Medicine, as we know it today, focuses on organs and diseases in silos. We have heart disease and heart doctors, eye diseases and eye doctors, foot disease and foot doctors. There are diabetologists for people with diabetes and hepatologists for people with liver disease. You get the idea. Some clinicians, such as primary care doctors, try to pull it all together, but they too are often addressing their patients as an agglomeration of different conditions, rather than people who may be experiencing all of those conditions because of the underlying biologic process that we call aging.
NatGeo’s Breakthrough on Aging
To take a closer look at aging as a potentially treatable disease, National Geographic—as a part of their Breakthrough Series—has produced a provocative new video titled, The Age of Aging. It is narrated by an aging, but oh so articulate Ron Howard (wasn’t it just a minute ago that he was cute little Opie on the Andy Griffith Show)?
The film poses the question of whether slowing aging can prevent diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, some cancers, and osteoporosis that are known to be strongly linked to getting older. It features some of the country’s leading researchers in aging, including Jay Olshansky, Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Nir Barzilai, MD from Albert Einstein College of Medicine; several researchers from the Buck Institute of Aging, just up the road from me in Marin County, California and many more. These scientists talk about their work and their shared vision of a world where people can live healthy, productive lives—largely free from chronic disease—well into advanced age.
Laura Deming, a 20-year-old Venture Capitalist (really!) and passionate advocate for aging research, also appears prominently in the film, providing context and, hopefully, some venture money to advance the work as well.
Focus on drugs
Although the role of gene mutations in aging is discussed, the main focus of the film is the development of a drug or drugs that can slow or reverse the process. Interestingly, the scientists hone in on Metformin, a drug that is commonly used in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. We are told that there is some evidence to suggest Metformin has an independent effect on mortality as well. A major theme of the film is the effort by some of the researchers, led by Nir Barzilai, to get the FDA to approve a clinical trial to formally test the efficacy of Metformin in slowing aging.
Other views of aging
To help illustrate the impact of aging on real people, the film highlights an elderly couple, Dr. Ed Kamin and his charming wife Martha. He is 84 and in apparent good health while she is 90 and recently diagnosed with critical aortic stenosis, a condition that will kill her in a few years if not corrected surgically.
You watch as the couple consults with their doctors and discuss between themselves whether or not she should have the surgery. Ultimately, Martha makes her decision based on the outcomes of some of her friends who had had the same operation.
Another perspective is provided by Zeke Emmanuel MD, Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. His article in the October 2014 issues of the Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” argues (as he does in the film) “that society and families—and you—will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly.” But, as Dr. Ed Kamin (Martha’s husband) says—and I agree:
“In all my years of practice, I never found a patient who was feeling well, had accepted the infirmities of age who said to me, ‘enough, I want to quit,’ because it’s wired into us that we want to continue living.”
Be sure to watch the program
I will refrain from telling you much more so I don’t spoil your viewing experience. Instead, I will close by saying that you really ought to plan on watching this entertaining, but also thought-provoking film. It premieres on November 29, 2015 at 9 pm eastern time on the National Geographic Channel. Here is a link to some preview clips: