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Has the elixir of youth come of age?

Scientists claim that by 2012 they will have developed drugs that delay the ageing process

By Jeremy Laurance

Standing the test of time: Actress Luise Rainer in 1936, aged 26


Standing the test of time: Actress Luise Rainer in 1936, aged 26

It is one of the oldest jokes in the gerontologists' book – if you want to live to a grand age, choose your parents carefully. Jeanne Calment, who had the longest confirmed human life span in history, attributed her longevity – she died in 1998 aged 122 years, five months and 14 days – to a diet rich in olive oil, regular glasses of port and her ability to "keep smiling". But destiny undoubtedly played the most important part.

We spend millions of pounds each year on anti-ageing tonics, potions, vitamins and creams, trying to stave off the ravages of the years. But our genetic inheritance trumps all other factors in determining how well we age and how long we live. By unravelling the genetic determinants of longevity, scientists believe they will be able to manipulate them to add not only years to life, but also life to years. An elixir of youth remains a distant dream but medicines to help us live longer and better are moving closer.

At a conference this week, Turning Back the Clock, organised by the Royal Society, researchers described the progress that has been made in the science of ageing. At least 10 gene mutations have been identified that extend the lifespan of mice by up to half, and in humans several genetic variants have been linked with longevity. They include a family of genes dubbed the sirtuins, which one Italian study found occurred more commonly in centenarian men than in the general population. A subsidiary of drug giant GlaxoSmithKline is now looking at sirtuins, and their association with a range of age-related diseases including type 2 diabetes and cancers.

Other gene variants affect the production of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF), both of which increase metabolism – organisms with higher metabolism tend to die sooner. A possible of way of slowing ageing would be to slow metabolism by blocking receptors for growth hormone and IGF.

A small Massachusetts biotech company, Proteostasis, is investigating this pathway involving IGF as a potential target for anti-ageing drugs. Another key drug target is an enzyme called cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP), which affects levels of "good" cholesterol, that help protect against heart disease. Drugs that inhibit the enzyme are being developed by two other major pharmaceutical companies, Merck and Roche.

Also promising, but still far from yielding concrete results, are telomeres, which are present in every cell. Activating telomerase, an enzyme which lengthens the telomeres, may extend cell lifespan.

Developments such as these herald a new era of longevity research and drugs based on them will "probably be available for testing from 2012", Professor Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York told the conference.

He said: "I'm seeing 100-year-olds who are not only 100 years old but in great shape. They're driving and painting, and they say life is beautiful. I have this bias that makes me believe we have the ability as a species to get to 100 if we prevent some of these age-related diseases."

Centenarians tended to have genes that delayed the onset of conditions such as Alzheimer's and heart disease. "When they eventually die they die of the same things that people die of in their seventies and eighties. It's just that they do so 30 years later," Professor Barzilai said. "The cost of treating 100-year-olds in their last two years of life is a third of what it costs to treat somebody aged 70 to 80. People who die between 70 and 80 are sick in the last few years of their life. Centenarians are dying healthy, all of a sudden."

His "vision" was of a once-daily pill that would stave off the effects of old age and would probably be taken when a person reached their forties or fifties. But to achieve it, ageing would need to be classed as a treatable condition in order to stimulate the research funds needed to develop it. Drugs regulators in the US and Europe would only licence medicines for specific illnesses, not for something as general as ageing. "[Ageing] is something that is very important in the background. It needs to be defined as a disease," he said.

Consumers in the West need little persuading – we devote a large amount of time and money to holding back ageing. It is an irresistible target for "snake oil salesmen". Hundreds of compounds that are claimed to boost memory and learning ability are available over the internet. Cosmetic surgery is booming and anti-ageing-products are the fastest-growing area of the UK's £673m skincare market, according to analysts Mintel.

Three years ago, an anti-ageing skin cream called Protect and Perfect by No7 caused near riots as shoppers scrambled to get their hands on it after a BBC Horizon programme revealed laboratory tests showed it worked better than more expensive creams. Boots sold almost six million tubes in the nine months following the programme, proving the marketing power of hard science. In 2009 a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology confirmed its superiority and it became the first anti-ageing cream scientifically proven to eliminate wrinkles.

