Age-related medicine is attracting huge amounts of funding. Our knowledge of the ageing process is advancing so rapidly that many futurologists believe that the first person to live to 200 has already been born. In this article, we look at how advances in science might mean we could treat ageing like it was a disease we could cure.
It’s a bold claim in the title but our understanding of the ageing process has progressed in leaps and bounds. Researchers working in the field believe that we can now slow down the ageing process and may even be able to turn back the clock.
Why We Age
The man at the centre of much of the research is Professor David Sinclair. he set out to understand ageing, his research going on to win many awards. He also managed to increase the lifespan of mice, with one ageing rodent managing to break the lab treadmill.
In his latest book Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To Sinclair says that ageing is easier to cure than cancer and curing ageing will minimise the harm that cancer does. His claims are based on seeing ageing as information theory, in which ageing occurs because cells make increasingly poor copies of themselves. Much like copying old fashioned cassette tapes each copy is slightly worse than the previous.
As mistakes accumulate they can cause tumours, collapsed capillaries and “this loss of information is what leads each of us into a world of heart disease, cancer, pain, frailty and death,” says Sinclair. Seeing as we are yet to work out how to get cells to make perfect copies of themselves, he feels that we can correct the mistakes.
The key to this is a class of enzymes called sirtuins which can boost the strength of cells. Sirtuins are activated by a molecule called NAD and the geriatric mouse that broke the treadmill had so much in its system that its blood vessels were healthy and young and so full oxygen that it felt like running forever.
Sinclair points to another compound NMN that is already available as a supplement and is derived from vitamin B3 or niacin to you and me. Sinclair himself takes 250mg of NMN a day and the potential health benefits have led to a huge rush of research on its effects. Sinclair’s anecdotal evidence makes for interesting reading.
Sinclair started giving it to his father when his dad was 70, had just lost his wife, and was anticipating a slow decline; he’s now 80, going on dates and international flights and hiking such long distances that Sinclair can barely keep up. Sinclair also started giving NMN to his 10-year-old poodle crossbreed Charlie, who worked as a therapy dog in hospitals — but no more, because the invigorated pup now has too much energy to sit still for patients.
Sinclair also recommends a compound found in red wine called resveratrol. The effects of this compound is why red wine is often considered to be good for you. Researchers have known for many years that resveratrol can lower blood pressure but it seems to boost NAD in the body. What’s more, it’s also found in red grape juice and in boiled peanuts.
As more money is poured into research into ageing Sinclair believes that this will eventually filter down into treatments you could get from your doctor. He cites the example of the drug Metformin. Although commonly prescribed for diabetes it has been found to have anti-ageing properties. However, doctors are unwilling to prescribe it for this use, yet.
Further down the line, he predicts that patients will be given a designer virus that can literally reprogramme your DNA to be young again.
You’d take a course of injections around age 30, then when you start to feel the effects of ageing in your mid-40s, a course of antibiotics will wake the virus up. That would turn on genes that would literally turn the clock back on your body — un-greying hair, removing wrinkles, even regenerating organs. “Like Benjamin Button, you would feel 35 again, then 30, then 25,” Sinclair writes. At that point, you take a second antibiotic to turn off the fountain of youth lest it reverse ageing too far.
What We Can Do About Ageing Now?
Sinclair says that there are a bunch of drugs in the pipeline that he can’t talk about but he says they “will make what we have today look like doctors using leeches.”
Until this future arrives there are things that we should all be doing and it’s no surprise that these are diet and exercise. Raising your heart rate for an hour on a regular basis can be hugely beneficial. Also subjecting your body to extreme temperature changes, think sauna followed by a plunge into cold water has been shown to increase the lifespan of creatures in the lab.
So until the future of designer viruses arrives getting your diet right and putting the body under the right amount of stress helps can really help the anti-ageing process.