Humans are born with an expiration date. From the moment of conception, we're assigned a shared fate — that someday, in some way, we all die. It used to come earlier. In ancient Roman times, people could expect to live 30 to 35 years. By the mid-20th century, life expectancy in the United States had risen to 65 for men and 71 for women. Today, the average American life span hovers around 78 years, though that's far from the bounds of what is possible.
Extending life span is rooted deep in the human psyche. Over history, people have chased the illusive goal of living longer through pills, potions, and fountains of everlasting youth. Today, the quest is backed by increasingly rigorous science spurred on by labs and biotech companies. Their goal is to understand the mechanics behind aging on a molecular level so they can slow it. "We thought aging was inevitable, but that's not true," Barzilai says. "Aging is quite flexible and can be targeted. We can delay aging, we can stop many manifestations of aging, and in some cases we'll be able to reverse aging."
"The main objective is to live healthier longer, and the side effect of that is you tend to live longer as well."
Last year, according to an IMARC market research report, the "anti-aging" industry was worth an estimated $54.2 billion. Its skin-care formulas and supplements and high-tech treatments (like cryo-saunas, that claim to slow tissue damage with subfreezing liquid nitrogen baths) might have a superficial impact on our bodies, but the real work happens at the cellular level. That's where scientists are targeting the hallmarks of aging to create therapies that extend "health span." "The main objective is to live healthier longer, and the side effect of that is you tend to live longer as well," says David Setboun, president of the Academy for Health & Lifespan Research, a nonprofit organization of researchers focused on longevity.
Aging essentially begins in utero. It happens slowly at first, and then seemingly all at once as the accumulation of damage renders the body more vulnerable to disease and "our compensatory and resilience mechanisms decline," says Luigi Ferrucci, scientific director at the National Institute on Aging. The unglamorous truth is that treating aging is really about preventing the diseases that are caused by aging. "If we can figure out how to slow aging, we push out all 10 leading causes of death," says Greg Bailey, cofounder and CEO of biotech longevity company Juvenescence.
The older we get, the more at risk we are for noncommunicable ailments including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cardiovascular disease, which are among the top 10 causes of death worldwide. Bailey says that by 70 years old, the chance of developing an age-related disease is 50 times higher than it is at 30, making age by far the biggest risk factor in ailments typically associated with a shortened life span. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately puts people over 65 at risk for complications and death. Barzilai believes perhaps some of the same therapies researchers are exploring to curb age-related conditions (like immune decline and inflammation) could have an impact on protecting the aging population from COVID-19 and any future pandemics. This research is less about finding a cure and more about making people healthier all-around. "We can improve immunological function and the body as a whole," he says.
A growing number of companies believe that slowing the aging process is not just possible but inevitable, and there's been a burst of investment in the longevity space. In the past decade, venture capitalists, technologists, and deep-pocketed armchair scientists have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into longevity research with the goal of creating consumer therapies — someday, these might be as routine as popping a multivitamin. Bailey's Juvenescence currently has 11 entities under its umbrella, exploring more than 20 therapies that target everything from slowing cellular aging to regenerating aging organs.
Later this year, Juvenescence will launch its first commercial product, a drinkable ketone ester called Metabolic Switch (expected to be priced under $10 a day — less than many green juices). It was developed with researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Bailey explains that the drink induces a state of ketosis, a metabolic process during which the body burns fat (instead of carbs) for energy. It's trendy to try to achieve ketosis through extreme dieting, but "[this drink] puts you into ketosis without having to fast for three-plus days," he says. A ketone-rich diet has been shown to extend life span and protect against neurodegenerative and cardiovascular disease — but, so far, only in mice. Bailey is confident, though, that similar benefits for the brain and heart will apply to humans.
