For more than a decade, a widely criticized computer genius turned biologist has been at the forefront of attempts to turn back the clock on aging. His name is Aubrey de Grey. He’s the head of science and research at the SENS Research Foundation in Britain and the editor of a significant journal called Rejuvenation Research.

To put it far too simply, de Grey has made a list of all the things that we think cause aging, such as the shortening of telomeres, the caps on our DNA that protect it but which erode every time a cell reproduces itself. He is focusing on seven different types of cell and molecule damage that occur as humans age and is trying to create a good strategy to deal with each of them. De Grey believes, again simply put, that there are sound biological reasons we age and that each of them can be overcome. Humans, he thinks, should be able to live indefinitely.

Although de Grey has been widely sneered at within the scientific establishment for his ideas, the mainstream is slowly swinging his way. An entirely new concept about how to tackle our most serious killers — heart disease, cancer and neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — is beginning to emerge.

The new thinking is that we should stop spending so much time and money going after 500 different types of cancers and various neurological diseases and brilliant designs for arterial stents and instead focus our efforts on the cause of all these diseases — aging itself.

Last month, the journal Science devoted an entire issue to the idea and called it “Why We Age.” As the special issue makes perfectly clear, we are closing in on many strategies that we know can put off the effects of aging, some obvious and some quite recently discovered. Among them are:

  • Eating a lot less. We know that when we restrict the number of calories animals and people consume, they live longer and healthier lives.
  • Diabetic drugs that help control insulin levels: When normal mice are given metformin and acarbose, they live longer.
  • Rapamycin, an anti-fungal agent discovered on Easter Island in 1975, has been found to inhibit cell proliferation and to especially inhibit a significant protein kinase called mTOR. A lot of cancers occur because of disruptions from mTOR-generated proteins. Rapamycin is also effective at suppressing the immune system. There are more than a hundred cancer trials underway using various versions of the drug.
  • Exercise: The trouble is it takes a lot of it to extend life span — probably an hour a day seven days a week. Most people, especially as they age, will simply not exercise as much as they should. Studies are underway developing drugs that increase the effects of exercise at lower levels.
  • Drugs that stop mitochondrial deterioration — a lot of the free-radical theory of aging that involves anti-oxidants has been debunked, but changes and dysfunction in the mitochondria in cells (the bits in cells that produce energy) is a significant factor in diseases of aging and aging itself.
  • Getting control of hormones. A growing body of understanding of how hormones regulate the body is leading to drugs that can change what hormones do and how they do it. Recent experiments injecting the blood of young mice (and their hormones) in older mice has shown important results.

It’s amazing just to look at all the institutes that are under the National Institutes of Health and how all of them, except one, are focused on fixing specific diseases instead of the major cause of almost all of them — aging: There’s the National Cancer Institute; the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and the National Eye Institute. And… oh, yes, the National Institute on Aging, where instead of focusing on causes of aging, the researchers there have spent half their funds this year on one disease — Alzheimer’s.

There is no question that because of these institutes people are living longer. But they are not living longer better. They simply accumulate more and more diseases that modern medicine can “manage” to some extent as they age.

For the first time, NIH has decided to do something about this imbalance. It’s not much, but it’s a start. They have, of course, created a new word for it — Geroscience — and a type of institute — the NIH Geroscience Interest Group. The idea is to use talent in the other institutes to collaboratively discover the mechanisms of aging itself.

Laboratory experiments have shown that delaying the rate of aging would slow down the rate of all the other diseases being funded at NIH. An example of what a Geroscience approach could do offered up in Science’s special issue on aging is the use of vaccines, almost all of which are highly effective among young people because that’s the age group they are designed for. Focusing on vaccines for older immune systems could add years of healthy life.

The big trial to watch in the next few years is called TAME, for Targeting Aging With Metformin. It is enrolling people with one age-related malady to see if other age-related diseases can be warded off by the drug. Time will tell.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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