Medical professionals have figured out a way to treat many of the diseases that accompany aging: We have medications for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis — even Alzheimer’s.
But what if a pill could help prevent these diseases from ever occurring?
For decades now, scientists have been searching for such a medical Holy Grail: safe medicines that treat aging as a whole by slowing cellular decay or by making your body more resilient to the factors that trigger physical and mental decline.
Despite the research costs and scientific challenges, the path toward such a pill is attracting more interest than ever. The federal government is involved, as well as many prominent academic institutions. Billionaire “biohackers” have joined the fray, pursuing their own age-defying theories and sparing no expense.
There’s a reason for the urgency: People over 85 represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. “Suddenly we’re confronted with this world that’s going to have more and more people living into their 80s, 90s and 100s in the near future,” says Steven Austad, a biology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and senior scientific director for the American Federation for Aging Research.
Finding a way to keep these adults healthy in their latter decades not only enhances their quality of life, but experts say it could be a boon for the economy and a break for the health care system, which shells out trillions of dollars each year to treat chronic diseases that become more common with age. “It’s not about living to 200; it’s about living to 90 in good health,” says Sofiya Milman, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
But if the race to finding such a disease-blocking pill was 10 miles long, Austad says we’re only at mile 2. What’s holding back progress? A dearth of data. While various medicines are showing promise in animals, it will take considerable time and money to test their long-term impact on humans.
Then there’s regulatory red tape: Aging is not currently recognized as a preventable condition by the Food and Drug Administration, so there’s no clear pathway to approve medications to treat it. However, experts in the field are hopeful this will change.
Promising treatments that never panned out, like resveratrol or biotech-backed experimental drugs, have also muddied the course. Still, there have been “real breakthroughs,” Austad says, and a handful of medications stand out as top contenders for usage in ways that transcend individual diseases and that could help sustain health more broadly.