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COVID-19 the new disease of growing old, hastening the work of anti-aging scientists – National Post

Posted: February 11, 2021 at 6:53 am


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The scientists are searching for drugs and diet supplements that could tweak human biology to better withstand the ravages of time

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Its one of the curiosities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In much of Africa, amidst widespread poverty and with a limited health-care infrastructure, the pandemic has actually taken less of a death toll than in rich countries like Canada.

The reasons for that seeming contradiction are not yet totally clear, but Colin Farrelly points to one likely explanation: the continents markedly youthful population.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a highly fatal pandemic largely because of population aging, notes Farrelly, a Queens University professor who has a new journal paper on the topic. Our success in delaying death in late life made us vulnerable to COVID-19 mortality.

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More intriguingly, and hopefully, Farrelly and others say the pandemic is a compelling reason to double down on a fascinating new domain of medical research. Its goal, rather than finding cures for individual diseases, is to treat the aging process itself.

Old age makes humans vulnerable to a range of killers, now including the novel coronavirus. Finding a way to slow down or reverse the aging process will protect people not just from traditional foes like diabetes and hypertension, but infectious diseases such as COVID-19, the thinking goes.

I think of it as 21st century medicine, as opposed to 20th century medicine, in which there were these silos of people who treat your heart, people who treat your lungs, people who treat your brain, Austad said. (Now) theyve started talking to each other.

Targeting aging, argues Farrelly, ought to be the major public health goal of the 21st century.

Nobody has run away from aging by dieting and exercising ... To change the paradigm, we need to look at pharmaceuticals

What anti-aging scientists are pursuing is not the lifestyle fixes long proven to lessen disease risk, like regular exercise and a healthy diet. Instead, theyre searching for drugs and dietary supplements that could actually tweak human biology to better withstand the ravages of time.

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The key seems to be that the animal somehow avoids the clumping together of protein on the shell-opening tissue, a factor for humans not just in muscle ailments, but neurological diseases like Parkinsons and Alzheimers, too, Austad said.

Meanwhile, experts like him stress there are already relatively cheap and safe drugs prescribed for other uses that have great potential as anti-aging agents. They include rapamycin, used now to combat organ rejection in transplant patients, and metformin, a diabetes medicine.

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Underlying the research are some cold, hard facts about human biology. Evolution, it seems, has ensured humans live healthily long enough to reproduce and look after their offspring until they become independent.

That translates into an average biological warranty period of about 70 years, the time before which the body begins to undermine itself, increasing the risk of disease and frailty, says Farrelly. So as weve learned to at least manage diseases of old-age and get people to live longer, the result is often years of illness and disability at the end of life, he said.

But thats not to say that growing old and weak in the way we expect is written in stone.

Theres no law of physics or law of the universe that says that aging has to occur, said Austad. Living organisms are almost definable by their ability to repair themselves Aging is the ultimate failure of repair. (But) that doesnt mean its not possible to intervene in the system.

Such intervention would not necessarily extend lifespans, but ideally make the later years healthier and more productive, a major advance in itself.

That would change the nature of human existence incredibly, said Austad. If you had another 10 to 20 years of healthy life to look forward to, that might influence almost everything you did when you went to school, when you had kids, how many careers you had.

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After it was discovered in the soil of Easter Island in the 1960s, Canadian researchers at Ayerst Pharmaceuticals found it had fungal-fighting properties. It eventually was approved as an anti-rejection drug. What has been learned about it since suggests its one of the very brilliant molecules that nature made, said Zhavoronkov, founder of Hong Kong-based companies Insilico and Deep Longevity.

It should be administered under a doctors supervision and tailored to individual recipients, he said, but the time is now.

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Theres no law of physics or law of the universe that says that aging has to occur

The trillions of dollars governments have spent on the fallout from COVID-19 with its disproportionate burden on the elderly drives home the point, he argues.

So how soon before a drug arrives that brings, not immortality exactly, but a longer healthspan?

Austad believes it s coming within 10 years. Zhavoronkov is also optimistic, saying the last decade has seen remarkable progress, more discoveries in aging medicine than in the entire human history.

It feels personal to Farrelly, a political-studies professor who monitors geriatric science. His mother died in the midst of the pandemic after years of battling cancer, unable to see family in the last three months of her life because of COVID protocols. But hes hopeful.

I believe it will happen in my kids lifetime, said Farrelly. They wont age like my mother did.

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