Most people not only wish to extend their lifespan, but also their “healthspan”, which is the number of years where they feel great and healthy. Ideally, 60 should become the new 40, and 80 the new 60, if not better. Actually, 120 being the new 80 would be nice. And with advances in anti-aging research, this might be the case.
Of course, our average lifespans have already increased quite a lot. Two hundred years ago, it was between 30 and 40. Today it has roughly doubled due to a combination of medical progress, better lifestyles, safer environments, and so on. However, even as we now manage to dodge plaque, cholera, and hunger, etc., we still do age.
What drives aging?
Simply stated there are two elements of aging. The first is mechanical wear and tear, which we can increasingly fix with procedures such as hip replacements, dental processes, eye operations, etc. However, the far more complicated challenge – and the biggest contributor to the majority of mechanical breakdowns – is genetic breakdown.
For the foreseeable future, primary genetic decay seems unavoidable. The average adult human has more than 35 trillion cells, and through a human lifespan, there are 10 quadrillion cell divisions. Some of these create unfortunate mutations. Furthermore, our DNA is also exposed to radiation, harmful chemicals, virus infections, and more, which also contribute to genetic degradation. For instance, there are more than 10.000 cases of oxidative damage per cell per day. Most will be fixed through automatic error correction, but some damage remains unfixed, and over time, it accumulates.
It is genetic breakdown that causes cancer, but even if we could cure all cancer, it would only extend the average human lifespan by approx. 3 years, because if aging doesn’t kill us through cancer, it can through something as simple as the flu. However, there are now many R&D projects aiming to slow down the natural aging process, and this field is about to get rather interesting.
Making cells immortal: telomeres versus the Hayflick Limit
In 1961, US anatomist Leonard Hayflick discovered that human cells in culture would only divide between 40 and 70 times and then stop. This phenomenon is now known as the Hayflick Limit. This happens because DNA contains so-called telomeres at the ends of all its chromosomes. These have no useful genetic code but are there to protect the rest of the DNA.
Why? – because every time the cell divides, some of the edges break off. As long as these edges are telomeres, you are fine, but after enough divisions, you start to lose coding DNA, and then, the cell stops dividing and may enter a state of ‘senescence’. Meaning, it becomes a zombie.
Some cells avoid this with an enzyme called telomerase, which restores telomeres. This can make cells virtually immortal. Scientists have created mice with extended telomeres, and these had longer health- and lifespans. A related study of 65,000 people found that people who naturally had longer telomeres had longer and healthier lives. In other words, protecting or expanding telomeres might slow aging.
Removing zombie cells
Another approach is to kill off the zombie cells, as these produce highly inflammatory and disturbing proteins. Studies have shown that if young mice have zombie cells transplanted into them, they quickly become weak and frail, whereas removal of naturally occurring zombie cells in mice delays their aging. Such treatment in people – called senolytics and tackled by several companies – is currently held as one of the most promising ways to slow the aging process.
Resupplying the repairmen: stem cell therapy
We all know that as we age, we lose muscle, and eventually, this alone can kill us. Furthermore, we also lose cells necessary for immunity defense, for processing sugar, and more. This is largely because of loss of stem cells. Stem cells are special cells that can self-renew indefinitely due to telomerase and that can later turn into anything that is needed in your body. As you age, you have less and less of them, and this means loss of ability to replace old or damaged cells. However, in 2012, researchers discovered that we can turn any cell into a stem cell by adding just four genes. Interestingly, scientists have treated mice with stem cell therapy, and they became healthier and lived longer. This anti-aging approach is also promising.
Revitalizing with rapamycin
The bacterium Streomyces hydroscopicus produces a compound to protect itself against fungi. This is called rapamycin, and it inhibits a special enzyme in humans (mammalian target of rapamycin). Administered correctly, it has a life-prolonging effect in yeast, flies, worms, and mice.
There have been small safety trials in healthy humans with positive results, but it is not yet known if rapamycin could have the same positive effects as in laboratory animals. However, it is widely considered one of the most promising anti-aging drug concepts right now.
When are we there?
I cannot predict if and when any of these as well as other medications in the works will reach the market, but many are in early or late-stage human trials, and it seems very likely that some of them will work within 5-10 years, if not earlier. Based on this, it seems that 80 can soon be the new 60, and that average lifespans of 120 (or more) are now getting within sight. Some scientists even think that we are approaching technologies that will enable humans to live “forever.”
Meanwhile, I will continue to exercise and eat my spinach. I might not live long enough to live forever, but if I can live long enough to experience the launch of effective anti-aging treatments, count me in.
As you can see, there are various active research areas within anti-aging. For a more complete overview, you could take a look at our Supertrends in Anti-Aging dynamic report, in which we dive into the most promising research avenues and weigh their benefits, challenges, as well as list the companies working to make them happen. True to our future-as-a-service promise, this report will be periodically updated with the most promising advances in anti-aging research and additional deep-dives such as future market analyses and more.
Want to know how you can live a long and healthy life? Read our practical guide “How to live 100 years?” to learn what you can start doing today to live longer and healthier, according to science.
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