In St. Augustine, Florida, you can visit Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park for an admission charge of $18.00. There, you can drink a sample of the miraculous water. You might even feel a bit younger… but only if you believe and are suggestible. Of historical interest, maybe, but not of therapeutic value.
A spring whose waters restore the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in them is a myth that dates back to prehistoric times. Herodotus wrote about it in the 5th century BC. The Spanish conquistador Ponce de León was the first European explorer to reach Florida. The king of Spain had authorized him to lead an expedition to search for “the Islands of Benimy” and he originally mistook Florida for an island. He was not searching for a fountain of youth; that myth wasn’t attached to his name until long after his death.
Hope springs eternal, and history repeats itself. Today there are countless modern versions of the Fountain of Youth. Dietary supplements and other treatments are claimed to reverse the effects of aging and prolong life. Their promoters claim there is science behind them; but in reality, they are just more myths. Centenarians share their secrets for a long life; they are all different. No treatment has ever been proven to keep humans young or make them live longer. Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill’s Office for Science and Society said it best: “the science is all wet and drips with crackpot notions.”[i]
What happens to our bodies as we age?
Many wines improve with age, but humans don’t. We deteriorate with age. We develop wrinkles and gray hair, the skin thins and bruises more easily, vision and hearing decline and cataracts develop, blood pressure increases, bone density decreases, strength and agility decrease, the waist thickens, joints become arthritic, memory loss occurs, height may decrease by 1-2 inches, we learn and think more slowly, reaction time decreases, sexual functions change and hormone levels drop, and we become more likely to develop the diseases associated with old age such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. It’s not all bad: the elderly have accumulated a vast store of life experience and general knowledge, sometimes but not always leading to wisdom. And believe it or not, older people tend to be happier.
As the World Health Organization explains, “At the biological level, ageing results from the impact of the accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time. This leads to a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity, a growing risk of disease, and ultimately, death.”[ii]
Note the words “wide variety of molecular and cellular damage.” It is simplistic to think any single intervention could reverse all of those different damages.
Insulin resistance is a sign of aging, and the diabetes drug metformin has been shown to extend the lifespan of mice and appears to rejuvenate Caenorhabditis elegans, a 1 mm. roundworm, a nematode. We are not worms or mice.
Calorie restricted diets have reduced some biomarkers of aging in many species (primates, rats, mice, spiders, fruit flies, nematodes, and rotifers – but curiously it didn’t work for house flies). There’s no good evidence that it works for humans. Is hunger worth living longer? Lots of people apparently believe it is. There is even a Calorie Restriction Society International. Enthusiasts are reducing their calorie intake by 25% to 50%, which is unpleasant and impractical. Few people are willing or able to reduce their food intake by half, and there is concern that doing so might interfere with adequate nutrition. Researcher Rozalyn Anderson commented that “Life is difficult enough without engaging in some bonkers diet.”[iii] Intermittent fasting is more palatable; it results in weight loss and health improvements, but even a five-day-a-month calorie restriction diet caused 25% of participants to drop out. Let’s face it: people like to eat, and food is one of the pleasures of life that make life worth living.
Is aging a disease?
Aging is not an inevitable consequence of life. There are many organisms that don’t experience any decline in function as they get older, like bristlecone pines. Lobsters don’t develop any signs of aging; they just keep keeping bigger. Greenland sharks live over 500 years and don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 150 years old (a long time to wait!). Certain jellyfish are apparently immortal.
David Sinclair is an anti-aging researcher who has a new book out: Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To. He claims that aging is a disease that can be treated and even prevented. He foresees a future where people will live much longer (maybe even forever?) and will enjoy good health and vigor in old age. He provides an excellent overview of intriguing recent research findings.
Sinclair puts his money where his mouth is and applies the findings to his own health regimen:
- He takes a gram each of NMN, resveratrol, and metformin daily.
- He takes vitamin D, vitamin K2, and 83 mg. aspirin daily.
