Insights From a Scientist Who Is Trying to Slow the Aging Process

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Photo: Henrik Sorensen

A central truth about growing older, besides the extra familial and financial responsibilities you pick up along the way, is the fact that your poor body kind of falls apart with every passing birthday. Humans are living longer, and yet our bodies as they currently exist are not exactly designed to meet the challenges that advancing age can bring.

And so scientists like S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, are studying ways to slow the aging process. “More people today are living to 65, 85, and 100 and beyond than ever before, but it has created a Faustian trade,” Olshansky told Reddit in an AMA last week. “In exchange for our longer lives, we now live long enough to experience heart disease, cancer, sensory impairments, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Scientists like him, who study longevity, are looking for ways to make the aging process a little less miserable, by extending the number of years that individuals can live healthy lives. Recently, Olshansky gamely answered a wide range of questions on Reddit about his work – here are some of his most fascinating answers.

Q: First things first: What is the best way to measure biological aging?
A: Interestingly, this is a question that, at least for now, does not have a great answer. “It is generally acknowledged that there are no reliable biomarkers available today that provide a definitive measure of either biological aging or rate of aging, but that doesn’t mean scientists won’t find a reliable bank of biomarkers in the future,” Olshanksy writes. At the moment, the best way of judging a person’s biological aging may also be the most superficial one, he added:

If you’re looking for an interesting potential biomarker of aging, why not tap into our knowledge that the offspring of long-lived people tend to look younger for their age than their age-matched counterparts. This probably means people who look young for their age are aging more slowly — that is, one year of chronological time is matched by less than one year of biological time. You can take this test yourself by going to facemyage.com and upload your photograph to see whether you look younger or older for your age.

Q: Has the first person to eventually live to their 200th birthday already been born?
A:
No, probably not — and, in fact, this question is almost beside the point. The primary goal of scientists like Olshansky who study longevity is not to extend life, per se; it’s more about extending the healthy years of a person’s life. He writes:

The idea that the first person to live to 150 or 200 or 1,000 or 10,000 years has already being born is hype cooked up by some who want to advocate for radical life extension. All of these numbers are made up out of thin air — they’re designed to get the attention of the media, and frankly, this makes it more difficult to get funding for aging science because funders have no interest in creating a new set of challenges that would come with people living for hundreds or thousands of years. Keep in mind that life extension is not the primary goal of aging science; health extension is the primary goal.

Q: Some are claiming that calorie restriction is the key to slowing the anti-aging process. Is there any truth to that?
A
: No, thank God. Though studies in mice and primates have been promising, Olshansky doubts that these conclusions can directly apply to humans. He explains:

Caloric restriction has been known for decades to extend life, but questions have arisen about whether it would extend life in humans. The primate studies of CR suggest it might be an effective way of extending healthspan. Chances are that the longer the species lives in general, the less longevity benefit you can expect to get from CR. So, it might work well in worms and mice, but not so much in other long-lived species such as primates, humans, or bowhead whales. … [M]ost people won’t practice CR on a routine basis as it has notable negative side effects for some (inability to control body temperature, loss of fecundity, etc.).

Q: How soon can we expect for some kind of evidence-based anti-aging pill to become available?
A:
Olshansky declined to estimate an actual date, and he also noted that whatever the intervention ends up being, it may or may not arrive in pill form. And yet the idea generally isn’t too far-fetched:

When will an aging intervention come online? No one can know the answer to this question in advance since it takes years to study the safety and efficacy of potential interventions. However, we’re no longer talking about something theoretical here. We can observe decelerated aging today in people that, in many cases, may be your friends, relatives, or even yourself. Centenarians today are in all likelihood living that long because their bodies and minds are not really 100+ years old – they might very well be 10, 20 or even 30 years younger. Scientists like Dr. Barzilai at Albert Einstein or Dr. Tom Perls at Boston University are studying the genetics of these long-lived subgroups in order to discover (and perhaps recreate) their genetic advantage for the rest of us. It’s an exciting time to be involved in aging science, and I’m optimistic that an intervention that slows aging in people will arrive in time to positively influence most people alive today.

Q: Is there any supplement currently on the market that people can take in the meantime?
A:
In a word, no. “There is nothing on the market today that has been documented to slow aging in humans, period,” he wrote. “If anyone is making that claim, protect your wallet and your body.”

Q: Fine. But what does he do personally to slow down aging in his own body and mind?
A:
This happens to be a question that longevity scientists must answer all the time; as such, he has a finely honed answer:

Here’s my recipe: 1) choose long-live[d] parents (begin there – guess what, it all begins with genetics); 2) exercise every day (this is like an oil, lube and filter for your car – you don’t have to do it, but when you do, the machine operates better); 3) eat less and have smaller meals more often (this is a way to control your insulin levels – perhaps one of the primary gatekeepers of rate of aging); and 4) have sex every day (this may not make you live longer, but hey, it’s not about life extension, it’s all about the journey along the way ☺).”

You can read the rest of the AMA here.