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Monday, November 22, 2021

Ageless: Can We Turn Back Time?

Will you live to celebrate your 120th birthday, where you’ll play a lively game of hide and seek with the great-grandkids? It could happen, according to the author of a recent book. 

Biologist and physicist Andrew Steele has penned a provocative book, Ageless: The new Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, that details how scientists are tackling the underlying causes of aging itself. The author defines aging as “the exponential increase in death and suffering with time,” and he insists we should “finally grapple with this raw quantity of suffering.”

“We’re all quite blind to its magnitude. But what do people die of? Cancer. Heart disease. Stroke. These things all occur in old people, and they primarily occur because of the aging process.” Rather than treat the individual diseases, Steele looks at a new field, biogerontology, that seeks to address the root causes of aging itself. “The dream of anti-aging medicine,” Steele writes, “is treatments that would identify the root causes of dysfunction as we get older, then slow their progression or reverse them entirely.”

Even before Ponce de Leon went searching for the fountain of youth, humankind has sought ways to extend life, to transcend the boundaries of our existence. But although lifespans have gradually lengthened, what Steele terms our “healthspan” has not. Hearing and eyesight usually dim, and aches and pains increase. The likelihood of dementia shoots up. 

Three Hallmarks of Aging

Aging has three underlying causes, called hallmarks. Scientists are looking at all three as ways to improve function in old age and expand lifespan.
  1. Genomic Instability. Genetic damage accumulates as we age; our DNA degrades. 
  2. Cellular Senescence. Old (senescent) cells build up in our bodies the older we get.
  3. Mitochondrial Dysfunction. Mitochondria gradually become less able to generate the energy needed by cells to power biochemical reactions.
“There’s this misconception when you talk to people about treating aging,” he says. “They imagine they’re going to live longer but in a state of terrible decrepitude, that you’re going to extend their 80s and 90s so they’re sat in a care home for 50 years. That doesn’t make sense from a logical perspective or a practical one.”


The book highlights four general areas of study: “removing bad things that accumulate,” “renewing things which are broken or lost,” “repairing things which are damaged or out of kilter” and “reprogramming our biology to slow or reverse aging.” Don’t let the layman’s language fool you; although written so that we can all understand the concepts, the book discusses the hard science behind them.

In the last 30 years, researchers have begun to make progress toward these goals. A 2015 study from Harvard showed that a drug regimen designed to remove senescent (old) cells in mice “reversed a number of signs of aging, including improving heart function.” A 2020 Texas study found elderly mice lived three months longer — 10 years in equivalent human time — after a stem cell transplant from young mice. 

Perhaps the most encouraging news is that human trials have started. Research is underway to remove senescent cells. Another study found that a drug/hormone combination appeared to rejuvenate the thymus, which is responsible for assisting the immune system. Diabetes drug metformin is being tested to see if it can retard the “development or progression of age-related chronic diseases — such as heart disease, cancer and dementia.”

Does any of this mean much to those of us who are becoming older adults right now? Steele thinks so. “I think we are very likely to have a drug that treats aging in the next 10 years.” Of course, a breakthrough drug won’t be able to extend our lives another 100 years right away. What it may do is allow us to live another 10 years, while subsequent advances in treatment increase both the quality and quantity of life, giving us yet more time. 

Steele theorizes about a generation that expects to die at 85, but then doesn’t. “One after another,” he writes in Ageless, “lifesaving medical breakthroughs will push their funerals further and further into the future.” Steele admits this sounds strange.

“The trouble is, saying we’re going to have 150-year-olds walking around looking like 20-year-olds, it’s weird. It sounds sci-fi. It sounds a bit creepy. Ultimately, I don’t want this because I want to have a load of 150-year-olds looking like 20-year-olds, I want it because those 150-year-olds won’t have cancer, they won’t have heart disease, they won’t be struggling with arthritis. They’ll still be playing with their grandkids, their great-grandkids even. It’s about the health and lifestyle benefits.”

Steele hopes to convince the public and officials in charge of funding that aging should be addressed. Regulators currently don’t consider it a disease, so it’s hard to find grants for trials. He admits that biogerontology raises some eyebrows. “It sounds strange,” he says. “We place aging research in this separate category — socially, morally, ethically, even scientifically, when actually, it’s just an extension of the normal goals of modern medicine.”

What You Can Do Now

So, will you be able to find a cure or two in the book’s pages? Unfortunately, no. Steele himself has reassessed his lifestyle, but not to take a handful of pills or supplements every day. He runs more than before, and he’s careful about what he eats. “It seems that a lot of the sort of basic health advice that everyone can recite — do some exercise, don’t be overweight, try to eat a broad range of foods, don’t smoke –—all that stuff basically slows down the aging process,” he says.

What about metformin and supplements? “Given that I’m in my 30s, I think the case against metformin is stronger than the case for,” Steele says. “The evidence is suggestive, but it’s not conclusive. And there’s a spectrum. There are people who are experimenting with senolytics. There was the case of the biotech CEO who went to Colombia and had gene therapy. But the data in humans just isn’t there.” The author adds that “the same is true of so many of these supplements and health foods. If any of these things did have a substantial effect, we’d know about it.”

But what happens if people quit dying? How will the framework of our lives change if we no longer have the typical progression famously defined in the riddle of the Sphinx? Steele has an answer. “Because death is inevitable people have rationalized it as something that drives life, or gives life meaning, or adds some sort of poetry to the human condition. But I think, broadly speaking, death is bad. If there was less death in the world, I think most people would agree that was a good thing. And though my passion for treating aging isn’t driven by reducing the amount of death, it’s driven by reducing ill health in later life, it’s driven by conquering disease, it’s driven by getting rid of suffering. If there’s less death as a side-effect? I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”