The Tech Breakthroughs That Will Keep People Alive Past 150
Not to be a downer, but we're all going to die. Most likely, somewhere between age 76 and 81 (that is, if you live in the US). And sure, while seven or eight decades isn't too shabby, we'd all agree it'd be much nicer to have twice as much time to tick items off the ol' bucket list.
Luckily, there's recently been a surge in the number of promising research efforts and tech initiatives dedicated to not only dramatically extending our lifespans, but also prolonging health and agility well into our twilight years -- so even when we do get close to the end, we're not hobbled and miserable. Unfortunately, none of them suggests the secret is whiskey in your coffee every morning.
The race to put out the first life-prolonging pill
No matter how many green smoothies you drink to stay healthy, there's nothing you can do to keep yourself from getting older. Simple aging is the biggest factor causing many of the diseases that ultimately do us in -- from cancer, to heart disease, to diabetes. That stark reality is what's behind the race to develop drugs and supplements that can basically "trick" the body into thinking it's younger than it is, and thus reduce the risk for disease.
According to Bloomberg, pharmaceutical giant Novartis is currently pursuing a handful of drugs that can restore specific physiological functions that typically diminish with age. For example, one would potentially reverse muscle "wasting," another would reverse aging cartilage in joints that causes pain and limited mobility, and another is designed to restore what are known as "hair cells" in the ear canal, which die off over time, leading to hearing loss.
There are also a handful of startups developing so-called "supplements" that aren't hyping themselves up as a cure for aging, but claim they can make you feel younger. The best-known of the bunch is Elysium Health, co-founded by a renowned MIT scientist and backed by six Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Its product, a daily dose of pills it calls Basis, is packed with a combination of naturally occurring compounds and antioxidants associated with longevity, which it claims can restore muscle tissue, improve brain function, and increase energy levels.
However, since the FDA doesn't technically consider aging a "disease" and the company isn't touting Basis as an anti-aging drug (or even claiming it will help explicitly extend your life in any way), it doesn't need to be evaluated by the FDA and doesn't require a prescription -- much in the same way vitamins don't. All you need to get in on the action is $50 and a shipping address, and you can get your very own beautifully branded "fountain of youth" capsules, no questions asked.
There haven't been enough long-term human trials on people taking Elysium's product to truly understand how effective it is. But the fact that an MIT biologist and several other big-shots in the science world are staking their reputations on it is at least somewhat encouraging. However, there are many other burgeoning anti-aging treatments that -- while far more complex than simply popping a pill -- may soon make it easy to turn back time.
The secret may be in our cells
Some of the most promising recent research on aging suggests that we may soon be able to reprogram our genome in a way that can reverse the damage time inflicts on our bodies on a more comprehensive scale, rather than by targeting individual areas like joints or ear hair cells, or even inducing suicidal tendencies among troublesome, elderly cells. The idea is based on the discovery that by manipulating a select four genes, you can essentially reprogram cells to revert to an embryonic-like state, thereby stripping them of the marks of age that render them less efficient and cause our bodies to weaken.
In a paper published late last year, scientists at the Salk Institute revealed they were able to genetically engineer mice so that those four genes could be turned on when the mice were exposed to a certain chemical. After six weeks of having the genes turned on, the mice not only ended up looking younger, but they eventually lived 30% longer than mice who hadn't received the treatment. Notably, the researchers made clear that we're still a ways off from initiating human trials for this sort of thing, but the findings are nonetheless a huge deal in the anti-aging community. As Harvard geneticist David Sinclair -- one of the world's leading anti-aging scientists -- told Scientific American, the study is the first glimmer of hope that humans could live for centuries. And that's coming from a guy who previously said he thinks we'll be living to age 150 by the year 2100.
Sequencing your genes might prevent diseases
Another exciting area in the anti-aging quest also involves genetics, but not manipulating or engineering them. Rather, Craig Venter -- the man who sequenced the first complete human genome back in 2006 -- is on a mission to harness genetic sequencing to help us all proactively combat the diseases and ailments that haunt our individual futures. Essentially, he wants to amass a database of 1 million sequenced human genomes in order to cross-check and link variations in them to lethal conditions and anomalies to help doctors identify problems before they can become an issue, so people could theoretically bob and weave every potential disease and ultimately live longer than expected. What's tough is that unlike existing genetic tests from 23andMe and similar outfits that can detect mutations commonly associated with certain cancers, this is an exceedingly complex -- and wildly expensive -- undertaking. That's not to diminish its promise though. Venter's company Human Longevity, Inc.'s database already boasts more than 10,000 sequenced genomes, and it has plans to rapidly scale to collecting 100,000 more per year.
There are reasons to believe this is also the sort of work Google's stealth anti-aging outfit Calico Labs is up to, but that remains a mystery.
A fountain of youth... for your skin, at least
As concerned as many of us are with keeping our bodies healthy in an attempt to make it to 150, there are just as many who are more concerned with simply looking the part. Just last year, scientists finally discovered the enzyme in our skin responsible for keeping it looking youthful, which has huge implications for forthcoming cosmetic anti-aging treatments. For one, it means that there may soon be anti-aging creams that can legitimately and dramatically counteract the signs of aging. It also opens up the possibility for tailor-made topical creams to patch up our unique skin and pigment types from wear and tear.
But beware of scammers
That's not to say that we've moved beyond the threat of snake oil peddlers, who have long lurked within the anti-aging industry. In fact, you don't have to dig too deep to find truly strange and likely too-good-to-be-true emerging fountain of youth trends swirling around Silicon Valley as "scientific" treatments. The most unsettling of the moment is something based on the idea of parabiosis, or essentially stitching oneself to a younger living organism to extend one's own life. Specifically, wealthy life-extension obsessives like Peter Thiel seem to be quite interested in the idea of injecting themselves with the blood of much younger people, in hopes that it will rejuvenate their own earthly vessels. In fact, there's even a company recruiting "volunteers" that's willing to pay upwards of $8,000 for their participation in a clinical trial that facilitates such transfusions. Any takers?
However, the trouble is much of the science has only ever been conducted in mice -- and more specifically, in mice whose circulatory systems were surgically connected.
Let's just hope they can figure out the drugs, and pills, and gene-sequencing stuff before it becomes normal to vampire blood from broke college kids.
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