This story was updated on Oct. 3, 2019 to include the Morning Edition audio.
Scientists are better understanding why we age — and they're also better explaining the cellular changes that lead our bodies and brains to decline.
This research has led people like David Sinclair, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, and Peter Attia, a longevity doctor and oncologist, to challenge the conventional wisdom that aging is inevitable.
Sinclair believes the humans of the future will live decades longer than we do now, thanks to biological and technological interventions that are already being discovered.
In short: Better understanding the mechanisms of aging has led to promising treatments to slow, stop and even reverse the symptoms of growing old. And turning back the clock this way isn't just about a longer life span; it's about extending healthy, vital years. Could pills that mimic the positive benefits of exercise, at least in mice, be effective for humans? And what does this portend for the future, if we will all live decades longer?
This season of Future You is dedicated to the human body and what capabilities we will have in the coming decades. You can find the latest episodes on YouTube or at npr.org/futureyou. And send us your ideas about upgrading humans: Email us at email@example.com, or contact us through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKINNY WILLIAMS AND STEPHEN GOODSON'S "POP STAR EXPLOSION")
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, aging has its benefits, right? There's wisdom. There's experience. There's retirement - for some people, at least. And yet, there is this undying quest for the fountain of youth because what happens to our bodies is - I mean, let's just say it - not that appealing - weaker muscles, less endurance, overall slowdown, losing your hair. So what if these symptoms of getting old could be stopped or slowed or even reversed?
NPR's Elise Hu has been exploring this - trying to get younger. This is part of our series Future You, which looks at emerging technologies. Hi there, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: You look - I don't know. You don't look younger. You don't older. What - I don't know what I should say here. But...
HU: Thanks for not stepping in it.
GREENE: Yeah, I'm not going to step in it. But are you really telling me that there's some kind of treatment that treats aging?
HU: Yes. And we have to be careful about getting too excited here. But what scientists have found in mice and other organisms is that they can speed up aging symptoms or - more beneficial to us - slow down and reverse them, giving the mice better blood flow, more vitality, longer endurance.
And what's happening is they can take two mice born on the same day and, after a year of life, feed one an experimental molecule. And one of them who didn't get the molecule is kind of long in the tooth, right? It has gray hair. It looks older. It runs on a treadmill slowly or even falls off. The other gets the molecule - same real age as the older looking mouse - but its hair is still dark, and it's just running and running, running like it's a teenager.
GREENE: But how is this possible?
HU: I know. It sounds crazy, right? I met the aging researcher, David Sinclair, at Harvard Medical School, and he explained it to me.
DAVID SINCLAIR: We have a molecule that we put in their water called NMN. And their muscles appear younger, and they can run further. They get new blood vessels. They have more blood flow.
HU: So to make the mice physically younger, what they're doing is boost something in the cells called sirtuins. And the sirtuins are like emergency responders for cells. They repair the cellular damage that comes with aging.
GREENE: So this is not just about, like, exercising and keeping yourself healthy. This is a molecule that these mice are just drinking in their water, and it's working to slow down aging.
GREENE: And so my next question - can I do this?
HU: That is the big question.
HU: So of course, you can ingest something. But will it make you feel like you're a kid again? - is the big question. They are working on it. There are clinical trials in humans that are going on now in Boston. And geneticists behind this say they're hoping to show that, in the future, humans could be living at least 10, 20 years longer. And we're not talking just life span; we're also talking health span - so the healthy kind of years where you can be present and enjoy your activities and enjoy your families.
GREENE: So did you ingest some of this stuff and actually try this?
HU: OK. Well, I tried a full anti-aging regimen - so not just this particular molecule - from an oncologist and a longevity specialist named Dr. Peter Attia. And just to be upfront about this, people like Attia and Dr. Sinclair, they stand to make money off of these solutions. But I wanted to know more about what they're selling.
So I tried Dr. Attia's approach. It emphasizes five key things - one, more sleep and meditation to keep your stress levels low...
HU: ...Also, aerobic exercise most days of the week - so 45 minutes a day if possible; three, a healthier diet; and finally, this NMN molecule that's being tested now in humans. It is currently available as a supplement. And Attia chose one for me to try with a bunch of caveats.
PETER ATTIA: The supplement industry is pretty loosely regulated, and therefore, you can't always be sure that what somebody says is in there is actually in there. Truthfully, my intuition is that most of them are [expletive]. I think there are others that are at least legitimately making what they're saying they're making.
HU: And David, of course, like I said, these aren't the same as approved drugs, but I took the molecule anyway as instructed and did everything else - the fasting, the exercise, the sleep and the meditation.
Here it goes - kind of sweet, kind of chalky.
GREENE: Do you feel younger? Did you get younger? Like, I don't know how to ask this appropriately.
HU: Right. And none of us know how long we're going to live.
HU: But I got an initial blood draw before all of this. And then at the end of the six-week regimen, I got my blood drawn again. And the biomarkers in there, like liver enzyme and blood glucose, they went in the right direction - enough that an algorithm from a biohacking startup that calculates longevity based on key indicators for disease - it found that I shaved about five years off my internal or biological age, which is not bad.
GREENE: So you've been covering this stuff - I mean, the future with this general time span, this marker of, like, the year 2050. So what would it mean if the world with this huge population already - if humans were at that point living even longer, if this stuff was working?
HU: Right. That's a good question. And I put it to David Sinclair, and he admits it's a tricky problem.
SINCLAIR: Well, if we all live forever, that's not going to work. We'll have to find a new planet. Another bad scenario is we have a lot of people around that's taking up jobs and politicians who will stay in power for a century. That's a concern.
HU: But he's an optimist. He thinks that human ingenuity and the potential that could be unlocked if everyone had more health span and not just life span could knock out the scarier effects that we're talking about.
GREENE: All right. Well, we'll check in maybe in 30 years - in 2050 - see how you're doing and how much younger you are or older...
HU: Yeah. I'll be, like, 7 years old.
GREENE: Yeah, that's perfect.
GREENE: Thanks, Elise.
HU: You bet.
GREENE: All right. You can learn a lot more about this in our video series Future You With Elise Hu. You can find that at npr.org/futureyou. It's also on NPR's YouTube channel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKINNY WILLIAMS, STEPHEN GOODSON'S "POP STAR EXPLOSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.