Many treatments for living longer currently exist in a similar scientific limbo, yet scientists are forging ahead undaunted. Barzilai has spent recent years working toward a clinical trial to test the effects of the drug Metformin on a host of diseases related to age. Currently used to control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, Metformin has been shown to extend the life span of mice and may produce unexpected benefits in humans, like lowering the risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and mortality. The study, set to begin later this year, will take up to six years and test the efficacy of Metformin on age- related ailments in more than 3,000 people, who are already using it to help treat type 2 diabetes.
Lack of scientific proof has never been a deterrent for those with means who are truly determined to live longer.
But lack of scientific proof has never been a deterrent for those with means who are truly determined to live longer. Consider "young blood" treatments, which infuse aging patients with the plasma of a younger, healthier person in hopes of warding off Alzheimer's, cancer, and inflammation. You can buy plasma for about $5,500 per liter and have it shipped to your doctor. If your physician can't (or won't) perform the transfusion, some of the companies selling plasma will hook you up with a physician in their network. But this all comes with a stern message from a 2019 FDA statement that there is "no proven clinical benefit of infusion of plasma from young donors" and "there are risks associated with the use of any plasma product" (including allergic reactions, acute lung injury, and infectious disease transmission).
Stem-cell banking has ballooned into a mostly unregulated $2 billion business. For up to $10,000 a pop, a clinic will take stem cells (from your bone marrow, fat, or amniotic fluid) and reinject them to heal injuries or protect against future ailments. Futuristic-sounding treatments like these are being tested in animals, but today they're little more than hopeful gambles. "We want to cure humans, not mice," says Ferrucci, who believes that identifying the root causes of aging will eventually lead to a revolution in preventative health. Someday, annual checkups could include blood tests that identify specific biological indicators of aging, leading to personalized treatments for slowing down the aging process. For now, he says, there are plenty of things people can do to stay younger longer, including exercise, eating well, maintaining low cholesterol, not smoking, and having regular check-ups with a doctor. Not exactly novel recommendations, but well-proven ones that can buy some time. "And then when these advanced treatments are ready — and I don't think we'll have to wait three generations — we can look at interventions," he says.
The tempered rollout of life-extending therapies has the benefit of giving everyone more runway to figure out what it might mean for the world's population to live longer. The first looming question mark over the ethics of extending life span: How much longer will the Earth be livable? As severe weather, increased pollution, and climate-related food shortages burden the world's health, an increased population will only worsen pressures on the environment. Any major advances in longevity therapy must also come with forward-thinking policies for how to slow human-caused damage to the planet.
Now is the time to start talking about how governments can plan for a world where increased population will put a strain on the environment and social programs.
And then there is the very real question of accessibility. Even before COVID-19 disproportionately affected Black, Latinx, and Indigenous citizens, the longevity gap in America — between those with means and those without — was pronounced. A study from the Journal of the American Medical Association looking at data from 2000 to 2014 found that the difference in life expectancy between the richest 1 percent and poorest 1 percent of Americans was 14.6 years for men and 10.1 years for women. Imagine what that might look like if only the wealthiest people in society were able to have access to drugs and treatments that extend life by years, if not decades.
The scientists studying longevity hope that the costs of life-extending therapies will decline as treatments become widespread and generic forms of drugs are available. One thing that will likely drive down prices: the sheer number of people who will be in the market for these treatments. "When 7.8 billion people are getting older, you can charge a dollar a day if you can make [a treatment] for 5 cents," says Bailey.
In the near term, life-extending therapies might only add a few years to our timeline, but they could drastically increase the number of years we live healthfully, leaving more people to work and live fuller lives longer than ever before. "People often compare our life spans to a novel, with a beginning, middle, and end," Davis says. "I'm not sure a good life has to have a structure. I think there are other kinds of lives that we'll learn to live if we just have enough time to get used to it."
Here's What The Bathroom of Tomorrow Looks Like
How All Those Personalized Vitamin and Supplement Services Work
If You Want to Predict the Future of Beauty Products, Look to the Past
Now let Alessia Cara show you how to get the perfect summer look:
Read more on: aging
Start your journey to healthy skin in 2 minutes