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Fountain of youth within reach?

By CHRISTINE DELL'AMORE, UPI Consumer Health Correspondent

ST. LOUIS, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- The day when people retire at 85 and live well into their 100s may be on the horizon, thanks to promising research in anti-aging therapies, researchers said Friday.

In animal studies over the past 15 years, scientists have found that restricting the caloric intake of animals and mutating certain genes slows the aging process and makes them live longer.

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"We've been wildly successful in extending life and improving health of a variety of animals. It has made even those of us who are skeptical think it might pan out with humans," said Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center. However, Austad added that such therapies have side effects in animals, such as a higher susceptibility to infectious diseases. "This strikes me as a critically important issue that has been ignored," he said.

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He discussed the research on a panel on anti-aging and its possible social costs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in St. Louis.

There is a considerable chance that, in the next two decades, anti-aging therapy could increase a middle-aged person's life by 20 years, said Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Likewise, between 2010 and 2030, the age of death may rise an average of 20 years if anti-aging therapies are applied.

But challenges to society might temper such advances. For one thing, the developing world would likely not benefit from anti-aging drugs; many in Africa still struggle with getting basic HIV medicine, said Shripad Tuljapurkar, a demographer at Stanford University.

In the United States, there are two retired people for every five in the workplace, and this could explode to four for every five people, sparking unprecedented problems for healthcare and other infrastructures, he said.

For example, Social Security would be overburdened, particularly because of the "intrinsic assumption" that people work and enjoy retirement. The big question is how people will pay for an additional 30 years of life, Tuljapurkar said. "Never in history have we had a population where the median age is 50, and it might happen in 30 or 40 years," he said.

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Demographer Eileen Crimmins of the University of Southern California told UPI that the answer may be as simple as upping the retirement age. She said society will adjust to the boom in older people, just as people have already adjusted to longer lives by delaying adulthood and marrying more than once. It boils down to a question of social values, not demographics, she said.

"They will not be anything we can't deal with using sensible policies," she said.

De Grey emphasized that he and other anti-aging scientists are not focused on extending life, but slowing aging. Extending life without addressing aging could be a train wreck for society, with millions of people suffering from Alzheimer's and other degenerative conditions of aging, Austad said.

A longer life is just a side benefit to preventing diseases such as arthritis and cataracts and improving the functionality of the body, de Grey said.

De Grey is an expert in a controversial area that says aging can be delayed indefinitely by using a repair and rejuvenate strategy. He sees the human body as a house, which needs consistent maintenance to stay structurally sound. If seven key operations of the body can be stopped -- among those, the death of cells, accumulation of toxic cells and accumulation of damage to the DNA -- a person's health can be continually maintained. "Since we didn't design our own anatomy, we just need to figure out how to do it," he said.

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Still, de Grey and anti-aging therapy has been met with stiff resistance.

De Grey told UPI that this resistance is symptomatic of a "pro-aging trance," and that Americans do not see aging for the ghastly process that it is.

"We're making ludicrous excuses for aging that we never use for heart disease," de Grey said. "But there are no reasons [against anti-aging] that can outweigh 100,000 people lost a day."

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E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com

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