By Dr. Eddie Chaloner - Consultant Vascular Surgeon
The science behind prolonging human lifespans is a hot topic in biotechnology. In past centuries, communicable infectious diseases accounted for most human deaths, but these have largely been vanquished in the developed world by improved sanitation, vaccinations and antibiotics. Even in the current pandemic, the median age of death from COVID in the UK was 82 years old – virtually identical to the average age of death in normal times.
In Europe and the USA, humans now usually die of diseases of degeneration, such as dementia and cardiovascular disease, or cellular dysfunction such as the various types of cancer. The oldest recorded human being (a Frenchwoman called Jeanne Calment) died aged 122 in 1997. The hunt is now on for drugs and treatments that will not just prolong life, but prolong the duration of good quality active life closer to the theoretical maximum human lifespan of 140 – 150 years.
There are some interventions that are already known to mitigate the effects of ageing. Perhaps the most obvious being prevention of obesity – obese and overweight people have measurably reduced longevity. There is some evidence emerging that the pattern of eating may also have an effect on human senescence – for example the practice of intermittent fasting has been demonstrated to have an effect on certain biochemical processes linked to reduction of inflammation.
There are several areas of active investigation in longevity research, but two in particular stand out. The study of inflammation and how it interacts with ageing and the process of apoptosis – or how the body eradicates ageing and malfunctioning cells.
Inflammation is an important natural response to infection or injury – in layman’s terms it is how the body defends itself from attack or repairs itself after injury. However, sometimes inflammation can get out of control and damage healthy structures. Certain existing drug types are known to have beneficial anti-inflammatory effects. Metformin is a common drug used to treat type 2 diabetes which has beneficial side effects on protection of blood vessels (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2021.718942/full).
Statins, commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol levels have similar anti- inflammatory effects.
Apoptosis, or the means by which the body identifies and eradicates useless or malfunctioning cells is a very active area for research. Much money is being invested in these areas much of it in an attempt to combat Alzheimers disease. Although no therapeutic breakthroughs have yet been achieved, substantial progress has been made in understanding the basic science behind ageing. Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University was awarded a Nobel prize in 2006 for his work in discovering specific proteins which reverse cellular differentiation – in essence turning the cellular clock back to an immature cell state before a specific cell became a muscle or a nerve cell.
As might be expected, Silicon Valley is prominent in efforts to broach the frontier of longevity. Altos labs in California (https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/09/04/1034364/altos-labs-silicon-valleys-jeff-bezos-milner-bet-living-forever/ ) is reportedly funded by well known technology billionaires and the influential British investor Jim Mellon is heavily involved in similar research via his investment vehicle Juvenesence (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/29/billionaire-jim-mellon-plans-to-take-life-extension-start-up-public.html)
It is far from clear at this point when clinically proven therapies will emerge to reduce the effects of ageing and prolong healthy lifespans. Having said that, basic understanding of the biochemical processes around ageing is rapidly advancing so the prospects for significant developments are good.
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Published by By Dr. Eddie Chaloner, Consultant Vascular Surgeon
MA(Oxon) BM BCh FRCS(Edin) FRCS (Gen)