Is There a Cure for Aging?
Why some researchers are hopeful about human immortality.
By Sonya Collins, Medically reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD, February 10, 2021
Heart disease. Cancer. Diabetes. Dementia.
Researchers spend billions of dollars every year trying to eradicate these medical scourges.
Yet even if we discover cures to these and all other chronic conditions, it won’t change our ultimate prognosis: death.
“That’s because you haven’t stopped aging,” says Jay Olshansky, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
But what if we could? What if we are trying to extend longevity in the wrong way? Instead of focusing on diseases, should we take aim at aging itself?
Some scientists think so. Fueled in part by a billion dollars of investor money, they are attempting to reverse-engineer your molecular biological clock. Their goal? To eliminate not merely diseases that kill people, but to prevent death itself.
Hacking the Code for Immortality
Aubrey de Grey, PhD, a biomedical gerontologist, has drawn wide attention for his belief that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old is already among us.
He believes there’s no cap on how long we can live, depending on what medicines we develop in the future.
“The whole idea is that there would not be a limit on how long we can keep people healthy,” de Grey says. He’s the chief science officer and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, which funds research on how to put the brakes on aging.
De Grey’s view, in theory, isn’t so far-fetched.
Scientists have studied the immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii. It’s the only animal that can cheat death by reverting from adulthood back to its polyp stage when threatened with danger or starvation.
Other clues to possible eternal life also may exist underwater. Certain marine clams can live more than 500 years. And lobsters stock a seemingly limitless supply of a youthful enzyme that has some scientists wondering if the crustacean, under the best conditions, just might live forever.
Among humans, researchers have been studying “super-agers” — people who not only live exceptionally long, but also do so without many of the chronic diseases that plague their peers. That’s even though they share some of the same bad habits as everyone else.
“They are making it past the age of 80 with their minds completely intact. That’s what’s so unusual,” Olshansky says. The rest of their bodies are doing better than those of average 80-year-olds, too.
People who reached ages 95 to 112 got cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and stroke up to 24 years later than those with average lifespans, data show. Figuring out why might pave the way for targeted gene therapy to mimic the DNA of these nonagenarians and centenarians.
“There’s likely to be secrets contained within their genome that are eventually discovered that will help us develop therapeutic interventions to mimic the effects of decelerated aging,” Olshansky says.
Treating aging this way may offer a bigger payoff than targeting individual diseases. That’s because even if you manage to dodge any illnesses, there’s ultimately no escaping old age.
“Longevity is a side effect of health,” de Grey says. “If we can keep people healthy, then their likelihood of dying is reduced.”
Aging as a Preventable Condition
In 2015, Michael Cantor was prescribed metformin for prediabetes. Once that was under control, his doctor said Cantor could quit the drug. But Cantor had heard about studies testing it as an anti-aging drug. The 62-year-old Connecticut-based attorney asked if he could stay on it. A year ago Cantor’s wife, Shari, who is mayor of West Hartford, CT, started to take metformin, too.
“I read the articles, they made a lot of sense to me, and with the number of people that have been taking this drug worldwide for decades, I felt like there was nothing to lose,” he says.
The couple can’t say if their daily doses have led to any changes in how they look or feel. After all, they’re taking the pills not to treat current ailments but to prevent ones in the future.
They may have answers soon. Nir Barzilai, MD, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, is leading a study that hopes to prove aging is a preventable health condition. The TAME (Targeting Aging with Metformin) study is designed to do this by demonstrating that metformin, a cheap and widely prescribed pill for diabetes, may also be an anti-aging elixir…