Can Aging be Treated with a Pill? New Study May Challenge Our Understanding of Medicine and Aging

Dr. Todd T. Daly
The desire for indefinite youth is as old as humanity itself. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, to quests for the fountain of youth, to the various elixirs concocted by alchemists, human history bears witness to innumerable—and often bizarre—attempts to extend life by defeating aging. Though current life expectancy figures testify to the power of medicine, hygiene, and better living conditions, we are nearing its upper limits. Curing all forms of cancer, for instance, would increase current life expectancy by a mere three years. Despite these advances, aging itself has not been altered. Scientists have, however, achieved remarkable results in slowing the aging of nematode worms, fruit flies, and mice through genetic engineering and pharmacology. Unfortunately, these successes have occurred on organisms that are far less complex than the human body. They represent the first steps of a long, arduous, and perhaps impossible journey toward slowing human aging that might span decades, or even centuries.

Or so it was thought, until late last year when the FDA approved the first ever human trial of a drug already on the market, in order to study its anti-aging properties. The study, dubbed TAME—“Targeting Aging with Metformin”—will investigate the effects on several thousand people who suffer from cancer, heart disease, or cognitive impairment. Scientists have observed that the diabetic drug metformin, which has been on the market for over sixty years, has enabled diabetics to live longer than people who don’t have diabetes—even though diabetes typically reduces life expectancy by an average of eight years. Not only do people on metformin have reduced incidences of cancer, but it has also shown to prevent cognitive decline. The drug has already produced impressive results in mice, lengthening their healthy lifespan by nearly forty percent.

Could a simple pill help us live a century or more in a state of improved health? Many hope that Metformin will enable us to live into our hundreds in a state of relative health. This represents the first time in the history of modern medicine that the FDA has recognized aging itself—rather than its effects—as a drug target. In short, it may mark the beginnings of a shift in the goals of medicine where aging itself is considered a treatable condition. This conceptual shift not only challenges the discipline of medicine and our notions of health, but it also presses us to consider where aging comes from, and whether or not we are wise to consider it a disease.

These challenges are no less real for Christians, who in this Lenten season are invited to reflect on the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) How do we understand aging as it relates to our finite, creaturely existence? Where does aging come from, and what is its relationship to sin? Would it be wrong for people who look to the resurrection to take a metformin supplement in hopes of securing a few more years on earth? These are complex questions that we’ll be taking up over the next several months as we try to formulate a theological understanding of aging.