Getting older is natural and inevitable, it is everyone’s destiny. This is how the vast majority of us face life, but not geneticist David Sinclair.
- Based on his studies conducted over two decades, he claims that it is possible to delay aging by adopting a few simple habits that will help us live longer and healthier lives.
- Sinclair believes it will soon be possible to do this with drugs, which are still being tested for this purpose, and says we will likely be able to reverse aging.
- This scientist, who holds a PhD from the University of New South Wales in Australia and a postdoc from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, runs a laboratory at Harvard University where he studies the reasons for aging.
His work has earned him dozens of prizes awarded by scientific associations and organizations. They also made him a celebrity: he was voted one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Timey magazine and has nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter.
The researcher also holds 35 patents and has founded or is involved in several biotechnology companies, some of which are dedicated to slowing down or preventing aging.
Merrill Lynch estimated in 2019 that this industry is already worth US$110 billion and will reach US$600 billion by 2025.
Sinclair is also the author of Lifespan,a best-selling book. He asserts, contrary to popular belief, that aging is not inevitable.
The scientist also believes that we need to radically change the way we think about aging: instead of thinking of it as a normal and natural process, we should approach it as a disease and, as such, as something that can be treated or even cured.
According to Sinclair, only by radically changing the way we think about aging can humanity significantly increase its life expectancy.
Otherwise, he says, advances in medicine will only give us a few more years: “We have to do better than that.
Why do we get older?
Scientists have identified the nine main causes of aging, and in my research over the past 25 years, we have found evidence that one of these causes causes many, if not all, of the others, and that it involves a loss of information.
We have two types of information in our bodies, which we inherit from our parents and which are affected by the environment and time.
One is the “digital” information, the genetic code, and the other is the analogue, the epigenome, the systems in the cell that control which genes are turned on and off.
It is the activation and deactivation of a cell’s 20,000 genes that tells the cell who it is – that is, who gives it its identity – and how it is supposed to function.
But over time, the epigenome begins to lose information, as CDs do as a result of scratches, and cells lose the ability to turn on the right genes at the right time. They lose their function.
You say we don’t need to get older. What for?
There is no law in biology that says we need to grow old. We don’t know how to stop it, but we are getting better and better at slowing it down. And, in the lab, we were able to reverse it (the process).
My point is that the epigenome is modifiable.
The way we live our lives has a big impact on these scratches on the CD. By doing things right, we can significantly slow down the clock of aging, and today we can measure this clock, we have blood and saliva tests for it.
We see in animals like rats and mice, even whales and elephants, and in people with different lifestyles, that aging can occur at very different rates. And that more than 80% of your future health depends on your lifestyle, not your DNA.
There are things that scientists have discovered by observing people who live long lives. These include eating the right types of foods (a good place to start would be the Mediterranean diet), consuming fewer calories, and eating less often. Physical exercise is also helpful.
And some people think that changing the body temperature with ice and cold water is useful in this regard.
How does this help slow down aging?
The reason scientists think these habits and lifestyle work is that they strengthen the body’s natural defenses against disease and aging.
The feeling of cold or heat, hunger and shortness of breath are ways to activate these defenses.
At the base of these defenses are a handful of genes, and we studied a set of genes that control the epigenome and are activated by exercise, by hunger. That’s why we think eating the right things and fasting can slow down the aging clock.
Aging is at the origin of most diseases, it is by far the main cause of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes…. .
So, the idea is that it makes you stronger and makes you live longer.
A recent study published in the journal Nature claims that there is an invariable rate of aging in primates. This goes against their work and indicates that we cannot slow down or stop aging.
200 years ago, the fastest speed a human could travel at was that of a horse.
There are technologies we can use to overcome our biology. Technology solves problems and makes us better than before.
We are a species that innovates. Without technology, we would not have survived.
This is what we have been doing for over a million years and we will also find technologies to overcome it.
This is the next step, overcoming the limitations to our health that we have inherited.
We do this every day, when we take an aspirin or get dressed. We change our environment and we can also change the chemistry of our body.
You propose a different approach to aging: treating this process as a disease. What for?
An illness is a process that occurs over time and results in disability and/or death. It’s the same as getting older.
The only difference is that it concerns, by definition, less than half of the population. This classification is arbitrary and should be changed.
