Recent headlines make it seem that the cure for old age is just around the corner. “Brain Experiment Could Give You an Extra 20 Years,” one promised. “Telomerase reverses ageing process,” another declared. “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” asked The New York Times Magazine.
And National Geographic’s May cover featured a beaming infant and a tantalizing claim: “This baby will live to be 120*.” You might think the asterisk would point to a disclaimer, but it reads: “It’s not just hype. New science could lead to very long lives.”
Sadly, such bold predictions are mostly hype, says Jay Olshansky, a gerontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The story was great,” Olshansky said of the National Geographic piece, which detailed the rapidly growing body of scientific research on the genetic and molecular mechanisms involved in the aging process.
“But the title’s all wrong. They shouldn’t be making up numbers like that.” So far, only one person has verifiably lived to be 120, and no one since the year 2000 has even come close.
The legitimate good news is that scientists are finally starting to tackle aging in a serious way, and some of their early findings are encouraging. The thinking is that if you focus on curing just one disease, like diabetes, people will simply die from cancer or a stroke instead. But if you can figure out what makes the body more vulnerable to a broad range of diseases as it ages, the impact on human health and longevity could be far greater. Olshansky calls this “the longevity dividend.”
Key to this quest are a number of long-running studies of especially long-lived people. In rural Ecuador, researchers have pinpointed a genetic mutation that appears to make an isolated group of villagers unusually small of stature — but also less vulnerable to cancer and diabetes. In Hawaii, studies of Japanese-American centenarians pointed to variations in a gene that has also been tied to longevity in other species. And studies of centenarian Ashkenazi Jews in New York City homed in on the apparent genetic source of their unusually high levels of “good cholesterol,” which seems to fight heart disease.
Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says he’s optimistic that a breakthrough in understanding human aging could be on the horizon. But he also pointed out some obstacles.
One problem is that humans are a lot harder to study than mice. A study in Nature last month found that mice injected with a substance that inhibited a molecule known as NF-KB lived longer than normal. Mice injected with NF-KB itself died young. But what works in mice doesn’t necessarily work in humans. And who’s going to approve the study that injects people with an NF-KB inhibitor and to see how soon they die?
No one — especially since the FDA doesn’t recognize aging as a disease. That makes regulations and approvals trickier for potential anti-aging treatments.
The bigger-picture problem is that human longevity is a confluence of so many factors — genes, nutrition, lifestyle, luck — that there is unlikely ever to be a surefire way to live to 120. And in the meantime, the average lifespan is no longer rising in developed countries the way it did for decades.
The United States has the lowest life expectancy among wealthy nations, thanks to over-eating, substance abuse and gun violence, among other factors. And some populations have actually seen their life expectancies decrease since 1990.
Olshansky agrees with Barzilai that we should be doing much more to fund scientific research on aging. But he points out that people have been saying for many decades that a big breakthrough is just 10 years away.
His advice for those who want to live to see 100: “Get a good pair of running shoes.”