Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging.
No, we cannot “prevent aging”… but what if we could delay it?
Unfortunately, the deterioration that comes with aging is part of a fundamental aspect of the universe, so it cannot be eliminated. Recent research suggests, however, that the rate of deterioration is indeed malleable, at least in many different animal models. So why not in people?
Aging itself is the major risk factor for most chronic diseases and conditions. We know that cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Yet it is well documented that these pale in comparison to the risk of merely increased age. The same is true for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and most other chronic conditions.
The fact that aging underlies the risk for all these diseases explains why older people rarely get only one disease or debilitating condition: Comorbidity (the co-occurrence of more than one disease or disabling condition) is the rule, not the exception!
Traditionally, research on aging has focused on longevity, but we all recognize that longevity without health is a hollow goal.
It follows, then, that by delaying aging, we could address all of these diseases at once, leading to better overall health.
Can We Delay Aging?
This is the basic premise of a new field of research called geroscience. But there’s an obvious catch: Can we do it?
We’ve known for a long time that we can hold off the ravages of aging — we can maintain physical function and reduce risk of a number of diseases, for example — by exercise, a healthy diet, a positive attitude and other behaviors. However, translating these good habits into mass changes in behavior in the population has been elusive.
So, can we use our limited understanding of the mechanisms by which these habits promote good health to mimic their effects at the molecular level and thus improve quality of life as we get old? In flies, worms, and mice (and even yeast), scientists can increase lifespan by a variety of dietary, genetic and pharmacological interventions.
The fact that these interventions work in species across the animal kingdom makes scientists hopeful that they will also work in people. Preliminary attempts are showing promise, but it is too early to implement or to advocate for any such interventions in humans.
Healthspan, Not Lifespan
What would be the benefits?
Traditionally, research on aging has focused on longevity, but we all recognize that longevity without health is a hollow goal. As the field has matured, we are paying more attention to healthspan — the proportion of lifespan spent in reasonably good health.
Many of the interventions identified in animals lead to improved healthspan. Not only do the animals die later, they die with fewer diseases and debilitating conditions than their control counterparts. This suggests that, at least in mice and other species, it might be possible to attain the Holy Grail of aging research: compression of morbidity.
When will people benefit from this?
It is definitely too early to say, which is why I have refrained from even mentioning the interventions that work in animals. So, despite the thriving industry of “anti-aging” treatments, nothing that we know of today has been shown to prevent or delay the aging process in people. Thus, the current generation may not benefit from this groundbreaking research. But maybe our children and grandchildren will.