Has an MIT scientist discovered the fountain of youth?
It could be that this pill will change your life for the longer.
Leonard Guarente is an MIT scientist who thinks he’s found a true miracle drug.
It’s called Basis. It purportedly arrests the effects of aging, extends healthy human life. And for $60 you can buy a month’s worth without a prescription.
According to writer Benjamin Wallace, it’s either “the most sophisticated fountain-of-youth scam ever to come to market or the first fountain-of-youth pill ever to work.”
Read widely. Read wisely. Live long and prosper.
This Week’s 6 Recommended Readings on Living Longer
1. An MIT Scientist Claims That This Pill Is the Fountain of Youth
by Benjamin Wallace in New York Magazine (23 min)
This is a great article. Leonard Guarente, who lives in the Boston suburb of Newton, is maybe the world’s leading expert on aging. He heads MIT’s Aging Center and founded Elysium, the company behind the anti-aging drug, Basis. Six Nobel Prize winners sit on his advisory board.
Wonder what the world’s leading aging expert does for his own health? Every day he takes “Basis, a low-dose statin, aspirin, and vitamin D; weighs himself every day; eats a mostly Mediterranean diet (red wine included); and does a mix of cardio (on the elliptical machine, ever since his knees wore out and he had to stop running) and strength training three days a week at a gym near his home.”
This is the story of a drug that might make us all live longer, healthier lives. Is it too good to be true?
Scientists have recognized since the 1930s that calorie-restricted diets extend life in mammals (we evolved, the thinking goes, to withstand periods of famine, downshifting our metabolism in order to defer reproduction until we were again in a time of plenty).
Guarente was one of the first to discover a single gene with a linchpin role in the process: in his case, a class of molecules called sirtuins. Now, aging science is in a growth spurt, with an accelerating race to develop compounds that target such master genes.
The idea, and the premise of Basis, is that certain compounds might trick our bodies into thinking they’re starving (thereby extending our lives) without our having to feel hungry.
2. “This Anti-Aging Startup is Charging Thousands of Dollars for Teen Blood”
By Maya Kosoff in Vanity Fair (4 min)
Jesse Karmazin, founder of the startup Ambrosia, is “charging $8,000 a pop for blood transfusions from people under 25.”
Why? This explanation from Singularity Hub:
“The first signs that the blood of the young may be rejuvenating came from a weird, vampiric experiment called parabiosis, or “parallel living.” In parabiosis, researchers surgically stitch together the circulation of a young animal with that of an older one.
Within a month, the mice heal and learn to live their lives as part of a whole. Since their blood is fully mixed, each mouse becomes a blood chimera, receiving roughly half of its blood volume from its partner.
In the 2000s, a team at Stanford noticed that when bathed in young blood, an old mouse’s brain seemed to shed half its biological age.
In a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning new things and forming memories, young blood brought ona second spring, coaxing the brain region to produce more neurons — something that precipitously declines with age and is linked to failing memory.
3. “Forget the Blood of Teens. This Pill Promises to Extend Life for a Nickel a Pop.”
by Sam Apple in Wired (19 min)
Nir Barzilai is an anti-aging scientist at Albert Einstein Medical School who has with another approach to fight aging. He wants the FDA to approve a common diabetes drug called metformin as the first U.S. approved anti-aging drug. The research suggests it not only helps with diabetes — it may prevent cancer as well.
And at 5 cents a generic pill, it could be available to everyone.
Barzilai first studied metformin in the late 1980s while doing a fellowship at Yale, never imagining the drug would later become his focus. When the FDA approved it as a diabetes treatment in 1994, there was little reason to think it would someday become one of the hottest topics in medicine. But in the following two decades, researchers started comparing the health of diabetics on metformin to those taking other diabetes drugs.
What they discovered was striking: The metformin-takers tended to be healthier in all sorts of ways. They lived longer and had fewer cardiovascular events, and in at least some studies they were less likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most surprising of all, they seemed to get cancer far less frequently — as much as 25 to 40 percent less than diabetics taking two other popular medications. When they did get cancer, they tended to outlive diabetics with cancer who were taking other medications.
As Lewis Cantley, the director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, once put it, “Metformin may have already saved more people from cancer deaths than any drug in history.” Nobel laureate James Watson (of DNA-structure fame), who takes metformin off-label for cancer prevention, once suggested that the drug appeared to be “our only real clue into the business” of fighting the disease.
4. “The Sleep Cure: The Fountain of Youth May Be Closer Than You Ever Thought”
by Alice Park in Time (12 min)
Americans are sleeping, on average, two hours less per night than they were a century ago. This isn’t a good development.
A study of 21,000 twins in Finland “found that people who were regularly sleeping less than seven hours daily were 21% to 26% more likely to die of any cause during the study’s 22-year period than those who slept more than eight hours.”
Maybe we don’t need a miracle pill to live longer. Maybe we just need to go to bed.
Selection from the article:
Studies of people whose sleep sessions are irregular or short show they are at higher risk of developing diseases that can lead to early death, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Poor sleep may have detrimental effects on the brain as well, increasing the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, as well as mood disorders like depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. And like smoking, a terrible diet and not exercising enough, poor sleep is now linked to an overall increased risk of premature death.
