Towards a Cure for Aging

Work on treating aging as a medical condition, targeting the mechanisms that cause aging in order to slow or reverse its progression, has advanced to the point at which the popular science and medical resources of the world are writing overviews on the topic, seeking to better inform the public at large. We have come a long way in the past decade. The compelling animal data for approaches such as the targeted removal of senescent cells, showing rejuvenation in mice, is melting some of the skepticism that previously characterized attitudes towards the treatment of aging.

Heart disease. Cancer. Diabetes. Dementia. Researchers spend billions of dollars every year trying to eradicate these medical scourges. Yet even if we discover cures to these and all other chronic conditions, it won't change our ultimate prognosis: death. "That's because you haven't stopped aging," says Jay Olshansky, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. But what if we could? What if we are trying to extend longevity in the wrong way? Instead of focusing on diseases, should we take aim at aging itself? Some scientists think so. Fueled in part by a billion dollars of investor money, they are attempting to reverse-engineer your molecular biological clock. Their goal? To eliminate not merely diseases that kill people, but to prevent death itself.

Aubrey de Grey, PhD, a biomedical gerontologist, has drawn wide attention for his belief that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old is already among us. He believes there's no cap on how long we can live, depending on what medicines we develop in the future. "The whole idea is that there would not be a limit on how long we can keep people healthy," de Grey says. He's the chief science officer and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, which funds research on how to put the brakes on aging. De Grey's view, in theory, isn't so far-fetched.

The medical term for growing old is senescence. Buffeted by DNA damage and stresses, your cells deteriorate and eventually stop multiplying, but don't die. That slowdown may have big consequences for your health. Your genes become more likely to get mutations, which can pave the way for cancer. Mitochondria, which produce energy in the cell, struggle to fuel your body. That can damage cells and cause chronic inflammation, which plays a part in diabetes, arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and many other diseases.

One major hallmark of aging is the growing stockpile of these senescent cells. Damaged cells become deactivated as a way to protect your body from harmful or uncontrolled cell division. But like the rotten apple that spoils the whole bunch, senescent cells encourage their neighbors to turn dysfunctional, too. They also emit proteins that trigger inflammation. Your body naturally removes these dormant cells. But older immune systems have a harder time cleaning up, so the senescent cells are more likely to hang around. Flushing out this accumulated debris may be one way to avert aging, some experts say.


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