Researchers Betting on This Common Rx to Slow Aging

Metformin to be subject of anti-aging study, has already shown promise


Some scientists believe one medication could slow down aging. And you may already be taking it.

Metformin, a common diabetes drug sold under the brand names Glumetza, Fortamet, Riomet and others, will soon be tested as an anti-aging drug. The scientists behind this research, from Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said that, if the drug performs as expected, it could help patients live well into their 120s.

OK, so no one is saying metformin will keep you looking like you're 21, but it might prevent a whole host of age-related diseases like cancer and heart disease, keeping patients healthy for longer. Age-related diseases, researchers say, age patients — not necessarily the number of years they've been alive.

Nir Barzilai, MD, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Einstein College of Medicine, is conducting the upcoming research, which is being called Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), with colleagues. Dr. Barzilai told the Healthspan Campaign that the main point of this research is to open discussion with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). More specifically, he said he and his colleagues hope to convince the FDA that aging is an "indication," or something that can be targeted by medications.

"Without such a determination, the progress the field has made will not be realized because pharmaceutical companies will not develop drugs that have no indication, which is required for reimbursement by insurance companies," he said. "Indeed, metformin is a cheap generic drug that has already shown to have protective effects in diabetic patients, so it seems to be a good tool."

Dr. Barzilai added, "We are confident that once FDA becomes open to aging as an indication, more and better drugs will be rapidly developed."

But while metformin has shown promise in lengthening the life span and reducing age-related diseases in past studies, there's no reason to believe it's the key to living forever — or that living forever is even possible. Even experts in the field of aging research will tell you the idea is outrageous. And it may even paint an inaccurate picture of what these researchers are trying to do.

“The perception is that we are all looking for a fountain of youth,” said Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research in New York, in an article from the journal Nature about the upcoming metformin research. “We want to avoid that; what we’re trying to do is increase health span, not look for eternal life.”

By "health span," Lederman is referring to healthy years of life. Healthy years are the years lived without a chronic disease. Which is better: Living healthily until 75 or getting severe diabetes and heart disease at 60 and living sickly until 80? Advocates for healthy years over plain old longevity would opt for 75.

In the quest for longer, healthier lives, metformin has shown promise. Just one example is a study published in 2014 in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. In this study, diabetes patients who were treated with metformin actually survived longer on average than patients who didn't have diabetes and didn't take metformin. That's in spite of the fact that patients with diabetes are thought to have decreased average longevity.

In other studies, metformin has also been found to extend the lives of certain types of worms and mice. Metformin is currently FDA-approved to help lower high blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes patients.

The TAME trial is set to begin next year.