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Anti-aging talk: Getting old or just getting started?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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NEW YORK—Almost five centuries after Juan Ponce de Leon’s legendary quest for the Fountain of Youth, a cure for aging continues to drive a multibillion-dollar biotech industry. But despite gerontology’s growing list of biological "breakthroughs," what it means to get old and how to best stave off the process remains a topic of heated debate.

The race to extend human life and the implications of achieving such a feat were the inspiration for Robert Kane Pappas’s documentary film To Age or Not to Age. Featuring prominent scientists in the field from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and the University of California, San Francisco, as well as industry leaders from the Glaxo Smith Kline company Sirtris and the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Foundation, the film asked whether the seemingly inevitable act of aging is little more than a by-product of suboptimal living. Some of the anti-aging game’s key players were even in attendance for the film’s February 11 debut here at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater.

Pappas’s production hinged on a 2006 report in Nature that resveratrol—a natural substance found in the skin of grapes—improved the health and survival of mice fed a high-fat diet. Inspired by coverage of the research by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade (who also attended the premiere), Pappas sought to follow the fate of the finding from the lab to the precious anti-aging pill. While resveratrol’s life-extending effects in humans remain unknown, phase II clinical trials of resveratrol mimetics in patients with age-related diseases, including cancer and diabetes, are ongoing.

The very definition of aging was one of the documentary’s more intriguing topics. Do we get sick as we get old or vice versa? Do we wear out like old cars? The question resurfaced after the movie during a colorful panel discussion with the "George Washington of geriatric care" Robert Butler, M.I.T. scientist Leonard Guarente and the "Lady Gaga of longevity" (so-called because of his shocking ideas) Aubrey de Grey.

"Aging is an optional feature of life and it can be slowed," says de Grey, chief science officer for the California-based SENS Foundation, claiming that the process is a product of evolutionary neglect more so than intent. De Grey’s anti-aging efforts combine gerontology with regenerative medicine to stop the process rather than extend life span. "Maintenance works," he says. "That’s why we have 50-year-old VW Bugs driving around quite happily."

De Grey has a point, says Butler, who entered the field of aging in 1955 and was the National Institute on Aging‘s first director in 1976. "The longer you live, the healthier you’ve been," he says, referring to extensive studies on centenarians—people who exceed the ripe old age of 100.

Guarente, a co-chair of the scientific advisory board for Sirtris—manufacturer of resveratrol-mimetics—agrees that aging is the default state. "No mechanism turns on to kill us," he says. Rather, all three scientists are interested in targeting mechanisms that can keep us alive, and healthier, for longer.

The documentary ended on a clam—a 405-year-old quahog (born slightly after the time of Ponce de Leon) that was plucked from icy waters off the northern coast of Iceland in 2007. Before that clam, the official world record for oldest mollusk belonged to a 220-year-old. If the scientists in the documentary are right, perhaps humans will one day live well into the hundreds.

Photo: ISTOCKPHOTO/ozgurdonmaz


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  1. 1. rhodinsthinker 1:34 pm 02/13/2010

    Just getting started. The trick is to have a sound mind until death terminates all thought.

    It’s common in science fiction, but living really long lives would mean giving up on having children. That would be no fun.

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  2. 2. BJ Bonobo 3:48 pm 02/13/2010

    Most people in their nineties are institutionalized, living in the care of relatives or receiving help in their homes from trained health care workers. They are not involved in athletics of any sort, some have vision problems and most are not allowed to drive. A vacation is out of the question .

    Yes, everyone knows an exception, but old age does not come alone and there is just too much that can go wrong with the human body to expect any sort of real health after nine decades.

    Get it while you’re young but try to care for the body and mind to the best of your ability !!

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  3. 3. Bill Case 7:10 pm 02/13/2010

    The frustrating part about living a long life; is that after you have lived long enough to learn it all, no one will listen.

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  4. 4. laszlogm 11:49 pm 02/13/2010

    This new and rather aggressive aging research initiated by the works on resveratrol, which I have been taking reagularly for years. Its effect is an apparent stop on my aging: imroved vascular parameters, getting color back in my grey hair, gaining muscle back without exercise, etc… These observations initiated a placebo controlled clinical trial that has been recently completed (paper is expected to come out sometimes in April). The results are very exciting and convinced me that aging is nothing else but rusting by oxygen free radicals.

