With all the mental acuity, smooth skin and robust good health that comes with her age, Laura Deming still has youth firmly on her side. But while most of her contemporaries are focused on stumbling through a degree, Laura, who runs her own medical venture capital firm, is driving the development of a pill that could cure ageing, and which she believes could be available to everyone within 10 years.
Sounds like the stuff of science fiction? Maybe, but Laura, a prodigy who was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at 14, is one of the leading researchers in a buzzing field that is very real indeed – and speaking to her, you quickly begin to believe as well. ‘What if I told you that there was a pill that you could take every day, that would make you live longer and feel younger?’ she says. ‘That you could live an extra 20 years, or that at 60 years old, you could feel as good as you did at 30?
‘Nobody in their right mind would believe it. But scientifically speaking, it’s not that far off.
‘There are drugs already out there in the market today that, we think, if you were to take them your whole life, would help you live longer and healthier. But we need clinical trials to prove it.’
Laura is one of the scientist stars of a new documentary, The Age of Aging, which shows that the availability of drugs that slow down and prevent ageing is closer than many may think. The film also features Martha Kamin, a former nurse who has survived breast cancer and endured five hip surgeries, and with a narrowed aortic valve, is now at risk of a heart attack; precisely the type of person who those advances could help.
This summer, the first-ever clinical trial to investigate the anti-ageing possibilities of one particular drug was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, the body that regulates the development of pharmaceuticals. Led by Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a team of scientists will give metformin – a drug currently used to treat Type 2 diabetes, and which has also been proven to extend the lifespan of mice – to 3,000 elderly people at high risk from age-related diseases like cancer, heart disease and dementia. The five- to seven-year trial will attempt to discover whether it also helps prevent the onset of such diseases and extend the lifespan of humans.
There is little dissent in the scientific community that we are living longer than ever. It’s widely accepted that the first person who will live to be 135 years old has already been born.
At present, the predictions for that inevitability are bleak: our ever-lengthening lifespans are framed in terms of the silver tsunami, that a greater proportion of the population being older will equate to a drain on health care and the pension system.
However, there is also a relatively new feeling in the scientific community that everything we associate with ageing – a decline into poor physical and mental health and diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia – is not inevitable or natural at all.
‘There has long been this notion that it is not possible to stop ageing,’ says Brian Kennedy, president of The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. ‘But cancer is natural too; it happens to a third of the population. And so is Alzheimer’s. And yet we do everything we can to try and prevent them, so why not take the biggest risk factor for all of these diseases and try to tackle that as a means to get at all of these diseases at the same time?’
That is certainly Laura’s ambition.
Chatty, articulate and attractive, she seems incredibly well-adjusted for one so prodigious. She’d long been obsessed with the science of ageing, she says, and by the age of 12 had begun helping researchers at the University of California San Francisco in her spare time.
‘I used to tell my parents that I had to be there on a Saturday night, so I could go and hang out in the lab all night,’ she admits. ‘It’s my passion.’
She and her younger brother never attended mainstream school, but instead home-schooled themselves.
‘I taught myself calculus, probability and statistics, as well as French literature and history,’ she says. ‘I gave myself my own grades; I probably have some gaps in my knowledge though.’
No matter the gaps she may have, they were certainly no bar to her being accepted into MIT, where she studied biology and physics. However, she dropped out two years later, at 16, to set up her venture capital firm, The Longevity Fund, to finance research into developing commercially viable drugs to combat ageing. ‘The traditional way of doing things didn’t really make sense to me,’ Laura says frankly.
Her fund’s portfolio includes a research company working on rapamycin, a drug currently used to prevent organ rejection after transplants, but which has been shown to extend the lifespan of mice by up to 30 per cent. Scientists believe it may be related to the way it affects the nutrients available in the body: counterintuitively, restricting calories and fasting have been found to increase lifespan by making your cells more resistant to stress. (Good news if you’re a fan of the 5:2 diet.) Also being investigated by one of the fund’s companies is deleting old cells from your body. This, believe it or not, is possible: only a small portion of your cells get old – less than 1 per cent in some cases.
