Will We Soon Be Taking a Pill to Slow Aging?
A leading researcher says the longevity dividend could become reality
In 2006, S. Jay Olshansky, a leading researcher on aging, and his colleagues coined the term “the longevity dividend.” It describes the health and economic benefits individuals and societies could enjoy by slowing biological aging and extending people’s years of healthy living. The term was new, but the concept had been around for decades. In a recent interview, Olshansky said “science has finally caught up with the idea.”
The University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist and professor, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging in 2016, says biotech companies are on the verge of a breakthrough in developing interventions that will slow the body’s process of aging, thereby making the body more resistant to disease.
Olshansky is a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He is also a co-founder and chief scientist of Lapetus Solutions Inc. in Wilmington, N.C.
He says it’s an exciting time within the field and in the work toward extending human “healthspan,” meaning our number of healthy years of life. Olshansky and his colleagues have been urging researchers to shift their focus from lifespan to healthspan. This also means compressing what they call “the red zone,” the time period toward the end of life in which a person is frail and sick.
In the following Q&A, Olshansky discusses aging interventions we could see in the near future.
Next Avenue: Just how close are biotech companies to developing a drug or some other type of intervention that would slow biological aging?
S. Jay Olshansky: There are numerous research pathways that scientists are pursuing and any one of them, or more than one, could be fruitful. And I think most of us today will be taking some sort of intervention [such as a pill]. And we probably won’t look at it as a way to slow aging — we’ll look at it as a way to reduce our risk of disease, because the result is the same.
How might these drugs work?
One of the interventions that researchers are pursuing are substances called senolytics, which are designed to attack something called “zombie cells.” The cells in our bodies divide. After they divide a certain number of times, they eventually die. Except some of them don’t die, and the ones that don’t die interfere with the functioning of the healthy cells. And they accumulate across time.
The senolytic compounds are designed to go into the body and clear out the zombie cells. They remove the interference that’s going on with the body’s own functioning. This means that you’ll be more resistant to cancer, you’ll be more resistant to cardiovascular disease, you’ll be more resistant to Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll be more resistant to stroke and arthritis and osteoporosis and the other kinds of things that go wrong with our bodies as we get older.
So, imagine an intervention, whether it’s a pill or some other type of intervention, that could reduce your risk of everything at once. … It would dwarf in importance a cure for cancer. That’s what we’re pursuing.
Would this intervention actually slow aging or would it make the body more resistant to certain diseases?
Your natural inclination is to separate aging from diseases, and in this regard, I would not separate them. An intervention that compresses the red zone will do so by delaying disease.
You’re assuming that aging inevitably leads to disease. But some people live long lives without getting terrible diseases.
Yes, so that’s sort of a natural genetic diversity that exists in a population where some people possess genes that seem to protect them from the diseases that occur in other people at younger ages. So, there’s no question that there’s a strong genetic component to the process of aging and the expression of disease, and that’s one of the things that researchers are trying to discover: Why is it that some people seem to be protected while others are not?
In terms of interventions designed to slow aging, I thought the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will only review drugs that attack specific diseases.
That changed. My colleagues and I met with representatives of the FDA a couple of years ago to discuss this very issue. And the FDA has given us its approval in this effort to identify aging as a target. Previously, the only targets were specific diseases, and the FDA has now approved the idea that aging is a reasonable target to go after. You still measure it in diseases, in terms of your outcome metrics, but you recognize that the fundamental biological process of aging is the target that you are attacking.
What should we be doing in the meantime?
While we’re waiting for this intervention to come online, of course what we should be doing is what we all know we should be doing: exercising more and eating less. It’s not all that complicated. We know that excess weight is harmful and we know that lack of exercise is harmful. And short of that, Mother Nature takes its own toll, and the genetics of exceptional longevity are something we can’t control at this point. So, control what you can control.
Do you see a downside to people living longer in terms of population growth and sustainability?
That question comes up all the time, about population growth and things like that. And if population growth was an issue, why are we pursuing a cure for cancer? If population growth was an issue, why are we pursuing a cure for cardiovascular disease?
What are you working on right now?
My colleagues and I are working on a bank of genetic tests that will allow you as an individual to gain an understanding of your prospects for longevity, based on your personal genetics. We’re going to commercialize it and make it available to the public, probably sometime in 2019.
Is this through your company, Lapetus Solutions?
Yes, it will be a Lapetus Solutions product.
How would it work?
Think of the 23andMe or Ancestry.com genetic tests, which are designed to give you a sense of your family history, where you come from. Now, imagine doing the same thing except the genetic test results will be your prospects for longevity. How many longevity genes do you carry? Or do you carry genes that are likely to shorten your lifespan?
Now, some people may not want to know the answers to these questions, but some people will, especially if you’re planning for your future.
Do you think there could be a negative outcome for consumers using a product like this, say, if health or life insurance companies got a hold of, or demanded to know, people’s projected lifespans before deciding whether or how to insure them?
No one can demand this information — it belongs to you and you decide whether to release it to anyone. The same holds true for 23andMe. You can keep this information private or make it public.