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Studies Show It’s Never Too Late to Improve Your Health

Emerging drug therapies show promise for improving health in later years


(Editor’s note: This article is part of an editorial partnership between Next Avenue and the American Federation for Aging Research, a national nonprofit organization with a mission to support and advance healthy aging through biomedical research.)

Oct. 13, 2011, was a very good day for runner Fauja Singh. On that date, he set eight world records for his age group, spanning distances from 100 to 5,000 meters. Three days later, he added the record for the marathon. His age group? One hundred years and up.

Running a marathon at age 100 might not even be the most remarkable thing about Singh. Possibly even more remarkable: He didn’t take up serious running until his mid-80s.

You’ve heard it again and again: “It’s never too late.” Well, it wasn’t too late for Singh to begin training to be a world-class master athlete in his mid-80s, but what about the rest of us? We might not aspire to be world-class athletes, but many of us do want to enhance our health and extend our lives a bit. When is it too late to begin?

What Research Says About Age and Health Improvements

Recent research from some of the leading institutions and investigators across the country seems to confirm that, in fact, it is never too late for any of us.

One study of especially frail people in their 90s, for instance, found that three months of weight training significantly enhanced their strength, increased their walking speed, improved their balance and prevented falls.

It’s not only lifestyle factors that can improve health as we age. Emerging therapies that target aging itself appear effective even relatively late in life.

For example, one large study of the Type 2 diabetes drug metformin found it had its biggest health impact among the oldest group studied. Type 2, or adult onset, diabetes has previously been reported to reduce life expectancy by 6-10 years. Yet, this recent study of almost 80,000 people with diabetes taking metformin found that they actually lived longer than a similar group of people without diabetes. The biggest longevity effect was in those who were 70 and older. Differences were smaller for those aged 60 to 70, with virtually no effect among those younger than 60.

Surprising Results from Mice Studies

In a study that shocked the field, mice were given a drug called rapamycin in their daily food allotment in the hope it would improve their health and extend their lives. However, the key here is that the drug wasn’t started until the mice had already reached the human equivalent of about 60 years old. Prior to this study, an assumption among aging researchers was that treatments meant to retard aging needed to be started relatively early in life. Amazingly, from the time the mice started receiving the drug at age 60-equivalent, they lived about 30 percent longer than the mice not getting the drug.

Another study, co-authored by Matt Kaeberlein, an expert at the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), found that mice who were given the same drug beginning at the human equivalent of 70 years old also showed health improvements. (Read more about this here.)

Other promising new therapies to preserve health show similar patterns. Transfusion of blood from young mice into mice at the human equivalent of about 50 years old improved the health of their muscles, hearts and brains. There’s no reason to think that similar effects wouldn’t be found in even older mice. AFAR expert Tom Rando at Stanford University, featured recently in Next Avenue, is leading much of this research.

Another promising therapy reduces the number of so-called “zombie” or senescent cells, which accumulate throughout the body with age. The research has shown remarkable effects in older mice, improving kidney, heart and lung functions, among other health benefits. AFAR experts like Judy Campisi at the Buck Institute and James L. Kirkland at Mayo Clinic are advancing senolytic drugs that target these zombie cells to extend our health. In fact, mice at the human-equivalent of 75 to 90 years old have been found to live one-third longer when the number of these cells was chemically reduced in their bodies.

So, whether you wish to set world athletic records when you’re 100 years old or simply live a longer, healthier life, science is now demonstrating that the cliche is true: It is never too late.

By Steven N. Austad
Steven N. Austad, Ph.D., is the scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research, the co-principal investigator of the National Institute of Aging’s Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence Coordinating Center, and a distinguished professor and department chair in the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His current research interests include figuring out why organisms age at different rates, particularly in especially long-lived organisms such as quahog clams and hydra. He is also interested in studying indicators of animal healthspan as well as the effects of rapamycin on mouse healthspan. He is author of more than 190 scientific articles and more than 100 newspaper columns on science. His book Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering About the Body’s Journey Through Life, has been translated into eight languages. Follow him on Twitter @StevenAustad.@AFARorg

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