Feb. 17, 2010 -- One of these days we'll be able to pop a pill and stay young for our entire lives. Well, probably not, but serious scientists around the world are claiming some success in at least slowing the aging process.
Mainstream researchers are taking over a field once dominated by charlatans in the quest for supplements that may help us stay alert and nimble for as long as possible.
The field now basks in the glow of scientific all-stars, the best known of whom is probably University of California-Berkeley's Bruce Ames, awarded the National Medal of Science by the White House in 1998 for his pioneering research in cell mutations.
These days, Ames is perhaps better known as the creator of Juvenon, an anti-aging supplement that purportedly peps up the body's mitochondria, tiny powerhouses that provide energy for many vital functions.
The supplement contains two natural compounds thought to give mitochondria a boost and thus aid in fighting off memory loss and a host of diseases linked to aging.
Most researchers pinpoint a few vitamins or other supplements as they search for allies in the fight against aging, but a team of scientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, has taken a new approach.
Researchers' 'Cocktail' Increased Lifespan of Mice by 11 Percent
They have called in heavy artillery in the form of an anti-aging "cocktail" that consists of 30 vitamins and supplements that are thought to play a role in fighting five debilitating, age-related losses in motivation, cognition, sensory perception, physical capacities and physical mobility.
For several years now the McMaster researchers have experimented with mice, and they have met with "profound" success, David Rollo, lead author of a study published in the current issue of Experimental Biology and Medicine, said in a telephone interview.
"We were more surprised than anybody," Rollo said, when their "cocktail" increased the lifespan of lab mice by 11 percent. Perhaps more importantly, the supplement increased the production of mitochondria and reduced the emission of free radicals, thought to be the basic cause of aging.
Will 'Cocktail' Work for Humans?
Rollo got into the anti-aging business a couple of decades ago when he was astounded at how quickly lab mice that had been genetically engineered to age more quickly were "decrepit within a year." Mice normally live up to around three years.
He began looking at supplements that are advertised to help combat aging, but he found little encouragement.
"Most of the tests on these things have been pretty disappointing," he said. "People weren't getting good results with one or two of these things, so we thought, why not put a bunch of things together and see what we get."
Rollo and his colleagues visited a local drug store and stocked up on all those things that are supposed to help slow the grim reaper -- numerous vitamins and supplements, along with the usual suspects: green tea extract, ginko biloba, ginger root extract, folic acid, flax seed oil, and others. They ended up with 30 ingredients.
The cocktail is potent in that all those 30 ingredients can interact with each other, in effect forming new compounds by the hundreds, thus attacking the problems on many fronts, Rollo said.
Decades of Research Needed to Know Effectiveness for Humans
The researchers have published a number of papers over the last few years, including the recent study showing that mice that had received the concoction ran around and remained physically active three hours longer each day than mice that had not received the cocktail.
Rollo said the 11 percent increase in longevity is particularly impressive. In human terms, that would add a decade to a person's life.
But will it work for humans? Now there's the rub.
Nobody really knows, and it will likely be decades before enough evidence is accumulated to answer that question, one way or the other. A human clinical trial would probably last 500 years, Rollo said, and he wouldn't expect to see as much improvement in humans as he has seen in mice.
"Mice are relatively short-lived animals," he said, so it is possible to examine several generations over the course of a few years. They are also very prone to various afflictions, including cancer.
Anti-Aging Is $60 Billion Business
"Most people don't know this, but humans are quite cancer resistant," and we live relatively long lives, he said. "If you take an animal that is already adapted to a long life and is cancer resistant and you give it a supplement that addresses those features, do you expect the same benefit? I don't think so.
"I think there' a good likelihood we'll get some beneficial impacts, particularly in prevention and amelioration, but don't think this is the fountain of youth. That's crazy."
The anti-aging industry is now a $60 billion business, and while Rollo has no plans to market his research, rest assured you'll probably see it in your corner drugstore before long. The researchers have published their formula, and the ingredients are easy to get, so someone out there will surely make a profit, whether or not it works for humans.
"There's a lot of unknowns," Rollo said. "We're getting better results than we had thought possible, really profound." But when it comes to humans, he adds, we may be able to drink alcohol safely, and we may be able to take a tranquilizer safely, but "if you take them both at the same time you may end up in a coma."
The National Institute of Aging encourages this type of research, and there is some evidence that it will, indeed, lead somewhere, but at this point nobody knows whether throwing a boxcar full of supplements down a human throat will do more harm than good.
So the institute offers this advice. For now, eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise. Bet you've heard that before, too.