Do you remember resveratrol? This was the “magic” antioxidant that supposedly made red wine so healthy, and on which pharmaceutical companies spent a fortune. I always believed that the reason the French smoked more and yet had fewer heart attacks than Americans had little to do with red wine and more to do with their relaxed lifestyle: 2-hour lunch breaks at home with family and the month of August off. In any case, Glaxo Smith Kline spent $720 million on a start-up that was working on a resveratrol-like compound only to shut it down for failure to produce useful results in increasing health and longevity.
Two products that are currently being studied as anti-aging compounds are an old drug used to treat diabetes, metformin, and a newer agent, rapamycin, that is used to prevent transplanted organs being rejected. Both have shown promise in increasing longevity in animal studies.
The average human lifespan has certainly increased dramatically over the past few centuries. World-wide, human life expectancy at birth has risen from about 30 years in the mid-19th century to 73 years in 2020. The reasons for this are the dramatic reduction in infectious disease deaths through immunization and, to a lesser degree, antibiotics, safer food and water, safer work environments and better maternal care. These mean fewer people die young.
What has not changed much is the maximum human lifespan. The oldest old live to be 110 to 120 years, and this has not changed, though we are certainly seeing more centenarians. Most species have an upper limit to their lifespan in the absence of disease or trauma, and for humans, this would appear to be about 120 years.
One impediment to “anti-aging” drug development is that the FDA does not recognize “aging” as a disease to be treated and would thus probably not approve a drug targeted at extending lifespan rather than treating a specific disease. Another is the very high safety threshold such a drug would face if it were to be targeted at everyone.
The other big question is whether many of us would want to live longer if this meant living with a growing array of medical problems and frailties. The ideal drug would not necessarily make us all live to 120 but would let us get into our 80’s, 90’s and beyond with intact joints, brain, and muscle.
Both metformin and low-dose rapamycin are currently in human trials, and other products are in animal studies. No promises, but stay tuned.
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