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  5. 5. flycaster 11:59 pm 02/13/2010

    Has anyone calculated the cost of keeping everyone alive longer? Or will any breakthroughs only be offered to a select few with enough cash? This effort is a ridiculous waste of time and money. Unless there is quality of life, there is no reason to go on. Fear of death is no reason for this nonsense. We all take the ride. Live your life to the fullest while you have it. Honestly, fairly, with dignity. Accept your fate at whatever age, then take your hands off the roller coaster seat bar, and enjoy the ride back to where our spirit came from!

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  6. 6. kfreels 12:37 am 02/14/2010

    Nonsense? the idea that death is better than life is nonsense. The world is not overpopulated and the economic problems in the US are from population stagnation. If we run out of space, the solution isn’t to stop having children, it’s tospread out into the universe.

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  7. 7. bioresearcher 7:20 am 02/14/2010

    Science is increasingly devoted to discovering ways to counter our stressed out, sedentary lifestyles by modifying our genes or bodily processes. Only 18 months ago it was announced by Dr. Sinclair at Harvard that Transmax resveratrol, a commercial extract of a red wine molecule produced by scientists at biotivia, switches on the SirT-1 anti-aging gene and prevents the normal diseases of aging. Then scientists reported that a drug called Aircar that had been around for decades is capable of making sedentary mice into olympic contenders by modifying their muscles and increasing their endurance. Now additional genetic clues to aging have been discovered. If you can make it to 2020 in good shape there is every possibility that you will live well past the age of 120 years, given the developments in anti aging.

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  8. 8. freakyguy6190 3:07 pm 02/14/2010

    Is living up to the age of 75 (average) too low that we are looking for ways to live longer, to find that "fountain of youth" which does not exists. There are already 1/3 of the population suffering and if people live more longer just imagine that 1/3 of the population suffering going up to 2/3 and not only that, we are already past that point of over taking other spices land, what would be next taking over oceans by building floating cities(its already at work-research it). So I beg of you give up on this foolish dream of "magical pill", "fountain of youth" because it will out weight the ratio towards the misery by long margin. I know there are many people who want to live longer but thats because: 1)selfish, self-centered, want the fame for discovering something like this
    2)they don’t think about the outcome.

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  9. 9. freakyguy6190 3:13 pm 02/14/2010

    Imagine people like Osama bin laden getting his hand on this type of thing. What i am trying to say that either keep this thing for those people who have helped shaped our world for the better not for the worse(of course people will fight back saying who give the government the right to do this and also the companies will most likely think about the profit more then any other thing.

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  10. 10. TheHistorianChewy 7:45 pm 02/14/2010

    Why do we focus on this? It is a simple wast of perfect time, we should be studying how to cure cancer. Trying to keep people alive longer will not only waste precious time, but also alot of money, and even if this were to come true do you know how much money it would cost to get the product? millions

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  11. 11. beinglila 9:15 pm 02/14/2010

    There aren’t enough jobs for the number of people who want them NOW. How will all these old folks support themselves? How will younger workers and employers be able to contribute enough payroll tax to support them in retirement? Why should I want to live longer anyway? I think most of the drive to live longer is based on wanting to LOOK better longer. It’s all about being young, as it has been since the advertising industry declared that 18-34 year-olds were the only people whose opinions and buying habits are worth notice.

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  12. 12. Simple Simoon 12:16 am 02/15/2010

    It’s possible to enjoy life at any age with the right attitude, a creative passion and a purpose. If you don’t enjoy your life at 50 you’re not going to enjoy it at 90, let alone 120!

    Freakyguy6190 was right when he said someone like Osama Bin Laden could create a lot of misery if he lives to be 120 years old. Obama’s crazy, but you know he has a passion and purpose. That may be the biggest determinant of longevity with or without a miracle drug!

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  13. 13. Simple Simoon 12:20 am 02/15/2010

    Let’s face it, some people just aren’t cut out to live until they’re 120 years old. If you don’t enjoy your life at 50, you are not going to enjoy it at 120! You can enjoy life at any age if you have the right attitude, a creative passion and a purpose.

    freakyguy6190 was right when he said Osama Bin Laden would create a lot of misery if he lived to be 120. Osama’s crazy, but he has a passion and a purpose. That may be the biggest determinant to a long life with or without a longevity pill!

