By Edie Grossfield
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org .
In 2006, S. Jay Olshansky, a leading researcher on aging, and his colleagues coined the term “the longevity dividend.” It describes the health and economic benefits individuals and societies could enjoy by slowing biological aging and extending people’s years of healthy living. The term was new, but the concept had been around for decades. In a recent interview, Olshansky said “science has finally caught up with the idea.”
The University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist and professor, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging in 2016 , says biotech companies are on the verge of a breakthrough in developing interventions that will slow the body’s process of aging, thereby making the body more resistant to disease.
Olshansky is a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He is also a co-founder and chief scientist of Lapetus Solutions Inc. in Wilmington, N.C.
He says it’s an exciting time within the field and in the work toward extending human “healthspan,” meaning our number of healthy years of life. Olshansky and his colleagues have been urging researchers to shift their focus from lifespan to healthspan. This also means compressing what they call “the red zone,” the time period toward the end of life in which a person is frail and sick.
In the following Q&A, Olshansky discusses aging interventions we could see in the near future.
Next Avenue: Just how close are biotech companies to developing a drug or some other type of intervention that would slow biological aging?
S. Jay Olshansky: There are numerous research pathways that scientists are pursuing and any one of them, or more than one, could be fruitful. And I think most of us today will be taking some sort of intervention [such as a pill]. And we probably won’t look at it as a way to slow aging — we’ll look at it as a way to reduce our risk of disease, because the result is the same.
How might these drugs work?
One of the interventions that researchers are pursuing are substances called senolytics, which are designed to attack something called “zombie cells.” The cells in our bodies divide. After they divide a certain number of times, they eventually die. Except some of them don’t die, and the ones that don’t die interfere with the functioning of the healthy cells. And they accumulate across time.
The senolytic compounds are designed to go into the body and clear out the zombie cells. They remove the interference that’s going on with the body’s own functioning. This means that you’ll be more resistant to cancer, you’ll be more resistant to cardiovascular disease, you’ll be more resistant to Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll be more resistant to stroke and arthritis and osteoporosis and the other kinds of things that go wrong with our bodies as we get older.
So, imagine an intervention, whether it’s a pill or some other type of intervention, that could reduce your risk of everything at once. … It would dwarf in importance a cure for cancer. That’s what we’re pursuing.
Would this intervention actually slow aging or would it make the body more resistant to certain diseases?
Your natural inclination is to separate aging from diseases, and in this regard, I would not separate them. An intervention that compresses the red zone will do so by delaying disease.