Category: longevity

Living Forever Will Only Benefit Humanity If We’re Also Healthy Forever

Modern Longevity Research

For humans, we are still very far from the possibility of achieving immortality (or anything remotely close to it). However, we’re continuously extending our lifespan, and as scientists work on the potential to overcome aging, longevity research has come into vogue. As science, medicine, and technology all bloom (and those able to invest in biotechnology age), more and more entrepreneurs are focusing on mortality and longevity. And currently, signs of progress in the quest to extend human life are everywhere. Nations such as Japan are redefining what “elderly” means as more citizens pass retirement age and fewer families have children. One group of scientists is even pushing to have aging itself reclassified as a disease, and there is an ongoing debate in the community about whether there is ultimately a limit to how long humans can live.

Startups combining longevity and artificial intelligence (AI) research to find a “cure” for aging are gaining traction and funding. Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for its genome project and some Silicon Valley innovators even see death as “optional.” Of course, no one really wants to live forever if they’re sick in bed, or devastatingly tired or suffering in too much pain to enjoy their extra time. Tacking on extra years or even decades might not be worth it if those spans of time are filled with severe Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis. Researchers are now exploring longevity in new ways and changing how we think about aging. They are focusing on the health span rather than the lifespan alone, and on how to care for neurons, mitochondria, and other components of the human body that appear to control how we cope (or fail to cope) with age and disease.

Image Credit: geralt/Pixabay
Image Credit: Geralt/Pixabay

From animal studies on caloric restriction, scientists have discovered several biological pathways that are likely central to aging, corresponding to growth and inflammation, among other processes. Now they are focusing drug research in these areas, which has led to promising results with  drugs like rapamycin which has extended life in lab animals. Researchers have also analyzed the genetics of human “super-agers” who live into their 100s while remaining healthy throughout their lives. However, there are many factors involved in this complex process and it is exceedingly difficult to get real long-term data from humans.

Forests and Trees

Some scientists are recognizing that even technologies incapable (right now) of increasing the health span of all humans need to be discussed right now. For example, CRISPR might be a viable life extension tool someday; eventually we might be prepared to more deeply explore bioethical issues once we’re ready to use the tool in advanced ways. Recent research on a worm that has survived for millions of years without sexual reproduction by cloning itself also presents a fascinating — and ethically fraught — area for discussion. These won’t be the only ethical challenges we face should we significantly extend the human lifespan. Economic disparity, hunger, and overpopulation, for example, are already massive issues for humans all over the world. Longer lifespans would only heighten these inequities without necessarily drawing more attention to them. Ironically, this closer focus on aging may also allow us (or force us) to rethink our medical system as a whole, and transform our way of thinking from a reactionary school of thought that focuses on illnesses to a preventative model that focuses on wellness. If so, this will have broader benefits for everyone, regardless of life and health spans.

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Researchers Are Finding Remarkable Ways to Combat Aging and Extend Human Health

Can We Be Forever Young?

The idea of never growing old is seductive, but it has remained a pipe-dream throughout history. However, that may not be the case for much longer as the scientific community has seen a surge in anti-aging research in recent years. All across the globe, researchers are now exploring different methods to combat aging and extend human health span (the number of years of good health a person experiences).

The avenue that is arguably generating the most support involves telemores. These are the “caps” that sit on the ends of chromosomes. They provide protection for the DNA molecules, and their length has been linked to good health. Unfortunately, they shrink with every division until they can no longer protect the cell and it dies or damages surrounding cells through senescence.

So far, the research on telemores has been promising. Maria Blasco of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre used gene therapy to extend the telemores in mice, which led to a 40 percent increase in lifespan.

Meanwhile Helen Blau, Director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology at Stanford, modified the RNA of skin cells to increase telemore length. This caused the cells to divide up to 40 more times than their untreated counterparts did before dying or stagnating.

Another promising avenue of anti-aging research involved targeting senescent cells. These cells pump out chemicals as they deteriorate that are damaging to their neighboring cells, causing many of the diseases associated with aging, so researchers have been looking for ways to either inhibit their development or periodically purge them.

