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Live forever? Maybe not, but we can live longer and better

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Toren Finkel
UPMC
Dr. Toren Finkel

Deep down we all know it: the concept of staying forever young is mere fantasy.

But can science find ways to make the ride to the ultimate end longer and more enjoyable with fewer aches, pains and surgeries?

Dr. Toren Finkel, the new director of the UPMC-University of Pittsburgh Aging Institute, is doing his best to find out.

At age 60, he joked that he has an obvious vested interest.

Finkel, who came to Pittsburgh this summer with a stellar reputation from the National Institutes of Health, plans to continue exploring drug therapies that can mimic molecular benefits to the body caused by healthy activity such as calorie-restricted diets or exercise.

The study is known as geroscience, with a goal of finding ways to extend the length of time people live without disease or serious illnesses.

“Our goal is to modify aging,” Finkel told the Tribune-Review. “It's still inevitable that we get older but that does not mean that aging can't be modified.”

For example, some studies in animals have shown that eating less can significantly lengthen a life because the stress of hunger activates pathways in cells and tissues that are beneficial. Many scientists theorize these studies will translate to humans.

But nobody enjoys being hungry or even “hangry.”

“Being hangry can be awful, I can tell you from experience of raising two daughters,” Finkel said. “But when you eat less, cells in your body trigger a response that is positive.”

Finkel wants to develop drugs and therapies that trigger that same response without requiring people to starve themselves.

Until then, we'll all have to abide by the common mantras in our search for healthy aging: eat well, exercise, get plenty of rest and try to avoid stress.

“I really think by treating the basis of aging itself, you can delay things like cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer's,” he said.

The timing is right. In the next few years, the number of people on the planet age 65 and older is expected to overtake the number of children under age 5. That's never happened before, Finkel said.

“We are, for better or worse, getting older as a planet, and as a country,” he said. “We have to make it a better experience for everyone.”

Finkel and his staff will study the potential for anti-aging drugs inside Pitt's Bridgeside Point building on Technology Drive, along the Monongahela River. He said he plans to recruit 10 to 12 investigators, creating a team of scientists and chemists.

“Under Dr. Finkel's innovative leadership, we will focus on fundamental research and therapies that target the aging process, with the ultimate goal of extending healthspan — essentially a long life free of disease,” said Dr. Arthur S. Levine, Pitt's senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine.

Finkel also plans to explore the ways in which inflammation and the immune system are connected to aging.

“If we were having this conversation 20 years ago, the ability to discuss what regulates aging and what causes it would be very rudimentary,” he said. “There's a lot more that is known now and there's a lot of excitement in the field surrounding learning more about the biology of aging.”

When he's not concentrating on human aging, Finkel and his wife, Beth, will enjoy the older architecture in their new neighborhood, Shadyside. They also brought along his 93-year-old mother-in-law and their dog, Sherlock, a miniature goldendoodle.

“I love the older houses,” he said. “It's such a great city. And the population of the region is also older.

“It's the perfect place for an aging institute.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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