Aging is a disease. It turns out to be common, but the fact that something is common and natural does not make it acceptable.
This does not make it more acceptable than cancer. We show that the disease can be treated, that it can be slowed down and prevented
The current exclusion of aging as a disease means that doctors are reluctant to prescribe drugs that can potentially give people many years of healthier life.
We must therefore declare that aging is a disease or at least a treatable medical condition.
This is very different from our current understanding, because today we consider aging to be inevitable, but you say that it is not and that we can treat it, delay it and even reverse it. It’s a radical proposal, isn’t it?
It’s radical, but it’s also radical to fly in a plane or use antibiotics and computers.
This is the way forward for humanity.
If we want to make significant progress in medicine and longevity, even if we cure all diseases today, the average improvement in life expectancy will be little more than two years. We need to do better.
Before I continue, I would like you to elaborate on something you said: that, in the laboratory, you were able to reverse aging.
We were looking for a way to remove the epigenome, polish the scratches on the CD.
We looked at many genes to see if we could safely reverse aging.
We didn’t succeed for many years and even ended up causing cell cancer in the lab
But we discovered three genes, called Yamanakafactors, that can reverse aging without cells losing their identity.
This was done on human skin cells and nerve cells.
We then tested it on rats whose optic nerves were damaged and we were able to restore their vision by rejuvenating the optic nerves.
And could this be applied to humans in the future?
There are investors who think so. I spoke to them on the phone this morning.
The two years of safety studies in rodents have been promising and we will move on to the first human trials in the next two or three years to see if we can cure blindness in humans.
We were talking about lifestyle changes. But drugs are being studied to delay aging, right? What has science discovered so far and what is being studied?
There are molecules, both natural and synthetic, that show promise for delaying aging and prolonging life in animals and even in human studies.
And at least two of them are drugs that are on the market.
There is good evidence for one of these drugs, metformin, which is given to people with type 2 diabetes.
There are promising signs that people with diabetes live longer than people without the disease. A study is now focusing on tens of thousands of people who have taken metformin and the rates of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
What are we looking for here: to live eternally?
No (laughs) What is the purpose of medical research?
To make us live longer and healthier?
Yes, it’s the same here.
The difference is that we tackle the root causes of diseases, instead of dressing them up once they have appeared.
And by addressing the root causes, the impact will be greater. And it will be for the whole body.
We must not just slow down the aging of the heart and let the brain age, because we end up with more people with Alzheimer’s disease.
We need an approach that allows all parts of the body to stay healthy longer. And that’s the approach I’m taking.
What would be the impact of these innovations on society as a whole?
There are the individual benefits of being healthy at 90 and over, being able to lead multiple careers, being able to play with your great-grandchildren, not being a burden on your children.
The other advantage is economic.
My colleagues, myself and some economists in London estimate that, in the United States alone, increasing life expectancy by just two years would add $86 trillion in value to the economy over the next few decades, and if we extend healthy life by ten years, it would be $300 trillion.
This value would come from the fact that people are not sick. In the United States, trillions of dollars are spent on treating diseases, as I like to call it, rather than on medical care. This money can transform society by being used for education and the fight against climate change, for example.
This sector has been valued by Merrill Lynch at tens of billions of dollars and could soon reach hundreds of billions. Why is so much money and interest invested in this sector?
This is one of the biggest unmet needs in the world. There is not a single person on the planet who would not benefit from these advances, not even children.
The ability to strengthen the body’s natural defenses against disease would revolutionize the world and save the global economy billions of dollars over the next few decades.
It would create a world that would be as different from today’s world as ours is from the world that existed before antibiotics.
You are involved in some companies that develop products and services aimed at slowing or reversing aging. Aren’t you worried that this will make you look like someone who is looking to make a profit in this area, rather than just a researcher whose goal is to help us live longer and healthier lives?
My goal is to make people healthier. And the only way to make drugs is to build teams to develop them.
That’s what I’m doing.
Couldn’t I do this as a researcher rather than as an entrepreneur?
No. It takes millions of dollars to make a single drug.
But don’t you think that your participation in these companies could make some people suspicious of the science you disseminate?
My science is self-sufficient. It has never been proven to be wrong.