Science vs. the Aging Process
or thousands of years, people have sought to escape or outrun their mortality with potions, pills and elixirs, often blended with heavy doses of hope and will.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king searched for the secret of immortality after the death of his best friend. At least three Chinese emperors in the Tang dynasty died after consuming treatments containing lead and mercury that they hoped would make them immortal. In the late 19th century, a French-American physiologist seemed to have found the elixir of life by injecting the elderly and himself with extracts from animal testicles.
Despite this enduring quest, most scientists say we are no closer to eternal life today than we were all those years ago. The word immortality elicits a mixture of laughter and earnest explanations about the difference between science and science fiction.
Conversations about longevity, however, are an entirely different story. Researchers are optimistic about recent efforts to delay the effects of aging and, perhaps, extend life spans.
But at the same time, the scientific community is wary of how quickly these findings are packaged and resold by companies promising a fountain of youth. «It’s probably worse today than it’s ever been», said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. «As soon as the scientists publish any glimmer of hope, the hucksters jump in and start selling».
Understanding the process of aging and developing treatments that might slow the rate at which people grow old could help doctors keep patients healthy longer. We won’t be able to stop or reverse aging, but researchers are interested in slowing its progress, such that one year of clock time might not equal a year of biological time for the body. That could delay the onset of diseases like cancer, strokes, cardiovascular disease and dementia, which become more prevalent as people age.
«By targeting fundamental aging processes, we might be able to delay the major age-related chronic diseases instead of picking them off one at time», said Dr. James Kirkland, a professor of aging research and head of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic. «For example, we don’t want to have situation where we, say, cure cancer and then people die six months later of Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke. It would be better to delay all of these things together».
This is where the field known as the biology of aging is moving — to develop drugs that will increase life span and what researchers refer to as health span, the period of life when people are able to live independently and free from disease.
Dr. Kirkland said that at least six drugs had been written up in peer-reviewed journals and that he knew of about 20 others that appear to affect life span or health span in mice. The goal is to see if those benefits can be translated into humans to increase their longevity, «to find interventions that we can use in people that might, say, make a person who’s 90 feel like they’re 60 or a person who’s 70 feel like they’re 40 or 50».
Other researchers are studying centenarians, seeking to understand whether certain genes have carried them past 100 years old and kept them in good health.
«Everybody knows someone who’s 60 who looks like he’s 50, or someone 60 who looks 70», said Dr. Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine who is currently studying centenarians and their children. «Intuitively, we understand that we age at different rates, so the question is, really, “What’s the biological or genetic difference between those who age quickly and those who age slowly?”» Drugs that mimic the effect of those genes might be beneficial to the rest of the population not born with them.
Dr. Barzilai said that as a scientist his goal wasn’t to help people live longer, but to live healthier, although he did occasionally get emails from people interested in how his work might benefit their quest to live forever. He doesn’t respond — he says he has nothing to offer them.
The global anti-aging industry was worth $195 billion in 2013 and was projected to grow to $275 billion by 2020, according to the market research firm Global Industry Analysts. Products include beauty creams, Botox, dietary supplements and prescription medications, not all of which seek to reverse aging as much as minimize its visible effects.
Dr. Olshansky points to resveratrol supplements and human growth hormones as products that are marketed as having anti-aging benefits soon after initial scientific studies suggest promising results. But resveratrol, often made from the skin of red grapes, is still being studied and commercially available products are premature, he said. Growth hormones are a more severe risk, he said, because they can actually be dangerous for those who take them.
Dr. Barzilai noted that many of the centenarians he studied had naturally lower levels or activity of growth hormones. «We think that’s important for their survival», he said.
Other dietary supplements promise to help consumers reverse the aging clock. Such products aren’t required to prove their effectiveness or safety with the Food and Drug Administration before their sale, although the F.D.A. can take action against products that have misleading labels or that claim to treat diseases.
After being approached to sell a line of supplements, Melanie Young, a health coach who advises clients on weight and stress management, decided to try a series of products that promised to protect her body against the «ravages of aging». She’d recently survived breast cancer and left behind a public relations and event management career. «A lot of health coaches supplement their own income by selling supplements», she said.
She thought the company, which she didn’t want to name, had «all the right science». But the half-dozen pills she took each morning and evening didn’t improve her energy as promised; they instead left her feeling dizzy. She quickly stopped taking them and told her clients to eat a balanced diet to get the nutrition they needed.
«People are aware of the aging process, and they want to interfere», Dr. Barzilai said, but he said he thought it was a mistake to turn to Internet remedies. «Some are causing harm. Some, maybe, you couldn’t care less, and some might be even good, but we don’t know that».
It is a message Dr. Olshansky echoes, instead of spending money on aging «fixes», he suggests that people accept the bland prescription doctors have been offering for decades: a healthy diet and exercise. «You don’t need to spend money», he said. «Maybe a good pair of running or walking shoes would work. Exercise is roughly the only equivalent of a fountain of youth that exists today, and it’s free to everyone».
Tracey Samuelson is a reporter for Marketplace based in New York. A version of this special report appears in print on November 19, 2014, on page F5 of the New York edition with the headline: Science (and Quacks) vs. the Aging Process.