Between the years of 1946 and 1964, families in the U.S. were having a lot of children—76 million to be exact. People who were born in this time period are generally referred to as “baby boomers.” Today, the oldest baby boomers are over the age of 70, with all baby boomers turning 65 or older by 2030. The U.S. will also hit another significant milestone in 2030: For the first time in history, there will be more senior citizens living in the U.S. than children.
Older people are also living longer, and while this is a good thing, there are concerns about the strain that longer lifespans will put on the U.S. health care system. Aging is the main predictor for chronic health conditions. Having a larger population of older people means more people are living with disease and disability and that these additional years may not necessarily be spent in good health.
To help increase people’s healthspan—the time period in people’s lives when they are healthy—researchers are now focusing on ways to slow down aging with drugs. One medication receiving a lot of attention for its potential to slow aging is the diabetes drug metformin. In a recent study, metformin increased the average lifespan of older mice and improved their performance on strength and fitness tests. The mice also had delayed development of cataracts, a common age-related eye condition that leads to impaired vision.
One study showed that people with diabetes who take metformin may benefit from more than just diabetes control. It appears that metformin also lowers the risk of developing other conditions associated with aging, including heart disease, cancer and dementia. The fact that metformin seems to reduce risk factors for multiple age-related conditions suggests that it may act on cellular processes involved with aging.
Before metformin can be used to slow aging in humans, there are still many questions that need to be answered. Scientists need to understand more about what causes aging in the first place. Researchers have identified a number of cell processes that do not work as well with old age, but it is unclear which are most important to target.
Knowing when people should start receiving treatment for aging is another challenge. Measuring cholesterol or blood sugar is straightforward, but it is not clear how to measure aging. Moving forward with clinical trials may help researchers address these issues. Hopefully, we will not get too much older while we wait.
Jaime Laurin, a PhD student at the University of Oklahoma, studies mechanisms to slow the aging process. She is a student of Benjamin Miller, PhD, in the Aging and Metabolism Research Program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.