Doha: The science of aging and research into ways to stay healthy into advanced old age were discussed at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar’s Grand Rounds.
Dr. Nir Barzilai, professor of medicine and genetics and director of the Institute for Aging Research, gave the presentation, which was titled How to Die Young at a Very Old Age.
Dr. Barzilai gave a precis of the historical and evolutionary background to the study of old age and its associated diseases, which is termed geroscience, explaining that human life expectancy for around 50-100,000 years was around 20 to 30 years. With technological development in the last 100-150 years, human life expectancy has radically increased but this has also revealed the diseases of old age that were not seen before - these being diabetes, stroke, heart diseases, certain cancers, dementia, stroke, hypertension, osteoporosis and others.
Dr. Barzilai said: “Of course, it is great news that we live longer, but as part of this deal we get these diseases that were not seen before. Not only that, but we might get multiple diseases and have to take multiple treatments, each of which might have unpleasant side effects. So after the age of about 60 we can quite easily end up with an accumulation of diseases and consequently quite poor quality of life. This is our history up to this point. But now we believe we can create a new history by studying aging and by thinking of aging as a preventable condition. The most important news is that aging really can be modulated and it’s actually not hard in the laboratory to find pathways that will increase healthspan and lifespan of animals - and there’s data that support the idea that we can do this in humans, too.”
Dr. Barzilai then explained that research has shown that growth hormone, which is of course very important when young, appears to be linked to aging and age-related disease in older age. Centenarians were found to have lower levels of growth hormone, and animals treated with drugs which block growth hormone lived 10 percent longer and were healthier in old age. He also said that the development of therapies to prevent aging (known as gerotherapeutics) would accelerate if biomarkers for aging are discovered so that it can be detected in the way it is possible to test for high cholesterol or high blood pressure. He also explained that a number of proteins have been identified as being associated with aging in humans, and that the commonly prescribed diabetes drug metformin has been shown to reduce mortality and increase longevity. Indeed, research shows that metformin attenuates all of the biological hallmarks of aging, these being cellular senescence, stem cell exhaustion, telomere attrition, epigenetic alterations, and genomic instability. As such, by attenuating aging, metformin also reduces the risk of age-related diseases. Additionally, metformin is generic, cheap, and has been proven to be safe, having been used for more than 70 years.
Regarding the regulatory environment in relation to the development of gerotherapeutics, Dr. Barzilai said there were challenges to overcome. “Unfortunately, aging is not recognized by the FDA as a treatable condition,” he said, “and if the diseases of aging are not recognized as preventable the healthcare providers will not pay for their clients to access these treatments, and pharmaceutical companies will not develop new and better drugs or work to discover better combinations of existing drugs.”
The lecture was accredited locally by the Ministry of Public Health’s Department of Healthcare Professions – Accreditation Section and internationally by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME).