A Look at a Different Paradigm of Thought on Aging Research

There are many, many people who think of fighting aging only in terms of exercise, diet, and supplements. As hobbies go, there are certainly innumerable far worse ways to spend your time and energy, but bear in mind that the expected outcome of being fanatically conscious of your health and aging is only a marginally longer life expectancy of perhaps 5 to 10 years, all of which emerges from either exercise or calorie restriction, and all of which can be captured by very laid back arrangements of regular aerobic exercise and a sane calorie restricted diet. All that fuss over advanced and ornate supplement plans and lifestyle engineering produces essentially nothing: the best scientific evidence suggests that effects are negative if they exist at all.

The modern health and supplements view on aging has evolved with the times, reaching out to encompass and follow research that aims to produce drugs and other interventions that marginally slow aging. This is a very understandable, logical progression. If you are interested in supplement research in the context of health and aging, then it is a short step from there to be interested in sirtuins, rapamycin, and other attempts to extend life by artificially altering metabolism that are presently underway. A person can be rigorous and sensible in following this research, throwing out all that is speculative, and decrying the hype, confusion, and outright lies that make up the "anti-aging" industry.

Today I'll point out a good example of this sort of viewpoint to contrast with my own views on science and aging. A recent post from the site Aging Sciences - Anti-Aging Firewalls provides an excellent insight into the mindset of those who are far more enthusiastic about the development of drugs to slow aging than I am, and who see the present as a time of palpable progress towards near term goals in this arena:

Five-Year Progress Report on Major Trends Impacting on Longevity

This is a progress report on the changing state of human longevity during the five-year lifespan of this blog. From the broadest perspective, a combination of better scientific knowledge, social trends and initiatives, industry and engineering developments are already propelling the general populations in our country and in other advanced societies towards greater health and enhanced longevity. It is not just that science will do this in the future; it is already happening by the interaction of science, social and commercial developments and engineering developments. Extending human lifespans is not just something that is going to be in the future. It is something very much with us in the fabric of what is happening right now.

From a personal perspective, I believe that the swelling stream of scientific knowledge about health and longevity is increasingly enabling earlier adapters to live lives that are longer, healthier, and more productive than the lives experienced in the general population. Enhanced life extension is increasingly available for those willing to learn about how to pursue it and who are willing to modify their lifestyles and habits to bring it about.

Starting now, every seven years will see the emergence of practical age-extension interventions (ones that have a potential of leading to extraordinary longevity) that double the power of the interventions available at the start of the 7 year period. That is, on an average basis, the practical anti-aging interventions available at the end of a seven-year period will enable twice the number of years of life extension than did the interventions available at the start of the period. Life extension is measured in years of life expectancy beyond those actuarially predicted for a given population starting in a certain base year.

I've cut out the references in favor of the summary in the quote above, so you should scan the whole thing; a lot of work went into it. Fundamentally the view is that progress is taking place now, and this progress is the most interesting aspect of aging research: we should be watching excitedly for studies that show new ways to use pharmaceuticals or the like to slow aging in mice, and consider how rapidly they could be brought into human trials. The expectation is that for the bigger picture of all potential treatments considered as a whole there is a sliding scale of improvement, and that improvement has been happening, is still happening, and will continue to happen on quite a short time frame.

This is all far removed from my view of aging research and present progress. With no great offense intended to those who spend so much time and effort on this aspect of research, I have to say that it is very clearly a road to nowhere, one that is not in any way producing steady gains at this time. Yes, there is an increasing portfolio of methods to increase life span in mice by 10-30% via metabolic alteration, usually the low end of that range, but little to show that these methods stack. At base most are turning out to be simply different ways of manipulating the same few core mechanisms. The outer limit of mouse life extension has not been rising to approach the record of over 60% set more than decade ago by the discovery of growth hormone receptor knockout mutants.

Further, consider that those methods of life extension with dramatic effects in mice that have existing, measurable analogs in humans, such as calorie restriction and growth hormone receptor knockout mutants, do not extend life by anywhere near the same degree in our species. We'd have certainly noticed by now if human life span could be extended 40% by eating less, for example. There is no reason to expect this current portfolio of ways to slow aging in mice to have wondrous results in people, and for most there is no evidence whatsoever to support anything other than ethereal hope. There is still no such thing as a solid, proven method of measuring biomarkers of aging in humans over short periods of time and using that to make confident predictions on the effects of a treatment on mortality and aging. It doesn't exist yet, and until it does you can't talk about effects on life span due to methods of metabolic manipulation emerging from the labs now in anything but a very speculative way.

What do I see when I look at aging research today? Where the quoted folk above see a gradual upward slope, I see a low, flat swamp of muddy humps that leads to a soaring cliff in the distance. Near all of present day aging and longevity research is a matter of people slogging to the top of one of these muddy humps, and is of very little benefit other than to better map the swamp. But if the research community works instead on making it to the cliffs, through programs such as the development of SENS repair biotechnologies, then at some point in the decades ahead there will be a sudden take-off as means of reversing aging emerge. Not just slowing, but reversing: making the old physically younger, preventing the occurrence of age-related disease, and extending healthy life by decades initially and indefinitely later.

To my eyes the evidence for the foundation technologies of SENS to produce large benefits to health and longevity, based on the identification of the causes of degenerative aging, is far better than that supporting any branch of metabolic manipulation, most of which is still a matter of exploration rather than tackling clear and known line items.

The chief problem today is that most people who might support meaningful work on treatments for degenerative aging are focused on the swamp, which in this analogy is work on slowing aging through drugs and genetic engineering of metabolism. They don't see the cliffs ahead as a viable goal, or don't understand that the clifftops exist as a possibility. But the only way we are going to obtain significant extension of life in our lifetimes is by reaching for the greater goal: the development of rejuvenation treatments that repair the known root causes of aging. Tinkering with metabolism can do no more than slow down the damage: it can't prevent it or remove it. It is useless to the old, and of only marginal benefit to the young. It won't greatly extend our lives, and focusing on it is thus a waste and a lost opportunity.


I just can't believe the war on supplements you are waging. There seems to be little actual, credible research suggesting negative effects as you continually ascertain.

Posted by: bmack500 at June 3rd, 2014 9:36 AM

I would be curious to know who you, 'Reason' are. If you are going to post such a critical view of the 'supplements' approach to aging, and 'the swamp' you claim exists, you should at least sign your name and give your credentials. Thank you, RS

Posted by: Ramon at June 8th, 2014 1:42 PM



People are strangely defensive when it comes to supplements. It is perhaps not surprising, given the degree to which the scientific consensus is ignored in this matter. You are so very much better off exercising and eating less than you are experimenting with supplements, and the evidence for this is voluminous. But this is far from the only way in which people are less than rational in their approach to life.

I would be very pleased to see a hundredth of the effort and noise surrounding supplements and life span - efforts that will achieve no meaningful result in extending human life - go towards work such as SENS that does have a shot at producing meaningful life extension of decades or more. That would be a lot more resources than are directed towards rejuvenation research at the moment, which is the tragedy of the situation. It is a world of people fixated on glitter rather gold.

Posted by: Reason at June 8th, 2014 4:08 PM

Still waiting to find out who 'Reason' is, and you can just email me personally if that makes a difference.

Posted by: Ramon at June 10th, 2014 6:13 PM
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