Northwestern’s New Longevity Institute Aims to Decode the Mysteries of Aging

While some people seem to just stay young longer, others age prematurely. Your chronological age of course can’t be changed, but research suggests the biological processes that drive aging may in fact be malleable. 

Understanding those processes is the goal of the new Potocsnak Longevity Institute at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.  

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Dr. Douglas Vaughan, director of the new institute and chair of medicine at Northwestern, discusses aging, the institute and its goals. 

Below, a Q&A with Vaughan. 

Explain the concept of physiological age versus chronological age. How do you measure physiological age? 

That’s a very good question. And it’s very pertinent to the conversation that we’re having and the idea that we’re presenting. It turns out there are a variety of physiological measures that we can perform on any human being that actually change with age. And it’s the integrated and cumulative measurement of a variety of different parameters that allows us to make a calculation of someone’s physiological or biological age as opposed to their chronological age. 

There are also very specific molecular markers that change with age. 

Patients at the new institute will undergo a battery of tests to determine their physiological age. How does that testing differ from what people typically get for an annual physical? 

That’s a really important question. We will actually focus on measures that change with age. So for example we will measure grip strength, we will measure hearing, we will measure heart rate variability, we will measure the capacity of your blood vessels to dilate, we will measure how far you walk in five minutes. All these kinds of things aren’t part of a routine physical exam. They’re sort of on the edges of it, but they’re not specifically quantified and calculated.

The ultimate aim of your research is to allow people to live well longer. What do you think is feasible when you start looking at how much longer we might be able to extend human lifespans? Are we talking years, decades? Obviously, we’ve already made significant gains over the last century. How much more do you think we might be able to achieve?

Well, we were making gains until the pandemic hit. I think the average lifespan in the United States has dropped by two years since the pandemic hit. I think we can extend the health span of people, maybe another 10-15 years. I don’t think our goal is to have people to make it to 120 or 150. But if we can push back age-related illnesses, whether it’s cancer or cardiovascular or neurodegenerative disease or lung disease and have people live a fuller, more productive, healthier life, that’s the goal of all this. And I think that’s within reach.

You’ve done research on a community of Amish in Indiana who have a unique genetic variant that seems to allow them to live about 10 years longer than those who don’t have the variant. When you look at the science of aging, how much is it about the genetic lottery that we all are dealt? How much is changeable, and how much is not? 

Well that’s an extremely complicated question. This is conjecture on my part. We certainly don’t change the primary components of our genetic makeup, but our genes do change over time.  

Our DNA gets modulated or chemically changed and it changes the function of our DNA. One of the processes there that contributes to that is called methylation. And specific patterns of methylation of our DNA predict the development of aging-related illnesses and lifespan. So I think that we actually have the capacity to impact upon that process as well as lifestyle interventions or other therapeutic interventions that could impact upon the aging that we all experience.

In terms of like the specific genetic trait identified in these Amish folks in Indiana, is that something that could be used and applied to people without that genetic variation to help them live longer as well?

So the genes, the genetic variants that this Amish population carries codes for a protein that circulates in our blood. And the carriers of that genetic variant have half the normal level of the protein. And it’s very easy to measure.  

I can measure it in anybody. There are already drugs in clinical trials that lower the level of the protein in human beings. So you can simply take a drug by mouth and lower your level of that specific protein. And there will be other examples that are discovered like that in the next few years. This community is very unique in that it harbors this remarkable genetic variant. There’s no other population quite like it in the world. …. We’re still investigating the broad impact of that genetic variant. It seems to touch on almost every system in the body.  

There’s also a connection between HIV research and aging research. Explain that linkage.

That’s a really important component of our story in regards to the generous individuals that provided the money to create the institute, John Potocsnak and his family, who are very interested in HIV. 

HIV was a lethal disease in the ‘80s. Now it’s a chronic disease, but we’re learning that many people with chronic HIV infections look like they age more rapidly than individuals that don’t have HIV. I think that biology is really fascinating. It probably provides some insight into the aging process across all human beings, and hopefully we’ll be able to develop some intellectual reciprocity by studying HIV and aging, and aging in human beings that don’t have that infection.

What is your ultimate goal for the institute? Where do you hope the research will be in say 10 years? 

We really want to contribute to the process of understanding the biology of aging and how it impacts upon the human condition. We hope that we will make a meaningful contribution to extending the healthy lifespan of our species and it’s as simple and as powerful as that. 

And do you think that the benefits of that research and whatever therapies or treatments come out of it are likely to be widely available? Do you think these are the kind of things that could someday be covered on health insurance? 

I’d be very disappointed if it wasn’t. I mean there are there are already drugs out in the marketplace that are suspected to potentially have anti-aging properties. One of the drugs that is commonly mentioned is Metformin that’s broadly administered to people with diabetes. But it may have other kinds of interesting properties and it’s extremely cheap.  

So, if a drug like that could be actually beneficial in delaying aging related morbidity that would be broadly applicable to the population. The drug that I talked about that’s being developed to block a protein, it’s not going to necessarily be very expensive. It’s not going to be thousands of dollars a month to take a drug like that. It’ll be dollars a month.  

Interview has been condensed and edited. 

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