Why you should care

Because recent research suggests that we might already be taking medication that prolongs our lives.

One night, performance artist Nancie Clark felt a wave of dizziness, then a rush of fear. She stumbled out of a dinner party in Yokohama, Japan, and woke up in an ambulance, soaked in blood. After two weeks in intensive care for an ectopic pregnancy — a pregnancy outside her uterus — she pushed through a fog of morphine to hobble up and down the hospital halls. “I knew I had to get out of there,” she says. “I wanted to live.”

As do we all. Some of us, like Clark, might take up yoga, hormones and vitamins (she’s 65 now and looks great). But wouldn’t it be easier to just pop an Advil once a day?

For decades, medical researchers have thought that the key to extending life would come from a magical mix of new drugs, new regimens and new treatments. Among the hottest has been resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine that studies say may turn back our molecular clocks. Others have examined an alphabet soup of genes — SIRT1, FOXO3 and MTOR — that regulate cell growth and development.

Yeast, roundworms and fruit flies treated with the painkiller lived 15 percent longer — which equals about 12 years for humans.

But in a surprising twist that only goes to show how serendipitous medicine can be, some scientists think that they might not need to develop a miracle drug or program after all to keep people ticking along. The latest (though not well-publicized) theory is that a host of already available drugs used for everything from headaches to diabetes might be more valuable sources of elixirs of life. Since their effects are well-known, researchers can skip safety trials, accelerating the FDA approval process.

If this theory is true, the advantages are obvious, since these drugs are usually inexpensive and have already been tested for safety. Brian Kennedy, CEO and president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, a nonprofit research outfit in Novato, California, thinks there might be a great irony in all of this. While scientists have long debated whether patients will ever pop an anti-aging pill, perhaps, he says, “they already are.”

Take the most mundane of options, ibuprofen, which is found in Advil and Midol and eases pain and fever by suppressing inflammation. Research published in PLOS Genetics in December found that yeast, roundworms and fruit flies treated with the painkiller lived 15 percent longer than their untreated counterparts — which equals about 12 years for humans. Next, scientists are planning to test whether ibuprofen has the same effect on mammals. So far, they’ve found that aspirin, from the same class of drugs, makes mice live slightly longer. These medications “are very good candidates for impacting aging,” Kennedy says. “Millions of people take these drugs.”

We’re identifying more and more compounds that affect aging. This is the tip of a revolution.

Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging

Millions of people also take metformin to treat Type 2 diabetes — when cells no longer respond to insulin, the hormone that tells them to take up glucose from the bloodstream and convert it to energy. A study of more than 180,000 people published online in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism in July found that diabetics on metformin lived about 15 percent longer, on average, than those without the disease, supporting findings that metformin can curb some cancers and heart disease. Another study found similar results in roundworms, in which metformin worked by actually boosting the levels of key stress molecules. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Wouter De Haes, a postdoctoral researcher in the Functional Genomics and Proteomics research group at KU Leuven in Belgium, tells OZY.

Perhaps. But why hasn’t all of this gotten more attention? Not surprisingly, given all the success that drugs like ibuprofen have had over the years, drug companies would naturally be hesitant to pour heavy funds into (yet more) research that might not pan out. And government approval for these other uses, while quicker than for a new drug, could still be years away. “There still needs to be more clinical studies,” Kennedy warns. Some are also concerned that the wide availability of some of these drugs will spur on a population eager to live longer to take these pills in droves, creating obvious risks. Besides, who wants a society of pill poppers?

But any simple solution to living longer has obvious appeals, especially when it combines dealing with a common ailment. Consider the drug for rheumatoid arthritis, Rituxan, which might be another one of these life extenders. A study on mice at Stanford University published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that Rituxan could prevent the dementia that often occurs after a stroke. “We’re identifying more and more compounds that affect aging,” Kennedy says. “This is the tip of a revolution.”

Of course, if you can’t wait for the rest of the medicine-cabinet youth revolution to take hold, you have other options. Consider Clark, the woman whose brush with death prompted a decadeslong regimen of hormones, supplements and exercise. Turns out she had another backstop against mortality: She changed her name to Natasha Vita, with “Vita,” of course, meaning “life” in Italian.

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