Jane Glenn Haas
August 24, 2010
Scientists are claiming the discovery of molecules that controls aging. But not all of us are made the same way.
Or, as science writer David Stipp says, "It's hard to live past 90 without getting lucky in the genes game."
After years of study and reporting, he notes that no one seems to know what type of lifestyle centenarians live. Some eat a lot of cholesterol. Others exercise.
"About the only common thread is that today's centenarians have zero alcoholism. Too much alcohol will shorten your life for sure."
Still, there is hope that within our lifetimes, researchers will find a way to give us "bonus years" of good health.
Stipp is the author of "The Youth Pill," a new book that focuses on gene mutations that can double animals' lifespans.
Q. You say there's a difference between "snake-oil claims" and serious anti-aging science?
A. Nothing out there today is proven to work as anti-aging medication. People are rightly cynical about these claims.
But serious science has made huge progress in recent decades, and I'm pretty confident we are closer to discovering medications that will slow aging.
I'm not talking about anti-aging to rejuvenate your body. I'm not particularly interested in that. I'm interested in stuff that slows the rate of aging.
Q. Can you give me an example?
A. There are several in my book, but one is a landmark moment a year ago that studied the effect of rapamycin in mice.
Thanks to resveratrol, which is found in red wine, there are signals that middle-aged mice on high fat diets delayed formation of aging ailments. But the bottom line is that resveratrol, scientists reported, does not increase longevity in normally fed mice.
Now there is a study that indicates rapamycin extends the life span in mice that were started on the drug at about 20 months of age - roughly equivalent to a 60-year-old person.
This is really a break-through point. Now we know what molecule in the body the drug tweaks and that opens the door to tweak with other drugs. It may well do in humans what it does in mice.
It is only a matter of time before we learn how to slow aging at a molecular level.
Q. But you say it depends on money?
A. Yes, we spend hugely more on finding medications to cope with the diseases of aging than studying basic aging itself.
The way we are buying time now is generally through geriatric medications, using medications that are, at best, palliative. And we use them late in the game, when it's too late to do much good.
Q. My favorite part of your book is the " George Burns Scenario." The debate about whether spending money to let people live longer well is good for society or not. There are honest debates about health care and retirement costs, which, as you say, may be substantially greater than projected if people extend their lives with drugs in coming years.
A. I just don't see economic disaster ahead. One of the main things that deters employers from hiring older works is their risk of high health costs. If that were changed, people could work longer, for example.
But the only player in a position to move the anti-aging quest forward in a fast, focused way is the federal government. There's an initial cost, but I think a long-range benefit to society.
As George Burns, who lived to be 100, said, "You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old."