The National Geographic has been fairly heavily engaged in promoting Breakthrough, a new popular science and technology show that edges its way around the outskirts of topics such as artificial general intelligence, transhumanism, and, of course, the medical control of aging, which in time will lead to extension of healthy life spans and elimination of age-related disease. Judging from what is out so far, this largely has the air of presenting a very watered-down, safe, unambitious vision of these goals to the public at large, while at the same time painting that as edgy and radical. So both condescending and missing the point at one and the same time. Still, they're sinking a fair amount of time and effort into this judging from the panoply of surrounding articles and the high-tech series website with its 3-D vision sphere effect. Also, albeit buried several layers deep in that set of marginally interactive spheres, you'll find video commentary from some of the folk in our community on the topic of radical life extension through medical science: Aubrey de Grey, Jason Silva, Sonia Arrison, Maria Konovalenko, and so forth.
Apart from that, most of what is on offer is focused on research efforts with marginal goals, such as the metformin trial that aims to be one small step towards very slightly slowing human aging, and researchers who believe that there is little more that can be done than this. For those who reject the SENS view of rejuvenation through targeted damage repair, or similar visions based on the Hallmarks of Aging viewpoint, research plans that could lead to radical life extension within decades if fully funded, there is little to see but a long, very expensive process of cataloging all of cellular metabolism and all of its age-related dysfunctions, and along the way using the traditional process of drug discovery to try to eke out very tiny beneficial alterations to the way in which aging occurs. This is a disappointing vision for anyone to be stuck embracing in a time of radical and rapid progress in biotechnology.
Only about 5 people out of 1,000 live longer than a century. For the most part, these people get the same illnesses as everyone else - they just get ill a few decades later. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is trying to understand why. He's been studying large numbers of centenarians who share similar genetics. Barzilai is conducting a major study on the diabetes drug metformin, which he has shown can delay the diseases of aging in animals.
"You have to be careful. Is metformin going to be good only? We hope. For 60 years, millions of [people have used it] and nothing bad has happened. But we'll see. Metformin is the way to pave the road. Once the pharmaceuticals jump into this field, we will get better drugs. That's why we think the next decade is really exciting. The fountain of youth is not what we're doing, but this is the first time that we understand enough about the biology and mechanisms [of aging] so we can really think of drugs that can help us."
Aging might not be such a crisis if people not only lived longer, but also stayed healthier and were able to continue to lead productive lives. That's why researchers are working to solve some of the mysteries of aging, and to figure out ways to counteract its effects. And while they haven't yet found a way to slow the aging process, in recent years they've made promising progress.
In recent years, scientists have discovered that longevity apparently has less to do with lifestyle than genes. A study published in 2011 found that those who made it to 95 or older were no more virtuous than the rest of us when it came to what they ate, how much they exercised, and whether they smoked or drank. Indeed, only 43 percent of male centenarians - those over 100 years old - reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate duration. 24 percent of long-lived men consumed alcohol on a daily basis, a slightly higher rate than the general population. "The study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle."
Of interest, there is a small section on senescent cell clearance stuck in the middle of that second article on longevity genes. This is the trouble with translating the essence of longevity science and its goals to the public at large. Those tasked with that effort are usually incapable of determining the difference between lines of research that absolutely cannot ever, even in principle, greatly extend healthy human life and produce rejuvenation, versus those that can. To them there is no difference between (a) hunting for genetic differences that raise the odds of living to be a centenarian from exceedingly low to slightly less exceedingly low, with an eye to giving other people that tiny extra boost to the odds, and (b) work on clearing senescent cells, which is one of the ways of repairing the fundamental causes of aging that could produce significant rejuvenation for any patient. It is all the same to the eyes of the layperson: here is a scientific program, here the scientist is working on something related to aging and longevity, check the box, move on.
I hear occasional complaints that I am partisan in my support of damage repair over, for example, drug discovery or epigenetic alteration as an approach to treating aging. That is because from where I stand the evidence strongly supports SENS-like programs aimed at damage repair as the best, indeed the only, way to achieve radical life extension soon enough to matter. There is a big, big difference in expected outcomes between the likes of carrying out trials for metformin and the likes of trying to make senescent cell clearance a viable treatment. It isn't all the same, and we are still stuck in the situation wherein most of the funding that comes into aging research is going to what is in effect purely investigative science, slightly dressed up with hopes of results because that works to raise funding, but like the metformin trial and the genetic studies in centenarians, these are efforts likely to produce nothing of use beyond more data on metabolism and aging. That's great in the pure science world, where no data goes to waste, but it won't get us to actual, working rejuvenation therapies. There are solid, sensible reasons for being an advocate of SENS and similar efforts, and front and center is the point that, given even a fraction of the funding that went to sirtuin development, SENS is much more likely to produce results that are big enough and happen soon enough to matter to you and I personally.