While numerous creams and serums have promised to turn back the clock when it comes to aging, researchers may have unlocked the key to actually reversing a person’s biological age through a combination of drugs, including growth hormones.
While the treatment won’t exactly have a Benjamin Button-like effect on the outside, it has the potential to help people live healthier, longer lives.
In a very small study published in the journal Aging Cell, researchers looked at whether they could slow down or reverse a person’s biological age (also known as the “epigenetic clock”). Unlike your chronological age, which is simply the number of years you’ve been alive, your biological age is influenced by a range of factors, including genetics, diet, exercise, health issues, stress, and sleep. For example, you can be 45 years old chronologically, but have the biological age of someone much younger — or older — depending on genetics and how well you take care of your health.
For the study, researchers gave nine healthy men ages 51 to 65 a combination of growth hormone and two common anti-diabetic drugs, including metformin (to counter the diabetes risk that comes with growth hormones). The goal was to try to prevent or reverse the deterioration of the immune system, which happens naturally with age.
The treatment targeted the thymus — what’s been called a “forgotten but very important organ” for its key role in the development of the immune system, including developing disease-fighting T-cells. As people age, however, the thymus gradually starts to shrink and is replaced by fat. By the time you reach 75 years old, the gland has essentially turned into fatty tissue.
Blood tests and MRIs revealed that, with the treatment, the thymus tissue regenerated, shaving an average of 2.5 years off of patients’ biological clocks. The treatment also helped rejuvenate the majority of the patients’ immune systems.
The anti-aging effects also continued for several months after the treatment period had ended.
The researchers themselves were surprised by the results. "I'd expected to see slowing down of the clock, but not a reversal," one of the study’s author and a professor of human genetics and biostatistics at UCLA, Steve Horvath, PhD, told Nature. "That felt kind of futuristic."
However, the study is preliminary and more research in a larger population is needed. “It may be that there is an effect,” cell biologist Wolfgang Wagner, MD, PhD, at the University of Aachen in Germany, told Nature. “But the results are not rock solid because the study is very small and not well controlled.”
That said, Sam Palmer, PhD, cancer immunologist at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, told Nature that the study “has huge implications not just for infectious disease, but also for cancer and aging in general.”
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