An End to Ageing?
BBC Science Focus|January 2022
Eternal youth is the stuff of religion and mythology, but what if we could just have a bit more of it? What if there was a pill that could slow down the ravages of time, so that you could feel younger for longer. It sounds like snake oil, but there’s a growing body of research that’s betting on making it a reality
By Dr Helen Pilcher. Photographs by Magictorch, Getty ImagesX2, Shutterstock, Alamy, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Picture the scene. After a routine blood test, you visit your GP for the results. “It’s all good,” says the doctor reassuringly. “The only problem is that you’re getting older.” Then, with a flourish of the prescription pad, the doctor adds: “But I can help you with that. Take these tablets. They’ll slow the ageing process and help you to stay healthy. Oh, and they might just make you live longer too.”

A drug that extends your life, slows ageing and staves off the ravages of old age, including frailty and disease? It sounds too good to be true, and yet, an increasing weight of evidence suggests not just that these drugs are within reach, but that they may already be here. Some can be found on the shelves at your local health store, while others are drugs for conditions such as diabetes and cancer that are being repurposed. Animal studies have demonstrated their potential, and now clinical trials are beginning to assess if their promise holds true in humans. If it does, those who are middle-aged now could become the first generation to benefit from their use. Imagine an 80-year-old with the biology and ‘get up and go’ of someone 30 years younger. How joyful not to have to act your age!

LIVE BETTER FOR LONGER

In the last couple of decades, the science of anti-ageing has moved from science-fiction into academically rigorous, evidencebased, peer-reviewed science. It’s not about achieving immortality, having your brain cryogenically preserved or any of the other outlandish propositions that have been mooted. “There are a lot of people out there who sell you snake oil and tell you that you’ll live forever, and then when you die, nobody sues them,” says Dr Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Ageing at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Instead, it’s about improving what scientists call the ‘healthspan’, or the number of years that people can live well without disease. Extending the lifespan could be a fortuitous side effect, as could the ramifications for the economy.

Currently, 80 per cent of the world’s adults aged 65 or over have at least one chronic illness, while 68 per cent have two or more. The human suffering is huge, and in the next 30 years, the number of over-65-year-olds is projected to double to 1.5 billion. This will be costly. “If we had a drug that adds even one or two healthy years onto the lifespan, it would have trillions of dollars of effect on the world economy, because people would be productive for longer and they wouldn’t have all these morbidities that cost our healthcare systems so much,” says Jim Mellon, chairman of the longevity company Juvenescence.

It’s no coincidence that age is the biggest risk factor for illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration. The ageing process involves a whole raft of biological changes that drives their development. Scientists call these changes ‘hallmarks’ and around nine have been identified (see ‘The Hallmarks Of Ageing’, p57), including the accumulation of genetic mutations, the unravelling of chromosomes and the impaired ability of tiny cellular power packs, called mitochondria, to function. According to the theory, if you can correct these problems, you won’t just slow down ageing, you’ll also prevent or defer many of the diseases that are associated with old age.

In December 2021, researchers from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai revealed that a natural compound found in grape seeds could prolong the lifespan of old mice by 9 per cent, and make them physically fitter too. The compound, called procyanidin C1, works by targeting another of the hallmarks of ageing: the build-up of tired, worn-out cells that are described as ‘senescent.’

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