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Darren Baker and his colleagues found that giving mice a drug that destroyed these cells delayed the development of the diseases of aging, as well as made the mice look plumper and younger.

At the slightly more unsettling end of the anti-aging treatment spectrum is the process of transfusing the blood of the young into the old. Despite the vampiric and macabre nature of the treatment, researchers have found evidence that it is effective. Individuals who receive blood from younger donors report health benefits, such as lowered cholesterol levels, while older mice have been shown to be rejuvenated by injections of blood from younger mice or even human teenagers.

The Price of Immortality

While science is moving quickly toward a future in which aging and its consequences are obsolete, the few commercial means of receiving the treatments above are, at present, extremely expensive.

Liz Parrish is not a biologist by training, but she did enlist the help of scientists to develop the telemore-based treatment offered by her company, BioViva. Ostensibly, Parrish has developed an injection based on Blanco’s principles, and she herself is patient zero, having already injected herself with that telomere-extending treatment as well as one designed to preserve muscle mass. While BioViva hasn’t gone to market yet, Parrish told New Humanist that each injection costs between $200,000 to $400,000 to produce.

4 Scientifically Proven Ways to Help Reverse Aging
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While no commercial means of senescent cell therapy exists as of yet, individuals can buy young blood transfusions. Jesse Karmazin’s company Ambrosia offers blood plasma transfusions for anyone willing to pay $8,000.

However, Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray, who has conducted numerous experiments on mice’s reaction to young blood, thinks you’d be better off saving your money. He dismisses the science behind the treatment, telling MIT Technology Review that “people want to believe that young blood restores youth, even though we don’t have evidence that it works in humans.”

For the moment, anti-aging therapies are attainable in theory, but well out of financial reach for all except a wealthy few. Once the science is crystallized, however, the treatments should become exponentially cheaper, and a long, healthy life will be neither a pipe dream nor a hideously expensive commodity.

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New Research Suggests We Can Stop Human Cells From Aging

The Mechanisms of Aging

For a phenomenon that affects all living beings, there’s nothing simple about aging. Experiments that focus on understanding aging are as numerous and varied as the aspects of the subject itself. Some look at the roles that the brain or the mitochondria have on aging, while others examine some protein or another. A study from the Houston Methodist Research Institute (HMRI) is focusing on chromosomes.

Specifically, the team led by cardiovascular sciences department chair John Cooke, looked at telomeres — the region located at the tip of every chromosome, the length of which supposedly corresponds to age. Cooke’s team studied the cells of children with a fatal genetic disease called progeria that causes rapid aging.

In their study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the researchers discovered that extending the shortened telomeres effectively halted aging in the isolated sample cells taken from the patients with progeria. “What we’ve shown is that when we reverse the process of the telomere shortening in the cells from these children and lengthen them, it can reverse a lot of the problems associated with aging,” Cooke said in an HMRI press release.

Extending Telomeres Beyond a Lab

Cooke’s team isn’t the first to associate telomeres with aging. The field, however, isn’t considered that precise yet. Medical genetics professor Peter Lansdorp at the University of British Columbia told Motherboard that there’s still a lot to learn in this area. “It is not hard to find a 70-year-old with longer telomeres than a teenager,” he said, noting that the decline in telomeres works as a “tumor suppression mechanism” for the body.

So You Want to Live Forever? [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Furthermore, since the study was limited to cell samples — taken from just 17 patients — on a lab dish, the researchers still need to see if it could work in cells functioning inside the body. The next step is to deliver the same treatment directly into patients, beginning with children suffering from progeria.

Still, Cooke is hopeful. “We can at least stall or slow down accelerated aging, and that’s what we’re working toward,” he said in the press release. “I want to develop a therapy for these children. It’s an unmet need.”

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We Will Extend Our Lives but Not Attain Immortality, Says Anti-Aging Researcher

The Future of Getting Old

The Population Reference Bureau has projected that the percentage of the population over the age of 65 will rise from the current 15 percent to a staggering 24 percent by 2060. This means that research into aging has never been more important.