Ageing cannot be reversed but it could, perhaps, be delayed. The emergence of the extremely old population has only happened in the past 50 years and is chiefly due to improvements in the health, lifestyle and environment of the elderly that started in the 1950s – how we eat and drink, where we live, what we do.

Life expectancy soared by more than 30 years in richer nations during the 20th century and shows no sign of slowing. It has risen steadily, by three months every year, for the past 160 years, and there is no reason to think it has hit a limit. In the early part of the last century, improvements in infant and child survival contributed most to growing life expectancy, but since the 1950s, the biggest gains have been in the over-eighties, who now have more than twice the chance of surviving to be 90. We are living better for longer, and spending fewer of our extra years disabled and dependent on others.

What worries most people about ageing is losing their faculties and the ability to perform the daily tasks of living – eating, dressing, bathing and getting around. But despite increases in cancer and chronic conditions such as diabetes and arthritis, disability has been falling. This apparent paradox is explained by earlier diagnosis and improved treatments which have rendered these conditions less disabling. In the future, more of us will fall ill, but the illnesses will affect us less. The result is that we may live to see our great-grandchildren and even our great-great-grandchildren. Within a couple of generations living to be 100 could be as routine as collecting a bus pass is today. Some scientists go further and believe the first person to live to 150 may already have been born.

Increased longevity is one of the modern world's great successes, but long life without health is an empty prize. As Jeanne Calment indicated on her 122nd birthday: those who live moderately live long.

The old, old story: A brief history of anti-ageing products


Fearing the advancing hand of death, Emperor Qin Shi Huang dispatched a Taoist by the name of Xu Fu, with a party of hundreds, in search of a mythical 1,000-year-old magician in possession of the elixir of life. The party never came back (legend says they founded modern Japan instead) and Shi Huang checked into his own mausoleum shortly afterwards, to be guarded for eternity by the Terracotta Army.


It is said that Cleopatra, Queen of Ancient Egypt, took baths of asses' milk to preserve the beauty and youth of her skin. Legend says that 700 of the animals were needed to provide the quantity of milk necessary for her daily wash. In modern Egyptian beauty salons, popular treatments include lymphatic face drainage, a type of massage that focuses on releasing fluid from the sinuses.


The Persian Avicenna, the pre-eminent physician of his time, published The Canon of Medicine, marking the arrival in mainstream medicine of hirudotherapy, or leeches. Avicenna advocated its treatment for skin disease, setting in chain 900 years of rather misguided medical adventure, which has recently staged a comeback. (In 2008, a 45-year-old Demi Moore, whose husband, Ashton Kutcher, is 15 years her junior, admitted that she had gone to a leech therapist in Austria to "detoxify my blood".)


Upon Elizabeth I's accession to the throne, the Virgin Queen's pale pallor rapidly became all the rage among 16th-century Wams (wives and mistresses). The most effective method was the application of Venetian ceruse, also known as Spirits of Saturn. Unfortunately it contained white lead, which, being poisonous, led to hair loss and, in cases of extreme overuse, death.


The French perfumer Eugene Rimmel opened a store in Regent Street, London, marking the beginning of the cosmetic industry as we know it. The Young Ladies Journal regularly directed its wrinkle-panicked correspondents through its doors. "Before going out of doors, bathe the face in warm water, and then apply Rimmel's Lotion (No 2 curative)", it advised in 1873.


Boots stores all over Britain are mobbed after a BBC Horizon programme concludes their No 7 Protect & Perfect beauty serum might actually work. Within 24 hours, 50,000 British women sign up to waiting lists for the cream. When stock is eventually released, the £17.25 serum is soon changing hands on eBay for up to £75 a bottle.


Scientists suggest the antifungal agent rapamycin, found in the soil on Easter Island and produced by bacteria, has life-extending properties. It is already used as an immunosuppressor to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients. They predict further research on the compound could lead to a genuine "anti-ageing" pill.

Tom Peck

Want to live to longer? Here are six things that will help

Eat moderately

The greatest enemy of extending life expectancy is growing obesity. Its effects could rapidly approach and exceed those of heart disease and cancer, doctors warn. A diet high in fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fat is both healthy and the best way of avoiding excessive intake of calories.

