Prevention and therapy may be the key to slowing down how we age successfully

It is becoming increasingly clear that the biological rate of aging can be slowed, and Steven Austad, Ph.D., chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Biology, believes the geroscience hypothesis holds great promise for dramatic increases in life expectancies — including the eradication of many chronic health problems now and in future generations.

In a paper, “Aging as a biological target for prevention and therapy,” Austad and colleagues from The Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine stated their view that addressing the aging process itself is key to alleviating many health-related issues associated with aging.

“Treating the underlying aging process, which we actually know a lot about now, would allow us to basically delay the onset or get rid of diseases or disabilities of later life such as cancer, heart disease, vision and hearing problems, and joint pain at the same time with one form of treatment,” said Austad, a distinguished professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “It is a very different concept of medicine as we now know it.”

While those researching the biology of aging have long held this view, Austad says the subject is coming more and more into focus in light of the continuing aging of the global population, which in the United States and elsewhere is having a profound impact on the cost of health care and pension plans.

“Chronic health problems attendant on the unprecedented aging of the human population in the 21st century threaten to disrupt economies and degrade the quality of later life throughout the developed world.”

“Chronic health problems attendant on the unprecedented aging of the human population in the 21st century threaten to disrupt economies and degrade the quality of later life throughout the developed world,” according to the paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Another factor making geroscience a timely and powerful topic, Austad says, is that extensive research in laboratory animals has produced tremendously exciting results. In dozens of studies with mice, some using animals the equivalent of 60 to 70 human years old, most diseases and disabilities of aging have been delayed.

In particular, drugs already approved by the Food and Drug Administration such as Rapamycin and Metformin have shown exceptional promise at delaying disease and prolonging health. Rapamycin is currently given to kidney transplant patients to help prevent rejection of their transplant and is also used in some cancer chemotherapy regimens, while Metformin has been taken by millions of Type 2 diabetics for six decades.

Austad points to the findings of one particular study in which the mice ingested Rapamycin in their food.

“The mice were not just living longer, they were getting less cancer, and some forms of cancer went away entirely,” Austad said. “Their immune systems were better preserved. Their mental faculties were better. They had so many things that went well, it was almost like a miracle.”

While no randomized human trials are currently ongoing, there is a strong push by Austad and colleagues in the field to start such a trial using Metformin as soon as possible.

“We know it’s safe,” Austad said. “A bottle of 100 pills costs less than $10, so we know it’s economical. It seems imperative to us that we should start some kind of trial with it soon.”

In their paper, Austad and his colleagues state that “maximal life expectancy for human beings is theorized to be about 115 years.” Throughout history, few have lived anywhere close to that long, and those who are considered older – people who live into their 90s or even to 100 – generally experience poorer and poorer quality of life as the years advance.

But with his knowledge of the geroscience field and where it currently stands, the research results he has seen, and his firm belief in future development to come, Austad is convinced that reaching the century mark and even enjoying a healthy, productive life well past it will be commonplace in the future. In fact, he strongly believes that the first person who will live to be 150 years old is already alive today.

“The oldest person that we know of lived to be 122 years old, and 150 is approximately 22 percent longer than that,” Austad said. “We have dozens of ways that we have been able to make mice in laboratories live 22 percent longer. I’m quite confident some of those are going to turn out to also have remarkable effects in tremendously extending health and prolonging life in people as well.”

Working with Austad on the effort were Nir Barzilai, M.D., and Ana Maria Cuervo, both from The Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York.

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