Have a discussion with anyone on the topic of losing someone close and they will share an experience about a friend or family member that has passed away to soon. Or they will share a story about someone that passed away some time ago from a condition that, if they were alive today, would be completely curable. The advances in surgery, medicine, vaccines, gene therapy, the causes of disease and our general understanding of cellular health are delivering daily breakthroughs that we will all benefit from when its our turn to deal with the inevitable health condition that will arrive as we advance in age. And we can only hope that when the time comes for each of us to be tapped on the shoulder by a health condition that the advances will have come fast enough for us to benefit and not some future generation.
It’s now well accepted that the biggest risk for poor health is advancing age. This includes cluster of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes and more, that disproportionally affect older adults. There is still an over-investment in the level of health research budget going into each of these conditions and, whilst it is very important to continue this work, one of the issues with this strategy is that if we cure one condition it just allows us to survive until the next unsolved condition arrives on our doorstep.
A New Paradigm
The current paradigm sets us up for a longer lifespan but only extends the period of poor health that we suffer through before we die.
A new paradigm is emerging that seeks to decelerate the speed at which our cells age with the ultimate goal that we keep our cells in good working order for as long as possible so that we defer the appearance of the cluster of conditions that arrive with older age. Once we start making breakthroughs in slowing cellular aging then we will achieve something remarkable – the radical extension of our healthspan – the length of time over our lives that we are in good health. It’s a worthy goal, the benefit of deferring the onset of any disease by just one year is measured in the hundreds of billions and potentially trillions of dollars across the developed world and would deliver a return on funds invested, to capture the goal, anywhere from 10 to 100 times. This is the moonshot of our century, and this is what hundreds of research organisations are working on right now.
Hallmarks of Aging
Under a decade ago, scientists identified the Hallmarks of Aging. The Hallmarks describe functional areas of our cells that are responsible for driving the aging process. Each Hallmark was measured by three criteria. They must decline in function naturally with age, when we experimentally accelerate their decline, aging speeds up and, when we experimentally slow their decline down, we see a concurrent decline in the appearance of aging. What makes this formal categorization of how and why our cells age so exciting is that each of these Hallmarks are a target that researchers can focus on.
And focus they have. Breakthroughs in understanding how our bodies respond to nutrients has elucidated the effect of one of the only fully validated anti-aging compounds. Rapamycin inhibits a key protein called mTOR and it has been shown to slow aging in every organism it has been tested on. From yeast to mice to dogs to primates. Human trials are underway now and, if the trend is our friend, then rapamycin will become the first cab off the rank in a range of anti-aging interventions that humanity will benefit from. Meanwhile advances in senolytic therapies, mitochondrial rejuvenation, DNA stabilizers and more will come online. As each of the Hallmarks is slowly unpacked delivering therapies for each the cumulative benefit for our cellular and overall health will mean that adding 20 or 30 years of good health to our lives is completely within our grasp.
And of course, these breakthroughs will give the researchers working on understanding and solving the clusters of diseases associated with old age more time to find interventions that will cure what was once incurable and, in the process, giving us many more years of healthspan to boot. Its an exciting time in the research world and step by step we are going to age healthier than every previous generation. The benefits to humanity will be profound and when wrapped around the other technological advancements that are arriving at the same time, we are about to usher in a golden age that will be very different for us all in the years ahead.