Take regular exercise

Keeping fit is the elixir of youth. Even 30 minutes of regular gentle exercise three times per week, such as walking or swimming, can add years to your life expectancy. For someone aged 50 who has not taken regular exercise, a brisk walk for half an hour three times a week can take ten years off their physiological age.

Be sociable

A sense of community, is a vital ingredient in a long and happy life. Most research shows that people with family, friends, partners or pets, live longer. Being religious is also helpful – studies have indicated that those who go to a place of worship are healthier than their faithless counterparts.

Keep your brain active

Playing chess, Sudoku or similar games is thought to offer protection from dementia, but this may come from the human contact as much as the intellectual challenge. Drinking alcohol only in moderation, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol under control are also important in preventing dementia

Get your health checked

To last a century, stay ahead of life-threatening illnesses. For women regular screening for breast and cervical cancer saves more than 1,000 lives a year. Men and women aged 60 to 69 are offered free bowel cancer screening. GPs also offer blood pressure and cholesterol testing.

Enjoy life

Good relationships are the key to longevity. Marriage adds an average of seven years to the life of a man, and two to a woman. One extra year in education can increase your life expectancy by a year and a half. Success helps – research found Oscar-winners live longer than other actors.

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(no subject) - [info]itkonlyyou54 - Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 12:58 am (UTC) Expand
(no subject) - [info]xuegao111 - Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 04:22 am (UTC) Expand
And it is MONEY!
[info]mackname wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 04:38 am (UTC)

And having more of it!

Mind you, they also say ‘useless live longer’.

(no subject) - [info]lafueoiuoiu - Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 12:14 pm (UTC) Expand
Re: And it is MONEY!
[info]john_bon wrote:
Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 11:53 am (UTC)
get off this site
(no subject) - [info]fdghgv - Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 01:47 am (UTC) Expand
[info]binucleate wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 04:49 am (UTC)
A correction. Telomerase is an enzyme that effectively repairs telomeres. It does not shorten them as stated in the article. It is not present in the majority of cell types. The exceptions being germ cells (those that give rise to sperm and ova). What you would really want to do is to activate telomerase rather than inhibit it. However, be careful what you wish for. Inappropriate activation of telomerase is associated with cancer, which tends to be somewhat life-shortening.
Elixir of Old Age
[info]notlistening99 wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 05:30 am (UTC)
Life extension = spending even longer as an old person. Stopping the ageing process and staying young is the stuff of fantasy, not going to happen any time soon.
Funny how the article forgot to mention that in addition to cycling, enjoying a drink and eating chocolate madam Calment smoked for a large proportion of her long life and was exposed to the deadly second hand smoke for all of it.
As long as we don't live longer
[info]steerpike66 wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 06:30 am (UTC)
90 years of vigorous health and then death. That would do me just fine. Last thing we need is ancient parasites sucking up more resources. plus, more old farts (healthy or not) means fewer children. No room or need for babies in a world of selfish old gits playing squash.
Re: As long as we don't live longer
[info]rojaws wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 08:02 am (UTC)
A very cynical view but you really do have a point.
If we play our cards right in another few hundred years we could have the world full to bursting with coffin-dodgers.
Oh, don't forget as well there's a splendid opportunity here to raise the retirement age. Eighty five sounds about right.
Think of all the extra years we'll have to pay taxes!
Isn't medical science wonderful!

Mind you, I have heard that a portrait in the attic has the same effect.

But then again, I'm a garbage disposal robot so what would I know.
Re: As long as we don't live longer
[info]cameronazi wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 04:54 pm (UTC)
'the world full to bursting with coffin-dodgers.'

My new politics will have a solution.
[info]charm74 wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 08:10 am (UTC)
Given that human beings have already grossly overpopulated the planet, putting an ever incresing strain on the plantets resources these drugs are the last thing we need. An example of science being ever so clever (and market driven) but not very wise!! Only the most Infantile, Ego driven, and death denying part of me thinks this is a good idea.

