Ming Guo, the director of UCLA’s Aging Center, appreciates this review for its accuracy and potential. “It recognizes aging and opens up the opportunity to think there are things we can improve on,” says Guo, who studies strategies for reversing aging. “It implies that we can change our destiny to some degree.”
Either way, the work is moving forward. Silicon Valley, that a long history from investing in anti-aging research, has a new batch of longevity startups such as Turn Biotechnologies and Altos Labs. Saudi Arabia plans to invest $1 billion a year in research to extend the health span, the number of years a person stays healthy. Meanwhile, the US National Institutes of Health… actively ask scientists to apply for funding for age-related research. When asked about the ICD change, Luigi Ferrucci, scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, said it was “a good choice” because it supports the idea that “aging has functional consequences.”
“Research, along with the budget, has steadily increased over the past 20 years,” Melov says. “It’s not a lack of money or a semantic thing of aging as a disease or not a disease holding back the field.”
What the field needs to move forward, Melov says, are researchers who ask “sharp, hard questions” and can explore topics when the technology they need is still developing.
He is excited about the rapid advances in technologies, such as microscopy and single-cell sequencing, that are enabling scientists to gain new insights into aging at the cellular level. There are likely to be major breakthroughs in animal models in the next two to five years, he says. But he still wonders if we’ll ever have an anti-aging drug as effective as diet and exercise. “Even if we had a drug that was, say, 50% as beneficial as a good diet and exercise — and that would be a very successful drug — it’s still going to have side effects,” Melov says. “So would you rather exercise three times a week and eat right or take that pill?”
Belsky sees other low-hanging fruit. “If we want to slow down aging, it would be good if we all drank clean water and breathe clean air,” he says. “That’s a first step where we can really make a lot of progress.”
Others still see a lot of potential in the lab. Guo likes to say she wants to reverse the aging process, but her primary focus is on preventing age-related diseases to prolong human health. She says when she first started talking to people about her plans five years ago, they didn’t believe it was possible to halt, let alone reverse, the effects of aging. But her team had already shown that it was possible remove up to 95% of damaged mitochondria in fruit flies. The organelles become dysfunctional with age, which: be able to increase a person’s sensitivity to age-related diseases.
“This isn’t science fiction,” Guo says. “Everything is within reach.”
Sarah Sloat is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.