Eric Verdin is at the forefront of this research and has become the President and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. The institute is the world’s biggest independent research facility studying the causes of growing old — and how to combat them. Recently, he conducted an interview with Nautilus to discuss how aging is effecting our lives.

4 Scientifically Proven Ways to Help Reverse Aging
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Verdin believes that the explosion in age-related research is due to researchers’ discovery in the 1990s that aging is not necessarily an inevitability. Instead, it is caused by mutations — and scientists could make changes to the genome of other species that led to a lifetimes of up to twice as long. Verdin stated in the interview this resulted in a belief that “there might be pathways to regulate aging, and if there are pathways that means there are proteins, and that means you can eventually develop drugs.”

Despite this, he says, “if you hear the word immortality, just run. There is no drug that can give you that.” While Verdin believes we can increase the average human lifetime significantly, the fountain of youth is still just a fairy tale. “It’s just nonsense from my perspective, and I think we should really resist the I-word.”

The best way to maximize your lifespan, he said in the interview, is to maintain your body well. Good nutrition and exercise are “incredible anti-aging medicine.” His general advice is to treat the cause rather than the symptom with a combination of lifestyle and pharmaceutical treatments — to fight aging itself rather than dealing with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or macular degeneration when they occur.

The Youth of the Old

The human attraction to immortality has been present in our cultural landscape since the beginning of time — the human mind seems to be unable to resist its lures. There are countless myths and stories based on it: the fountain of youth, the Wandering Jew, the philosophers stone, and the Bible’s Enoch are a few examples.

Recently, this mystical desire has birthed a myriad of promising methods for reversing the aging process which are currently under investigation: from transfusing young people’s blood into older people to give them more osteopontin, to digging into the role telemores play on the aging process, to developing anti-aging, bacteria-based pills.

However, when our increasing life expectancy is combined with the decrease in fertility that many nations are facing, the results are an aging population. In an interview with CNN, Elon Musk pointed out why this is undesirable, saying it causes a “very high dependency ratio, where the number of people who are retired is very high relative to the number of people who are net producers” — an economically detrimental state of affairs.

Due to technological and therapeutic advancements, aging is looking less like an ugly inevitability of our condition and more like a new and exciting epoch in our lives. However, we must ensure that longer lives for people do not come at the expense of the environment, economy, or wellbeing of others.

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We’re Entering a New Age, One Where the Life Expectancy Is 90+

And the Winner Is…

Life expectancy has shown increases over the centuries. But, for the first time ever, it will soon exceed 90 years. The country with the most promise? South Korea. A new study has found that women born here in 2030 are projected to live until 90.8 on average  – 6.6 years longer than women born in 2010. Many other countries are following right behind, with life expectancies falling just short of 90.

Despite external factors, such as natural disasters and disease pandemics that should be accounted for in predicting life expectancy, scientists are seeing a significant rise in the 35 developed countries involved in the study. The findings, which come from an international team of scientists funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the US Environmental Protection Agency, are published in the journal The Lancet

 

Credit: The Lancet/Kontis et al.

The table above shows the change in life expectancy between men and women born in 2030. In most cases, women are typically expected to live longer than men. But surprisingly, the only country in the study that doesn’t seem to have the same significant rise as the other countries is the U.S.

“Not only does the US have high and rising health inequalities, but also life expectancy has stagnated or even declined in some population subgroups,” stated the authors of the study. So wouldn’t it be common sense to tackle our stagnant life expectancy rate by modeling our practices based off of countries such as South Korea?

Increasing Longevity Through Other Means

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For many years, researchers have been trying to find answers to our longevity question. How do we achieve the famed 120 years of age? Scientists have set to find out through numerous studies. For example, one study released in 2006 by Linda Waite from the University of Chicago, showed that happily married couples typically lived longer than single individuals. Her findings showed that married men lived 10 years longer, on average, than single men. The same goes for women, with a four year gap difference.