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  14. 14. hcent0818@sms 6:41 pm 02/15/2010

    In spite of the myriad of benefits for long-living healthy individuals, I am afraid that there are way too many things that could go wrong with the world. Perhaps the most important would be the likelihood of an ecological imbalance, because the vast supply of human beings would take a huge bite out of all Earth’s crops, and if somehow we do live forever, we would be denying natural selection, and who knows where that could lead.

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  15. 15. halneufmille 12:18 pm 02/16/2010

    So we have to chose between children and death. Not a fun choice to make.

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  16. 16. halneufmille 12:31 pm 02/16/2010

    TheHistorianChewy, you’re dumb. What do you think will be the side effect of people NOT DYING from cancer or other age related diseases? You want a clue? It’s in the sentence.

    Second thing, when do you think people spend more money on health care? In the last six months of their life when they get age related diseases. If they get them later or never, then the health span of every person is much longer.

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  17. 17. usascholar 2:49 pm 02/16/2010

    The only resveratrol material or product shown in the documentary in this article and featured Aubrey, Guerente, and the many scientists, was micronized resveratrol by RevGenetics, because of how close it resembles the Sirtris resveratrol.

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  18. 18. usascholar 3:00 pm 02/16/2010

    Part of living longer is dealing with cancer. The documentary talks about this as well. It is important to keep in mind these are the scientists that are considered at the top of their fields, so it is quite impressive that only micronized resveratrol from RevGenetics was shown and mentioned in the documentary because of it’s high absorption. At the end of the documentary it goes into other molecules that are being looked at for longevity by scinetists. Here again, Aubrey and many others certainly believe that longevity is achievable through SENS

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  19. 19. theTribster 4:48 pm 02/18/2010

    Great post, I’ve been reading a lot on aging lately and it seems progress is being made on controlling it and even, maybe stopping it. Here is one post that discusses biological aging and has an Aubrey Degry video attached:
    Ray Kurzweil is one that think we are just a couple of decades away from being able to sustain life for an additional 50 years and then forever. He think we are on the brink of living forever. Traditionally, Ray is been right about his predictions.

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  20. 20. sunnystrobe 1:26 pm 02/19/2010

    My father, born in 1900, bought himself an indoor bike at age 85 and lived until 96, totally fit in mind and body; on his 95th birthday I overheard him saying, "Oh! What would I give to be 90 again!"
    I read once that one cannot be too careful in choosing a genetically fit father for one’s own longevity…
    but it’s an even safer bet to read a good science book to find out about the best health maintenance for our genes
    . The China Study says it all:
    A plant-based, diet, with plenty of raw fruits & vegetables is the best prevention against degenerative diseases .
    It makes sense; after all, we share all but 1 % of our gene kit with our Bonobo and Pan Troglo’ Cousins,
    who are vegetarians, just like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and George Bernard Shaw, who retained his quirky mind well into his nineties!
    For an easy-going, youth-retaining , anti- cancer & heart disease diet concept, visit

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  21. 21. weingibz 5:56 pm 02/20/2010

    What is the life expectancy in China compared to the US?

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  22. 22. Science Geek 1:25 pm 03/5/2010

    TheHistorianChewy: Cure cancer vs aging research? Why, it’s the same thing. Our bodies are constantly repairing themselves by replacing old cells. As we age, however, the likelihood of an error occurring during the copying process increases. Most of these errors are caught by our bodies and destroyed, but every so often an error slips through. The longer we live, the more errors there will be. Some of these errors allow cancers to grow rather than be destroyed by our body’s defenses. Some of these errors cause us to look and feel old. Aging is a disease that has many manifestations. In my view it is a tragic aspect of the human condition that will someday be resolved. We better get on it, though. I’m not getting any younger…

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  23. 23. allenjo 10:29 pm 12/25/2010

    This effort is a ridiculous waste of time and money. Unless there is quality of life, there is no reason to go on. Fear of death is no reason for this nonsense. We all take the ride. Live your life to the fullest while you have it.

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  24. 24. allenjo 8:22 am 12/26/2010

    I forgot to hello to all how comments here.

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  25. 25. carmencalin 9:20 am 11/28/2011

    Hello. I use for many years Gerovital H3, anti aging formula with procaine by Dr Ana Aslan. I have good results and this treatment is not expansive. I buy online from the factory store…

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