The annals of modern gerontology are full of lab mice like Ike, a middle-aged “wild-type C57BL/6” rodent who spent his not-so-brief career furthering the cause of longevity research at the University of Washington. Scientists there treated Ike and a few of his colleagues with a drug called rapamycin for 90 days and concluded that they might be on to something.
Ike and his pals lived as much as 60 percent longer than a control group of mice that did not receive the drug. The medication, researchers reported, resulted in the largest increase in life expectancy ever reported in normal lab mice.
“It’s quite striking that the short-term rapamycin treatment had such a lasting impact on health and survival after the treatment was stopped,” said study coauthor Matt Kaeberlein, a UW professor of pathology.
Ike lived 1,400 days, the equivalent of 140 human years. “Ike might have been one of the longest-lived mice of his kind,” Kaeberlein said.
It’s this kind of news that can nudge a geezer out of his comfortable acceptance of an average life expectancy and spark all sorts of expansive musings about a future of imperatives rather than possibilities. A 90-day regimen of the latest elixir of youth and the next thing you know you’re making plans for New Year’s Eve 2100. If Ike can do it, why not me?
It’s not just about one mouse and a single FDA-approved pharmaceutical. The life-extension industry spews forth these bits of hyperbole like WikiLeaks on steroids. If it’s not rapamycin, it’s a coenzyme called NAD+ that postpones aging by repairing your DNA and mitochondria, or it’s the NMN from broccoli and avocado that boosts your metabolism, or it’s a healthy dose of a synthetic male hormone called androgen that ACTUALLY INCREASES THE LENGTH OF YOUR . . . telomeres!
There’s always the small print, of course, the whispered caveats: “. . . it is not yet clear whether the benefits of [androgen] treatments would surpass the risks to healthy people”; “. . . we were concerned that giving NMN might increase cancer incidence”; “Even though the researchers . . . have not administered [NAD+] to patients, they expect to see the same effect . . .”
In Ike’s case, it appears he was able to avoid the “aggressive cancers” that attacked the female mice that were treated with rapamycin as well as any ill effects of gut microbiome changes that the drug seemed to trigger. “While these bacteria are not invasive, they adhere tightly to the cells of the intestinal wall and may encourage the formation of immune cells in the mouse,” the UW study noted. “Otherwise, the influence of this gut microbiome change from rapamycin on the health of an animal, for good or bad, and whether the same thing happens in humans, has not been determined.”
Also to be determined, I think, is whether there will be much of a demand for these allegedly life-extending miracle drugs when (and if) any of them actually show up at your local pharmacy. A recent study from Columbia University suggests that a surprising percentage of the population has little interest in living longer than expected.
Researchers surveyed more than 1,600 adults with an average age of 42 and found that more than one in six said they preferred to cash in their chips before hitting 80. A mix of ages, genders, and education levels, this cohort apparently shared a dim view of old age. As one of the researchers put it, their fear of growing old outweighed their fear of dying.
“Having rather bleak expectations of what life will be like in old age seems to undermine the desire to live up to and beyond current levels of average life expectancy,” noted study author Catherine Bowen, PhD. “People who embrace the ‘better to die young’ attitude may underestimate their ability to cope with negative age-related life experiences as well as to find new sources of well-being in old age.”
Bowen’s study reminded me once again why expectations — especially as they relate to aging — can get in the way of happiness. Life, I’ve found, is lived best one day at a time. And if you happen to stumble upon the fountain of youth, approach it with caution. Unless you’re a lab mouse.