Why, when it comes to promoting a healthy lifestyle, is the emphasis always on avoiding disease and delaying death???. My own experience suggests that diseases like cancer are utterly indiscriminate, striking the healthy as often as the unhealthy. There are many other compelling reasons for having a healthy lifestyle. A good diet, sress management and exercise create a sense of wellbeing that hugely improves the quality of day to day life. For me this is what its all about.
[info]theo_ibrahim wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 10:57 am (UTC)
The article incorrectly states that "ageing cannot be reversed". There is no scientific evidence for believing that there are bio-medical barriers to achieving full age reversal in humans. Ageing _can_ be reversed. See for example this effort:

@notlistening99: life extension does not necessarily mean living on as an old person. It can mean living an open ended life span in a physically youthful state.

@steerpike66: we are actually talking about a world where the misery and medical expense's of old age and death do not exist.

@rojaws: I’m somewhat alarmed at your use of the phrase 'coffin dodgers'. Speaking as a coffin dodger myself.

@charm74: I believe all human lives are unique and precious. Peoples dreams and desire to live, experience joy and develop themselves are fundamentally important. A life rightly lived is never a life rightly ended.

(no subject) - [info]lafueoiuoiu - Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 12:22 pm (UTC) Expand
welcome to
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Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 12:37 pm (UTC)
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[info]chiennoir wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 09:05 pm (UTC)
I don't want to be on the treadmill for a day longer than I have to, therefore I think that all this stuff about extending life is a rather sick joke. I don't care when I die, the important thing when I'm about to pop my clogs will be whether or not I will have lived my life to the full. That's a quality, not a quantity issue.
Re: Priorities
[info]vovix_ldr wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 09:31 pm (UTC)
The "treadmill" is death and aging, not life. Finally we are close to defeat this hell and we will do it in few decades, with the help of Aubrey de Grey's SENS (, Drexler's and Freitas' nanomachinery (, Kurzweil's AI ( and so on. Those who are afraid and those who laugh now will not believe they once were in such a pro-aging trance, like Stockholm syndrome. Once the majority wondered why they would ever need a mobile phone, a PC, an internet account, a blog, a social network account etc. Once there was fear of universal education, gender equailty and birth control. The age control, rejuvenation and extended life will certainly follow the same path, and the sooner, the better. Every sane person wants to live and doesn't want to die, period. Letting the grim reaper to kill 50,000,000 people a year is a genocide, we should stop it. Today science shows human aging can be defeated, this is not the light speed, this is a matter of rearranging atoms and molecules and some calculations, and the day will come it will be defeated once and forever.
Re: Priorities
[info]chiennoir wrote:
Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 10:34 pm (UTC)
What you say is madness. Nothing but. How do you think the planet can sustain these developments? Apart from that, every day having to work is a day wasted in my opinion.
Re: Priorities
[info]vovix_ldr wrote:
Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 12:32 am (UTC)
90% of people hearing about life extension ask about overpopulation. In short, overpopulation is a myth. Here is why:

Also, more recent study "Demographic Consequences of Defeating Aging" (PDF) on this site:

In general, to learn more about ethical issues of LE and transhumanism at all, I recommend the following:
some presentations on

Stats of longevity vs. fertility (showing how the rising first causes the second to decrease) in 1800-2007, and much more interesting stats, can be found on:

For sustainability, try looking at the Bright side: - this means, people, with all their science and technology and creative talents, are the solution. Not the problem.
(no subject) - [info]cheap01 - Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 02:06 am (UTC) Expand
Elixir of youth by 2012??
[info]kingkaracticus wrote:
Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 02:45 am (UTC)

For goodness sake hurry up before I pass by...
You decide before you come down...
[info]john_bon wrote:
Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 11:29 am (UTC)
There IS God
There IS reincarnation
There IS karma
You ARE the product of
your previous incarnations.
Another Aspect
[info]chiennoir wrote:
Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 11:32 am (UTC)
There's another aspect to this. Ageing and death are necessary as part of the turnover of life. In the political sphere, what happens in a democracy in which the overwhelming majority are only apparently young, but in reality, old, while the genuinely young are in a tiny minority. What will happen to fresh ideas, new ways of thinking, as the apparently young, but in reality old, selfish cling to the ways they wre brought up and do not allow the young to come forward with ideas that might change that. Of course, these science-junkies never see the bigger picture, the need for things to turn over and renew themselves from one generation to the next. I see only sterility in a society in which the vast majority are old - if apparently young. Only the truly young have the motivation to start all over again and throw the old out to make way for the new.