According to Joseph Coughlin, an expert on aging and founder of MIT’s AgeLab, there are two simple questions that can determine how well you’ll navigate your later years: “Who’s going to change the light bulb, and how are you going to get an ice cream cone?” These appeared in a recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik, who visited Coughlin at his AgeLab.
These two questions pretty much cover things. The light bulb is about how you deal with the small tasks you never used to think about but that start requiring effort as you slow down and begin to ache and creak. The ice cream cone is about what you can access and enjoy in the world at large as you age. How far away is that ice cream cone? What if you can’t drive? What if you have no one who can bring the ice cream cone to you?
There’s a lot that can be done in the way we design homes, communities, products and services so that older people can live easier, fuller lives for longer. That’s one way to think about improving the experience of aging – and that’s what Coughlin, who wrote a book called The Longevity Economy, is interested in doing.
But there is another way to think about the challenges of aging. David Sinclair, a researcher on the biology of aging at Harvard Medical School, invites us to imagine this: Your doctor notices when you are 45 that your blood sugar is getting high and that you’re losing muscle mass. “Listen,” your doctor says, “I see you’re starting to age, so let me give you something for that.” That could mean holding off cancer, heart disease, dementia and other age-related illnesses for long periods of time.
As incredible as this may sound, it may no longer be so farfetched. There are dozens of companies and labs researching different pathways to extend human lifespans. Scientists already have expanded the lifespans of simple organisms like yeast and worms and extended that to animals like mice and monkeys. The study of aging is moving to the forefront of science – and it’s not the 20th century way of tackling one disease at a time, but a focus on treating aging at its source.
It all may seem a bit fantastic, but there has been a significant shift in the way we think about aging. Until very recently, we have viewed aging as a natural process – something inevitable to be accepted and managed. But now scientists are starting to think that there’s no valid reason for aging to be inevitable. They are thinking that aging might involve issues at the cellular level that can be corrected. In effect, they are thinking of aging not as a natural process, but as a disease that can be treated.
That’s a huge mental shift. The consequence is that aging research is getting much more attention than it used to. Sinclair noted in a recent interview that researchers focus on what is considered treatable, not what seems inevitable. This was true of cancer, which was considered a natural part of life for a century, but when it was shown in the 1970s that the disease process could be modified, the thinking changed.
Multiple pathways to counter aging are being explored. Perhaps the most interesting is cellular reprogramming, which involves introducing a combination of genes into an animal’s cell and seeing if that tissue rejuvenates as if it’s young. Essentially it is taking old cells and turning them into young cells, and it has shown promise – but just in mice, so remember it’s still early days.
A few other things to keep in mind: First, it’s not immortality that scientists are after — people don’t want to live forever, but rather to be healthier for longer. Second, the FDA is a long way from being able to assess anti-aging therapies because it still views aging as a natural process. In contrast, the World Health Organization recently declared aging a treatable condition. Finally, there’s a lot of hype that makes it hard to separate fact from fiction. David Sinclair said that one of his challenges has been removing his face — and Harvard’s name — from websites for anti-aging products that he has nothing to do with and would never endorse.