Anti-Aging Pill on the Horizon? A Look at Metformin

A medication that is widely used to treat diabetics is now in the spotlight for its potential to slow the aging process. The drug, metformin, is the subject of a recent National Geographic documentary. The gist of the story is that scientists may be close to having a medication approved to specifically treat “aging.” This is a big deal for various reasons; for one, it is not like most “anti-aging” pills you see on the market—almost all of which have no scientific basis. Secondly, this is the first time the FDA has approved human trials for a medication against aging. Until now the FDA only approved trials for medications with the potential to fight a disease (aging was not seen as a “disease”). The media has since been covering this story, making bold claims the pill can help you live to the age of 120! But as you might guess, there’s much more to the story.
Here are our key points on what you should know about metformin and why it might slow the aging process.

What Is Metformin?
Derived from the Galega officinalis plant, the drug metformin (marketed as Glucophage) has been used in the United Kingdom since the late 1950s and in the United States since the mid 1990s as an effective Type II Diabetes treatment. It is popular because it has very few side effects. Metformin works by targeting the liver and reducing production of glucose, which therefore reduces blood glucose and insulin levels.

Why Is It of Current Interest for Anti-Aging?
The research into metformin’s anti-aging properties has been spurred by results seen in worms and lab rats—but also in humans. In 2014, a large observational study by the University of Cardiff reported that Type II diabetic patients treated with metformin lived an average of 15% (!) longer than non-diabetics. It is unclear to what extent it might be helpful for non-diabetics, which is why further research is important.

Nir Barzilai, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is spearheading research on metformin. He and his colleagues have some interesting ideas about how the drug may “put the brakes on aging.” Outside of the known effects it has on the liver, metformin has been shown to have positive effects such as reducing inflammation and oxidative damage. Therefore it is thought that metformin would not just increase lifespan, but also healthspan (our years lived free of ailments). As we discussed in a recent article, we are living longer, but not necessarily healthier. Metformin may change that, and if it does, it could have a significant impact on the economic burden that aging has on the healthcare system.

This is important because, if we can delay aging, we can delay the onset of the diseases that are associated with the aging process, and thus ease the economic burden.

Metformin graphic
Research shows that delaying aging would actually be a more cost-effective healthcare strategy than treating or preventing specific diseases. (Figure by Tom LaRocca, University of Colorado Boulder)

Can We Expect to See Results Soon?
The potential for metformin as an anti-aging treatment looks bright. Researchers are still determining how to conduct the clinical trials—a difficult task, as this is a brand new field of research. If these trials do not yield good results, there are various other drugs that are being researched to delay aging.

Don’t expect results extremely soon however. You should not rely on the chance that this drug may or may not help you live longer. Research has already proven that dieting right and living an active lifestyle are keys to living a longer and healthier life.

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.