- He limits sugar, bread, and pasta intake, doesn’t eat desserts, and avoids eating meat from animals.
- He skips one meal a day.
- He gets frequent blood tests to monitor biomarkers; if not optimal, he tries to moderate them with food and exercise.
- He stays active, goes to the gym, jogs, lifts weights, uses the sauna and then dunks in an ice-cold pool.
- He doesn’t smoke.
- He avoids microwaved plastic, excessive UV exposure, X-rays, and CT scans.
- He tries to keep environmental temperatures on the cool side.
- He maintains a BMI of 23-25.
He thinks it is working for him. He feels younger. Maybe he’s right, but he admits “It’s impossible to say if my regimen is working…but it doesn’t seem to be hurting.” Some of what he does has been studied and is known to improve health (exercising, not smoking, controlling weight) but much of it is based on speculation and hope.
His regimen reminds me of Ray Kurzweil. In Kurzweil’s book Fantastic Voyage, he tells how he combed the literature looking for anything that might allow him to live long enough for science to discover the key to immortality which will then enable him to live forever. He gets frequent scans, cancer screens, and blood tests. He takes 250 pills a day: diet supplements like gingko and vinpocetine. He also takes several Chinese herbs. He spends one day a week in a clinic getting IV infusions of nutrients, IV chelation, and acupuncture. He meditates and gets massages. He had his mercury amalgam fillings removed, uses an ionic air filter, and follows a strict organic diet. He fears cell phones, shower water, electric razors, plastic, the aluminum in deodorants, and sugar. He claims that shiatsu and acupressure massage are intended to correct imbalances according to principles of energy flow between different organ systems in the body. He thinks water can record memories. Despite his research, much of what he advocates is not supported by the scientific evidence.
In my review of Sinclair’s book [iv] for Sciencebasedmedicine.org I explained why I found the research fascinating but didn’t find his arguments entirely convincing. In my opinion, both Sinclair and Kurzweil are overly optimistic and too willing to forge ahead before the evidence is in. Kurzweil is 71 and Sinclair is 50. Time will tell. If they both live well past 100, I might have to eat my words; but then I’ll probably die before they do. I’m 74 and have already lived longer than either of them – without the benefit of anti-aging remedies.
The research is intriguing
The research suggests that a loss of information may be the singular reason we age. Sinclair believes aging occurs when cellular insults and damage activate our epigenetic repair mechanisms and they become overwhelmed: genes that should be on switch off (and vice versa) and chaos ensues. He invokes hormesis: a little stress is good for us, but too much stress causes aging.
Research has identified a number of longevity genes which could also be called vitality genes. Experiments in animals have demonstrated that modifying the activity of these genes can speed or slow the changes of aging and can prolong life. Some of the factors being studied: sirtuins, NAD (Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), rapamycin, TOR (target of rapamycin), NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide), the diabetes drug metformin, resveratrol, etc. Telomeres are a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at the end of each chromosome: telomere shortening seems to play an important role in aging. Stem cells, genetic analysis, and new technologies are being studied. Mice given NAD became such enthusiastic runners that they broke the lab’s treadmill. There are anecdotal reports of NMN restoring fertility in aged women. In addition to drugs, lifestyle changes may delay aging: exercising, eating less, avoiding tobacco, intermittent fasting, avoiding obesity, etc.
I would love to think humans could live many more years in good health and maybe even live forever. But I am skeptical. The scientific studies are promising so far, but far from definitive. The history of science shows us that early positive studies are all too frequently reversed by subsequent larger, better studies, and unforeseen consequences are common. There are many anti-aging dietary supplements on the market, with enticing names like Life Extension and Ageless Body. They contain varying mixtures of vitamins, collagen and whey proteins, antioxidants, herbs, minerals, and even a sugar (D-ribose). They claim many health benefits, but most of the ingredients and mixtures have never actually been tested for clinically significant health benefits, much less for longevity. The Fountain of Youth is still only a myth.
This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.