For those interested in longevity, July was a good news month. Recently published research in the journal Science shows that caloric restriction helps monkeys live longer and healthier, while a parallel study demonstrated the possibility that a drug could mimic this process.
Clearly, new technologies aimed at lengthening and improving human health are in the works, yet what is missing is a clear understanding of what the technology implies.
Scientists at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center fed the calorically restricted (CR) monkeys 30 percent fewer calories but still provided them with sufficient nutrients.
Compared with the control group fed at normal levels, the CR monkeys maintained better health longer and had dramatically lower levels of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, brain atrophy and lean-muscle loss, leading the authors of the study to conclude that they “appear to be biologically younger than the normally fed animals.”
Eternal Bliss vs. Neverending Misery
Researchers who specialize in this area were not surprised at the outcome of the study, since the same effect is known to occur in yeast, worms, flies, fish and mice. But the fact that monkeys were able to extend their healthspans by eating fewer calories is important, because monkeys are much more like humans than the usual research animal, the mouse.
Of course, most humans would not want to eat 30 percent fewer calories for the rest of their lives, so the race is on to find a drug that can mimic these effects without actually having to lower food intake.
GlaxoSmithKline is currently betting on resveratrol, a compound found in red wine that is thought to mimic CR, and a study published this month in Nature showed that rapamycin, an antibiotic used in organ transplants, looks promising even when given to mice that were already in old age.
“It’s no longer irresponsible to say that following these up could lead to medicines that increase human life span by 10, 20 or 30 percent,” said one of the researchers, Richard A. Miller, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Michigan.
The reaction to such discoveries tends to be either overexuberant or dismissive. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen expressed what many were feeling when he wrote, “I don’t buy this gain-without-pain notion.”
With so many snake oil salesmen in the anti-aging business, Cohen’s reaction is understandable. Yet, taking a drug daily to counter the effects of aging is not exactly pain-free. It would require both money — for presumably if the drugs work, they will not be cheap — and consistency. How many people even remember to take their multivitamin every day?
Cohen’s observation that “life without death would be miserable” is meant to be dismissive, but it helps to illustrate the overexuberance many Americans feel when presented with new medical technologies. That is, on hearing about the possibility of life-extension drugs, many people jump to the conclusion that death will suddenly be a thing of the past. Such an assumption is wrong, since life extension drugs would only delay it, albeit allowing greater health in the meantime.
The Allure of the Magic Pill
The belief that a single magic pill will immediately deliver the fountain of youth can lead to big trouble, especially when it comes to diet and exercise.
Already, two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and the problem is especially worrisome in children. In the last 25 years, the rate of child obesity has tripled, and some researchers are worried that certain segments of today’s youth could be the first to face lower life expectancies than their parents if products that mimic caloric restriction don’t hit the market. That is, it seems as though many Americans are already acting as if medical cures to neutralize their bad habits are already available.
Health-enhancing technology is advancing at rapid speeds. Aside from solid progress on caloric restriction, scientists are working on all sorts of projects that will no doubt extend life expectancy, such as growing new organs in the lab or fighting cancer with nano-drugs that target cancerous cells while leaving the healthy cells alone.
The upside is that actual drugs based on these technologies seem closer to reality than ever before. The downside is that the possibilities these new technologies awaken sometimes entice people to throw away common sense, such as a healthy diet and at least a moderate exercise regimen.
It’s clear that healthier — and potentially much longer — lives await those who keep themselves in good physical shape. People who don’t address their dietary issues and ignore exercise will face the health consequences and possibly even reduce their life spans.
Such a divide between members of the same society would be unfortunate, and it can be avoided if the implications of upcoming longevity technologies are properly understood.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.