Conversations about extending life usually veer toward wild ideas like cryopreservation, which is currently the subject of both high-profile fiction (Zero K by Don DeLillo) and high-profile reality (Alcor allegedly counts Peter Thiel as a member). While that solution may turn out to be a viable option, the important conversations about aging happening right now focus on the idea of improving health span, or increasing the number of healthy and functional years of life. These conversations aren’t at the fringes of science: From labs at MIT and Harvard to institutes and startups with major investors, the science of aging is progressing rapidly — and the solutions for turning back the clock are at once more banal and stranger than fiction.
“There are a lot of people out there making wild predictions,” says Brian Kennedy, PhD, CEO and President of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, which has 19 labs focused on age-related research and what Kennedy describes as the “largest aggregate of research focused directly on aging.” His approach to describing the possibilities of extending health span is more conservative: to characterize what is believable in the present. “What we can do in a mouse is extend its lifespan and health span by thirty percent,” Kennedy says. “Let’s set that as a goal. If we can achieve that, imagine how huge that would be. That’s about twenty extra years of health at the end of your life. How valuable is that?”
While research is incredibly complex, the basic underlying premise of the work at the Buck Institute and elsewhere is that aging is associated with a variety of chronic diseases — things like cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease — and that if you can understand how they’re related you can intervene with a combination of lifestyle choices and drugs to prevent disease rather than treat it when it’s already wreaking havoc on the body.
And this science is useful right now. These tips for living a longer, healthier life are a combination of actionable intelligence and future possibilities.
Eat healthier, and less. “Most people now agree that, at least for most of your life, probably the healthiest diets are close to vegetarian,” Kennedy says. “Lots of vegetables and fruits, low red meat, low dairy for most people, and very limited processed sugars.” He also points out that most people in developed countries eat way too much: “I’m six-foot-one and one-hundred-ninety pounds. Someone my size should eat two-thousand-two-hundred calories a day; in the US, someone my size is eating three-thousand-eight-hundred calories a day. Almost everyone can agree that finding a way to get sustainably down to the FDA recommended caloric intake is going to be good for you.”
Exercise. Regular cardiovascular exercise and resistance- or weight-related training has been linked to everything from lowering blood pressure and body fat (both good for heart health) to reducing the risk of diabetes, cancer and stroke. One study from the Buck Institute found that resistance training reversed aging in human skeletal muscle — not just making the older men and women in the study stronger, but leading to a “remarkable reversal of the genetic fingerprint back to levels seen in the younger adults.”
Meditate. Kennedy admits that it’s hard to quantify the positive benefits of meditation because it’s difficult to do, for meditation, the types of animal and human studies typically done for diet and exercise — but he feels strongly that it’s linked to aging. “It’s not the amount of stress you’re exposed to in life but how you manage it,” he says, “whether through meditation or yoga or, in my case, running.”
David Gobel, co-founder (along with Aubrey de Grey) and CEO of the Methuselah Foundation, which focuses on extending health span by funding research into regenerative medicine, agrees that stress reduction is important for longevity. “Get out of debt as soon as you can and stay out of debt,” he says, to eliminate “obligation, slavery and a loss of control.”
Take supplements. Supplement companies have a bad reputation for putting ingredients that are at best useless and at worst poisonous on the shelves of GNC. But there’s a new category of credible supplements emerging. Elysium Health, which counts as one of its founders Dr. Leonard Guarente, head of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Science of Aging Research at MIT, and has a scientific board consisting of six Nobel Laureates, sells monthly subscriptions to a product called Basis. Basis contains two ingredients — nicotinamide riboside and pterostilbene — which, in a nutshell, may help sustain cellular health (and thus, overall health) as we age. Clinical trials are underway.
Take drugs. Actually, because the FDA doesn’t consider aging a disease, the path to approval for a drug that targets aging is unclear. Nevertheless, there are both existing and forthcoming drugs that may help prevent disease associated with aging. One is metformin, a drug that moderates high glucose levels, a major risk factor for diabetes. “What people have found is that metformin looks like it’s preventing other chronic diseases of aging, too,” Kennedy says. “And the reason for that, I think, is that it’s hitting a couple of the major aging pathways.” While Kennedy wouldn’t suggest that you start taking it today, he says that a three- to five-year clinical trial in humans will soon be underway. “I think after that, or even halfway through if the data looks really good, it might be worth thinking about that for the healthy population.”
Arguably the most promising drug is called rapamycin, which is currently approved by the FDA as an immunosuppressant, but which has been shown to reverse age-related heart disease and prevent Parkinson’s, among other things, in mice. Rapamycin has side effects, though, so the Buck Institute is currently working on modifying the drug to find derivatives without the toxicities.
Clean out the junk. As we get older, between 5 and 10 percent our tissue cells lose the ability to divide and go into a state known as senescence. Not only are they no longer useful, but the Buck Institute’s Dr. Judith Campisi discovered that these cells secrete inflammatory cytokines and other factors that infect neighboring cells. “You may only need ten percent of the cells to be senescent to impact the whole tissue or even impact other tissues through the bloodstream,” Kennedy says. Based on this research, Campisi founded Unity Biotechnology to translate the research into medicine that will target and clear out senescent cells.
Get new organs. “You can get parts for a 1962 Corvair or a 1929 Bugatti, but can you get a new heart?” Gobel says. “Some people would say, ‘Sure you can.’ But it’s a junkyard heart that doesn’t fit you.” Instead of transplants, Gobel suggests that we’re roughly 15 years out from being able to make new organs from our own cells. To that end, Methuselah invests in Organovo, a company that makes three-dimensional bioprinting technology to build living human tissues.
Get fresh blood. A series of studies in mice suggests that injecting the blood of young mice into older mice could rejuvenate the latter. So why not in humans? Monterey, California-based startup Ambrosia, founded by Jesse Karmazin, is currently conducting a clinical trial to test the effects of infusing blood plasma from people under the age of 25 into people 35 and older.