The ever-desired "Fountain of Youth". Though it has never been found, many of us try to emulate its effects, spending billions of dollars on cremes, plastic surgery, and Botox. And despite our incessant infatuation with staying young forever, we always eventually end up on the losing side of nature. But via the power of science, could we be as close as we've ever been to an actual product that slows down the aging process?
Research scientists have focused on two areas that seem to delay the aging process: caloric restriction and single gene changes. In published studies, mice on a calorie restricted diet (defined as 30% fewer calories than a normal diet) have been shown to live 30-40% longer than their normal diet counterparts. And, perhaps just as important, the calorie restricted mice seem to be protected from disease. Critics point to the use of lab mice compared to wild mice, and their skepticism about increased longevity seems to be warranted. But nevertheless, even they cannot deny the beneficial effect of a calorie restricted diet on the health of both lab and wild mice.
The key compound in this altered regulation of metabolism is resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine. Resveratrol is known to be a very strong sirtuin activator, which explains its alleged effect in delaying the aging process. Sirtuins are compounds that detect low levels of energy reserves in cells and are activated when levels are low, which would be crucial for proteins that regulate metabolism. It is believed by some scientists that sirtuins can explain the French paradox - why the French have a high life expectancy while eating a high-fat diet, but also one flush with resveratrol-containing wine. Thus, develop a compound that can also activate sirtuins and you could hold the scientific "Fountain of Youth".
That's just what Dr. David A. Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School is doing, with his co-founding of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. And apparently his company has something, as it was sold to pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline last year for $720 million.
More research needs to be conducted to confirm the anti-aging benefits of a resveratrol-like product, but if one can be developed and confirmed, it will take a whole legion of bioethicists to examine the implications of such a development.
Some already believe our life expectancy is too high to be sustainable. If we eventually do get to the point where the average life expectancy in developed nations reaches 90+ years, we will have no choice but to mandate longer work careers and longer waits to receive benefits, such as Medicare and Social Security eligibility. And with people working longer, the impact on entrants into the work field could be severe. Of course, there are issues about expanded energy use, our planet's population capacity, limits in food production levels, among many others.
If these new compounds could allow us to lead healthier lives without expanding our life expectancy, then the economic impact could actually be very beneficial. Health care costs would decrease due to overall improved health, but the average total length of care would remain the same, thus leading to lower costs. But would that even be possible? Every advancement that has made us healthier (adequate nutrition, vaccinations, more effective treatments for many diseases) has lead to drastic increases in our life expectancy. In only 160 years - an infinitesimal amount of time in regard to biology - female life expectancy at birth nearly doubled, from 45 years in 1840 to 85 years in 2000, nearly all of that contributed to our scientific advances in health care. And with humans seemingly being the only species to defy the omnipotent "S-curve", anything that adds enables our total population to increase at an even faster rate could have potentially drastic effects.
What are all your thoughts, both on the science aspect as well as the ethical/philosophical aspect of anti-aging compounds? Comments always welcomed.