Olshansky is a research associate at the University of Chicago's Center on Aging and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He is also a co-founder and chief scientist of Lapetus Solutions Inc. in Wilmington, N.C. Olshansky says that this is an exciting time within the field and in the work that delves into extending the human 'healthspan'.
Olshansky and his colleagues have been urging researchers to shift their focus from lifespan to healthspan. This also means compressing what they call 'the red zone', the time period toward the end of life in which a person is frail and sick. Let's take a look at what aging interventions we could see in the near future:
According to him, most of us alive today will likely be taking some sort of intervention, such as a pill. However, he says that we probably won't look at it as a way to slow aging, but rather as a way to reduce our risk of disease, because the result is the same.
Yet, while this seems like a hopeful idea, how exactly would these drugs work? According to Olshansky "One of the interventions that researchers are pursuing are substances called senolytics, which are designed to attack something called “zombie cells.” The cells in our bodies divide. After they divide a certain number of times, they eventually die. Except some of them don’t quite die, but dying and remaining in place, and the ones that don’t die interfere with the functioning of the healthy cells. And they accumulate over time." he says.
He also adds: "The senolytic compounds are designed to go into the body and clear out the zombie cells. They remove the interference that’s going on with the body’s own functioning. This means that you’ll be more resistant to cancer, you’ll be more resistant to cardiovascular disease, you’ll be more resistant to Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll be more resistant to stroke and arthritis and osteoporosis and the other kinds of things that go wrong with our bodies as we get older. So, imagine an intervention, whether it’s a pill or some other type of intervention, that could reduce your risk of everything at once. It would dwarf in importance a cure for cancer. That’s what we’re pursuing."
The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has changed its policies on reviewing drugs. Some time ago, the FDA only reviewed drugs that attack specific diseases. But according to Olshansky, "That changed. My colleagues and I met with representatives of the FDA a couple of years ago to discuss this very issue. And the FDA has given us its approval in this effort to identify aging as a target. Previously, the only targets were specific diseases, and the FDA has now approved the idea that aging is a reasonable target to go after. You still measure it in diseases, in terms of your outcome metrics, but you recognize that the fundamental biological process of aging is the target that you are attacking."
Of course, this intervention is not available to us, the general public, yet, so you may be wondering what you should be doing in the meantime. "While we’re waiting for this intervention to come online, of course, what we should be doing is what we all know we should be doing: exercising more and eating less," Olshansky says, adding that, "It’s not all that complicated. We know that excess weight is harmful and we know that lack of exercise is harmful. And short of that, Mother Nature takes its own toll, and the genetics of exceptional longevity is something we can’t control at this point. So, control what you can control."
But, you may be wondering, is it sustainable to have people living longer in terms of population growth? Olshansky says that "if population growth was an issue, why are we pursuing a cure for cancer? If population growth was an issue, why are we pursuing a cure for cardiovascular disease?". It seems to us he believes that population growth is not something that should prevent us from pursuing healthier, longer lives.
So, stay tuned, perhaps, sooner, rather than later, we may all be taking a pill to help slow the aging process.