Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Victor.

If your dream is to stop aging altogether, there are some media stories that you might find intriguing. Headlines about anti-aging pills draw eyeballs and set expectations high, but how viable are they, and what exactly do they do?

As our population grows older, more research time is being dedicated to minimizing the biological impact of aging. One approach is to look at how aging is controlled within the body and apply new techniques to modify it. Another avenue of research is to examine the aging aspects of existing medications, which are already displaying some positive side-effects. In both cases, the aim is to reduce incidence of disease and boost immune responses in adults with the goal of delivering healthier and longer lives.

Almost as interesting as the research itself is how the conversation is being framed – while the headlines revolve around the promise of anti-aging, the research doesn’t promise to stop the clock and deliver immortality. However, the media spin on the subject may promote a needlessly negative response to normal, natural process that happens to all living things.

“In my view, the term ‘anti-aging’ promotes an ageist view on aging because it implies that there is something wrong
about getting old.”

“In my view, the term ‘anti-aging’ promotes an ageist view on aging because it implies that there is something wrong about getting old”, says Dr. Parminder Raina, who is the scientific director of the McMaster University Institute for Research on Aging. “The goal of modern science is not to reverse aging but to think of ways to live as healthy as possible as we age. The research is working to understand the underlying biological and psychosocial mechanisms that will allow us to develop interventions that promote healthy aging.”

So, while the ‘anti-aging’ label may be erroneous, these treatments do hold potential for improving longevity and overall health levels. Here are three of the latest approaches:

The whole concept of “anti-aging” pills smacks of ageism say experts. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Bark.

More than a diabetes medication

Metformin is the most common drug used by those with type-2 diabetes. Researchers found that by giving rats and mice metformin they are able to increase longevity. Meanwhile, observational studies in humans have suggested that metformin reduces the incidence of chronic afflictions like cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia. A $77-million clinical trial is pending and may unravel whether the drug itself is improving overall health and immunity levels or whether this is being caused by the lifestyle changes being implemented to manage diabetes.

Building a blockade

mTOR-inhibiting drugs are commonly used with cancer and organ transplant patients. They target a protein (mTOR) that, amongst other things, plays a key role in regulating cellular aging. By blocking a similar enzyme in organisms from nematodes to rats, researchers have been able to increase longevity. The hope is that this can be repeated in humans. Current results have shown a healthier immune response and a significant drop in infections amongst human test groups, which is important as one less infection can make the difference between life and death in older adults.

“It is not just about living long, but more importantly, living well.”

Giving the body a boost

A third avenue focuses on a compound called NAD+ which is found in all living cells and plays a vital role in regulating cellular aging. The older we get, the less NAD+ we have, and researchers have found that if they give NAD+ levels a boost in mice, tissues and muscles are rejuvenated to the point that it is difficult to tell samples of older and younger mice apart. Anecdotal evidence in human subjects is also promising, but full-scale studies are required to provide conclusive results.

So, is a miracle drug on the horizon that will significantly boost life spans? “I don’t think there will be a single silver bullet that will be found,” says Dr. Raina. “If we look historically at what has given us this longevity revolution, it is good environment, better food, exercise, access to health care, reduction in infectious diseases, prosperity and prevention and or management of diseases.” These factors, he says, need supporting and understanding to allow us to age with dignity in the place of our choice. After all, he concludes: “It is not just about living long, but more importantly, living well.”