‘You’d think your body might collapse if you delete cells, but if you delete just the old cells in mice, they live 30 per cent longer,’ Laura says. ‘The most important ideas are often the ones that are counterintuitive.’
One trial has had success in reversing ageing in old mice by injecting them with the blood of young mice. Now, they are replicating this in human trials, directly injecting Alzheimer’s patients with blood taken from healthy young people.
But not everyone is on board. ‘There is no single pill against ageing, and there never will be,’ argues Professor Rudi Westendorp of Old Age Medicine, University of Copenhagen, and author of the new book Growing Older Without Feeling Old. A straight-talking Dutchman and one of the world’s leading experts on ageing, Prof. Westendorp does not mince his words. ‘The public want easy solutions, and scientists want to cure everything with a single drug. Forget about it.’
He believes that rather than turning to pharmaceutical solutions, we need to start thinking positively, and see that longer lives are a gift. ‘We make each other old by adjudicating that being old is grim,’ he says.
He also argues that we need to rethink our lifestyles. From a retirement age that encourages us to stop working long before we need to, to an abundance of food and labour-saving devices contributing to obesity and diabetes, he argues that our environments are ageing us prematurely.
‘We have all the knowledge we need to live long, healthy lives,’ says Prof. Westendorp. This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding ‘the rock and roll’ – smoking ... and drinking. ‘If you practise prevention, you don’t need a pill.’
Laura does not deny that there are simple things we can do to slow the ageing process – and cutting out sugar comes top of the list. ‘We don’t really know why sugar is so bad for you,’ she says. ‘But we do know that every time we give any organism sugar, it reduces its lifespan. And every time we decrease blood sugar levels, an organism lives longer.’
Does she practise what she preaches? ‘When you are in your developmental phase, none of this matters,’ she says sheepishly. ‘It’s only when you reach full maturity that it really kicks in. So I’ve been kidding myself that I’m still in my developmental phase and I can still eat all the sugar I want.’
How to fight ageing while you wait for a cure
Cut 500 calories
Experts agree that reducing calorie intake and/or intermittent fasting could extend your lifespan significantly.
Reducing your daily calorie consumption to 1,500, as opposed to the average 2,000 for women generally advised, could lead to significant improvements in long-term health.
‘But that is not an intervention that is easy for people to do,’ notes Brian Kennedy of The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. ‘Fasting is a more credible strategy.’ However, you must consult a doctor before going on any diet.
Avoid sugar, and don’t go for too much protein
‘Sugar is the worst thing you can eat in terms of ageing,’ says Laura Deming. ‘And protein isn’t great either. It turns on systems that tell your body that it is full – so it thinks it is in a safe place, and doesn’t need to try to fight to live longer, so it won’t generate new cells.’ She advises a diet focused on high-density, low-GI carbohydrates, such as wholewheat cereals.
Do a 15-minute workout every day
‘It makes sense that people who exercise have lower rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but now we are finding they have lower rates of Alzheimer’s too, because exercise slows down ageing overall,’ says Brian. You don’t need to run a marathon though.
In a study this year by the University of Kansas Medical Center, previously sedentary adults who did an average of just 15 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, such as walking, five days a week, saw a significant improvement in their cognitive test scores.
Learn a new skill
According to a 2013 study by the University of Texas at Dallas, older people who learnt cognitively demanding activities like photography or a new language improved their memories significantly. The brain loves novelty and we can strengthen the frontal lobe that controls short-term memory by engaging in new tasks.
Plan your future
‘Old age is better than ever – it lasts longer, the condition of your body is better, and the quality of your life is better than ever before,’ says Professor Rudi Westendorp. ‘It’s great to grow older, because the opposite is that you die early.’ Instead of worrying about who will look after them in their dotage, he encourages the over-70s to think about what they want to do with the next 15 years of their lives.