“I used to suggest that sleep is the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise,” says Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “But I don’t agree with that anymore. Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health.”
“while the body appears to rest during sleep, a whole lot is happening inside the brain. Neurons pulse with electrical signals that wash over the brain in a rhythmic flow. The brain runs checks on itself to ensure that the balance of hormones, enzymes and proteins isn’t too far off-kilter. All the while, brain cells contract, opening up the spaces between them so that fluid can wash out the toxic detritus that can cause all kinds of problems if it builds up.”
5. Weight gain from early to middle adulthood poses risks
by Amy Roeder in Harvard Gazette (4 min)
Cumulative weight gain over the course of early and middle adulthood may increase health risks later in life, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
They found that compared with people who kept their weight stable, people who gained a moderate amount of weight (5 to 22 pounds) before age 55 increased their risk of chronic diseases and premature death, and decreased the likelihood of achieving healthy aging. Higher amounts of weight gain were associated with greater risk of chronic diseases.
6. Will 90 Become the New 60?
by David Steinsaltz in Nautilus (12 min)
Even without magic pills, and despite sleeping less than we should, and despite the fact we have an obesity epidemic in the U.S., our average life spans keep increasing.
What’s more, we’re not just tacking on painful end-of-life years, we are extending the number of healthy years to our lives too.
In 1936 Louis Dublin, the chief actuary of Metropolitan Life teamed up with the esteemed mathematical demographer Alfred Lotka, to calculate the maximum life expectancy theoretically possible. They came up with a limit of 69.93 years.
This limit was exceeded by women in Iceland five years later, by American women in 1949, and by American men in 1979.
Life expectancies have been increasing at a steady rate of 3 months per year for the past 175 years, and on average, expert calculations of the maximum possible human lifespan have been exceeded an average of five years after being made.
…A recent study by University of Southern California gerontologist Eileen Crimmins and her colleagues looked at the change in disability-free life expectancy — the average number of years that we would expect someone to live free of major limitations due to long-term illness.
From 1970 to 2010 American males gained about 7.7 years of life expectancy at birth, of which nearly half (3.2) could be expected to be disability free. Perhaps more immediately relevant, Americans aged 65 saw their remaining life expectancy increase from 15 to 19 years, with 2.5 of the 4 extra years being disability-free.
POSTSCRIPT: Reflections on the length of life
My grandma Amanda is 97 years old. She is a Kansas farm girl who worked all her life. She was a Costco food demonstrator well into her 80s. My dad is convinced that her longevity is related to the fact that she kept working for so long. It kept her sharp.
There is some scientific backing for this idea, coming out of Boston College last year: people who work past 65 tend to live longer, on average. But those people also weren’t overweight, didn’t smoke, and had meaningful work.
If you read any one of the articles above, you might think radical life extension is right around the corner. Read all of them however and you start to see that there are a lot of theories out there. Maybe they are all true. Or maybe these magic pills and strategies are all still speculative and we get excited just because we want to believe they will pan out.
There will always be an opportunity to make some money if you have a good story to tell about a wonder drug or wonder therapy that will extend human life.
I went to my high school reunion this weekend. As far as I know, there is no link between attending reunions and extending your life span. But reunions are a way of marking time and reminding you of how much time you’ve had.
I mostly live in the present or thinking about the concerns of this day or week. When I’m not in the present, I tend to think about the future, what life will be like in a year or two. I spend far less time thinking about the past. In other words, I spend most of my life thinking about a very small window of time: the present and near future. Walking into my reunion, I remembered again that I have a history.
What matters to me is not what these classmates think of me now. It just matters that they knew me then. And that I knew them. It is a sweet comfort.
To be known, to be understood, are among the great needs of human life. We moved across the country this year. We left dear friends and a rich community and wonderful church. After the initial excitement of moving, I have recently felt more poignantly a desire to be known, to not have to explain where I’m from or what I do for a living. I want to invest in relationships where friends already know all the basic facts. Seeing these old classmates at our reunion, who shared an adolescence in underfunded public schools felt reassuring. Maybe because of that, before the reunion, I determined that I didn’t care about trying to impress anyone. I just wanted to be kind. I wanted to honor these keepers of our shared memory.
One woman in our class has received a diagnosis that she has a terminal disease. She likely won’t make it to our next reunion. Already, the disease is evident in her speech and in her need for a walker. She has two children. She isn’t sure how much time she has left. And she did something surprising at the reunion: she did a stand-up (well, technically a sit-down) comedy routine at the class dinner.
I’m trying to imagine how your perspective changes when you come to grips with the fact that your future may be limited to your near-future. In her case, the constraint of a shorter life is provoking her to live more freely — to do things most of us would never dream of, like doing a stand-up comedy routine at your high school reunion. Only half of the room could hear her, and she wasn’t getting huge laughs. But she did her routine.
As I watched her I felt a strange mix of sadness for her family, embarrassment for her performance, and admiration for her courage. In the end, admiration was the greater feeling.
I wonder if our search for ways to extend our lives and our attempts to avoid being humiliated before our peers are related. We always have a choice — to run from death and from humiliation — or to face them bravely. And maybe in facing our fears, we’ll learn to really live.
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