Last night I ventured to Greenwich Village for a screening of the new documentary To Age or Not To Age? It was followed by a Q&A with its director, Robert Kane Pappas. The film features some of the most famous scientists in the field of aging, including Leonard Guarante and Cynthia Kenyon, who have both made groundbreaking discoveries about the genes involved in the aging process. Sirtris Pharmaceuticals co-founder David Sinclair, who I write about in Selling the Fountain of Youth, also figures prominently in this film. He’s the Harvard professor who’s studying the potential life-extending powers of the red-wine extract known as resveratrol.
Though the movie amounts to little more than talking scientists–mixed in with a few aging people musing about immortality–it’s quite clear to me what Pappas’ answer to the question posed in his title is. He seems to fully support the notion that anti-aging research might result in a pill we could all take someday to avoid aging. The scientists who appear in the film are built up as heroes, complete with dramatic music to accompany their interviews. All of them spout plenty of caveats about how difficult it will be to translate their discoveries into therapies. Nevertheless, when Pappas introduced himself to the 25 or so viewers who showed up for the screening, he began by declaring anti-aging research to be “very very hopeful.”
Audience members bombarded Pappas with questions about resveratrol in particular. The extract is widely available as a nutritional supplement, though Sirtris is studying far more potent versions of it. And the company and its corporate partner, GlaxoSmithKline, aren’t pursuing it as a cure for aging, but rather for age-related diseases such as diabetes. Still, some audience members were clearly eager to try it. “Should I take one or two?” a viewer asked Pappas. The filmmaker pointed out that David Sinclair himself has professed to taking resveratrol. True, but Sinclair is the first to admit that resveratrol has not been scientifically proven to extend life or cure disease. And when some Web-based sellers of resveratrol supplements started using Sinclair’s name and likeness without his permission to sell their products, he was none too happy about it.
To Age or Not to Age raises many more questions than it answered. It features, for example, a 400-year-old clam that was discovered a few years back in Iceland and is now being studied by scientists in Wales. But how do they know it’s 400 years old? And how are they unlocking the secrets to the clam’s extraordinarily long life? The film doesn’t say. I did some Googling and at least found the answer to the first question. Turns out clams have lines on their shells–sort of like tree rings–that reveal their age. This clam was indeed alive when Shakespeare was writing his masterpieces. Question is, will any of us still be alive when he reveals the clues to his immortality?