Nobody likes getting old. It’s one of the first things we figured out about ourselves, when we started writing down our dreams. The oldest extant work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, in part chronicles the hero’s quest for an elixir of immortality. He finds it, in the form of a flower, at the bottom of the sea — but then, of course, he goes and loses it, under mysterious circumstances.
Typical fishy story, when it comes to ‘anti-ageing’. For centuries, gullible humans have fallen victim to scams and quackery in their quest to stay young. The ancient Chinese emperors had their physicians prepare special potions to keep them young. Unfortunately, these turned out to contain mercury, which is extremely toxic. Medieval alchemists also dabbled in anti-ageing; drinking from a golden vessel was supposed to help restore one’s youth, and so was inhaling the breath of young virgins (male, though any sort of virgin would probably do).
In the 20th century, a salesman named John Brinkley became one of the richest men in America by surgically implanting the testicles of young goats into the bodies of worn-out middle-aged men. He had no medical training whatsoever, and many of his patients died, yet still they flocked to him by the hundreds and thousands. Even today, you almost can’t open a newspaper without reading about some purported ‘cure’ for ageing, some fountain of youth in a pill that will forever relieve us of the need to grow old.
I came across a number of these myths and misconceptions — and outright hoaxes — while researching the science of ageing for my latest book, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or die trying). Here are a few of my favourites.
Human Growth Hormone: Tremendously popular among cheating athletes, HGH is also a staple of the ‘anti-ageing’ clinics that dot Florida and California. Originally intended to treat the small number of children who fail to grow properly, it has become a $1.4 billion drug thanks to its growing use (and abuse) by those who believe that it will somehow stop or reverse the ageing process. (Cost: $1,000-$2,000/month.) Not only is this legally questionable, but some scientists believe that HGH may actually accelerate the ageing process. Consider this: the longest-lived laboratory mice ever observed had no growth hormone receptors on their cells. Sorry, lads.
Anything with ‘stem cells’ in the name: Long story short, ‘stem cell’ is just another way of saying ‘bullshit’. There are very few legitimate, FDA-approved treatments involving stem cells, and most of them have to do with hematopoietic stem cells (that is, in the blood). Nevertheless, hundreds of clinics have popped up offering a dubious stem cell-based therapy called SVF, using cells harvested from patients’ own body fat (where stem cells are, alas, plentiful). The treatments are described as ‘experimental’, but the only experiment being conducted has to do with how much money these quacks can vacuum out of their patients’ pockets.
Antioxidants: These are packed into everything from breakfast cereal to dog food (the most common are vitamins A, C, and E, and beta-carotene). Their job is to neutralise ‘free radicals’, molecules that supposedly cause cellular damage, according to a theory of ageing that was cooked up in the 1950s, but which has never actually been proven. Now many researchers think antioxidants are at best useless, and at worst harmful, because they interfere with the body’s own native antioxidant mechanisms. Nevertheless, Americans and Britons gobble billions of dollars’ worth of antioxidant supplements every year.
Resveratrol: It’s had almost as much media hype as a minor Kardashian, but the so-called ‘red wine pill’ (resveratrol is a compound found in the skins of grapes, and thus in red wine) has been a bit of a bust. It has scored terrific results in lab animals, in thousands of published studies — but, in general, it has flopped in human trials. The reason has to do with the way humans metabolise the stuff: our livers chop it up within hours, and it gets whisked out via the bladder. So we enjoy few of its beneficial effects, although red wine is itself quite tasty. One possible bright spot: in a recent study, researchers found that Alzheimer’s patients who took 1,000mg of resveratrol twice a day had reduced amounts of the intracellular gunk that is thought to contribute to the disease, although their memory skills did not improve.
Ageing is ‘all in our genes’: Well, yes and no. Scientists now believe that people who live for a very long time, say to age 95 and beyond, may have genes that protect them from the diseases of ageing that claim the rest of us: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. (This is why Madame Jeanne Calment, the Frenchwoman who lived to the age of 122, got away with smoking until she was well past 100.) But the key factors determining whether or not we’ll be healthy at age 80 have much more to do with our lifestyle choices: eating right (and eating less), getting regular exercise, staying mentally active, and avoiding diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. One 2011 study found that up to 50 per cent of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by addressing these markers. So put down those French fries.
I’m too old, and it’s too late to do anything: In a 2009 study, American researchers planned to give a drug called rapamycin to laboratory mice, to see if it helped them live longer. But due to logistical problems, the drug wasn’t ready until the mice were already 20 months old — the mouse equivalent of 60-year-old humans. To the scientists’ astonishment, the mice lived longer anyway, by 14 per cent for the females. It was like giving 65-year-old women a pill that would enable them to live to age 95. Other studies have found that, even in very elderly patients, a modest exercise programme was enough to keep them out of the nursing home for a year or more.
That ageing is unstoppable: Even among scientists who study ageing, it was long believed that the aging process itself is inexorable, and can’t be slowed. That has changed radically over the last five years or so, as more than a dozen compounds have been found to extend lifespan in laboratory mammals. This is a very big deal. Rapamycin was the first, although it has serious side effects. Another, perhaps more promising candidate is a common diabetes drug called metformin, which is already taken by millions of patients. A recent large survey of more than 12,000 UK patients found that diabetics on metformin were actually outliving non-diabetics who were not taking the drug, which is remarkable given that diabetes typically takes five to 10 years off of one’s life. A clinical trial will soon get underway in the US to determine whether metformin really does stave off the diseases of ageing, which would make it the first FDA-approved anti-ageing pill.
But until the results come in, beware of strangers peddling goat testicles.
Bill Gifford is author of the New York Times bestselling Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying), published in the UK on September 24 by OneWorld