For a while, calorie-restricted diets were believed to increase longevity and slow down the aging process. Cutting out 20 to 40 percent of the recommended energy content would help to maintain a healthy body mass. Less obesity, less risk of health complications. Dietary restrictions were even shown to significantly increase life expectancy across 145 different studies.

For men in particular, testosterone therapy is believed to help with lowering risks of stroke and heart disease, although how it precisely affects one’s survival rate is still unknown. And yet, perhaps the answer to increased longevity lies in gene editing, where humans now have the power to personalize their own health.

But also, perhaps the answer has always been simple. Care more for the countries’ people by providing greater access to health care – stop smoking, eat healthy, stress less, and exercise. If you’re healthy, you’re bound to get sick less if you have a normal immune system. Maybe the South Koreans have had the answer all along, and Americans must look to them to solve the issue of being the slowest developed country to increase their population’s life expectancy rate.

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Humanity May Have Reached its Maximum Lifespan

A Halt to Progress?

It’s no secret that lifespans have been getting longer—whether in the U.S. or in other developed countries. Whereas at the beginning of the 20th Century global life expectancy rarely exceeded 50 years, it has now reached an average that’s regularly in the 80s in Japan and Canada —and in the United States it’s reached a high of 78 years.

The reasons for this dramatic increase are numerous, and largely have to do with the extraordinary evolution in medical technology, healthcare, and general standards of living that occurred during the 20th Century and continue in the opening decades of the 21st. Vaccination programs have defeated smallpox, polio, measles and other diseases that formerly carried off thousands. Meanwhile, the decline in smoking and the creation of new drugs to ameliorate blood pressure and cholesterol have warded off the ubiquitous specter of heart disease.

The projected percentage change in the world's population by age, 2010-2050. Credit: United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision.
The projected percentage change in the world’s population by age, 2010-2050. Credit: United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision.

So why does life expectancy seem to be leveling off? What’s undoing—or at least matching, move-for-move—the recent remarkable gains in lifespans? Incredibly, the culprit this time isn’t some virulent pathogen, some unexpected new cancer or disease epidemic; nothing so terrifying as that at all. It’s obesity—a “lifestyle disease” brought on by our unhealthy dietary habits.

And this one’s a great deal tougher to defeat than those earlier epidemics. You can’t vaccinate it away; you can’t inoculate a person against further occurrences. Obesity undoes virtually every gain made in the fight against heart disease and stroke—it raises blood pressure, cholesterol, and heightens the risk for diabetes.

This all brings up some disturbing questions: have we reached the end of the line when it comes to living longer and healthier lives? Is there a point at which diminishing returns just mean any gains in lifespan are bound to be insignificant and temporary?

The Future of Longevity

The answer, fortunately, is probably not. Geriatric medicine has come a long way, and promising headway is being made in research into geroprotective drugs and compounds such as carnosine, the diabetes drug metformin, and the fungal compound rapamycin—an immunosuppressive which seems to induce cells to husband resources, thereby stretching cellular lifespans and by extension the health and life expectancy of the entire organism.

Meanwhile, there are great strides to be made in combating Alzheimer’s, the neurodegenerative disorder that is the great scourge of the elderly. Even if obesity hadn’t arrived to level off the gains made against cardiovascular disease, there’s still that fearful wall to healthy aging erected by dementia. But research into tau proteins and amyloid beta proteins, and drugs like verubecestat and the anti-inflammatory NTRX-07, have shown great promise.

Even if none of these treatments represent the hoped-for panacea for aging, they seem to be pointing in the right direction. Some combination of them, or of future incarnations developed from research into their effects, is likely to greatly extend human lifespans in the future, and—more importantly—allow those greater lifespans to be healthy and productive.

However, the way in which we choose to live those longer lives is another matter altogether. Unhealthy choices will come back to haunt us later in life, and the diseases of obesity and poor diet can still undo all the miraculous and marvelous technology we devise to stave off the inevitable.

Unfortunately, no cures for a self-destructive mentality are anywhere on the horizon.

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