We are in the middle of a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on our health and the global economy. COVID-19 quickly became a common foe for all of us and highlighted some important challenges that we, as a species, need to overcome as soon as possible if we want to create a healthier future.
While the new virus is a threat to everyone, the elderly are especially vulnerable. As our bodies accumulate damage, our immune system begins to fail and we become more susceptible to complications from any infection. This reminds us that, even in this great peril, the biggest risk factor for mortality is our biological age.
While some people stubbornly believe that chronologically old people are not worthy of rescue and that we should simply let nature take its course. Science says otherwise. Not only can we do something to help them, but it is our moral responsibility to do so. COVID-19 and aging have a deep connection, and addressing the latter issue would help us overcome the ongoing crisis. Moreover, it would help us tremendously in dealing with future pandemics as well.
In the lines below, I will cover COVID-19 in more detail, I will also examine the connection between COVID-19 and biological aging, and finally, I will take a closer look at the therapies that have the biggest potential to secure long-term health and vitality for the elderly.
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) - A brief overview
Coronavirus is the name given to a family of viruses that generally infect the nose, upper throat, or sinuses. When we look at these viruses under a microscope, we can see that they look like tiny crowns, hence the name.
While most coronaviruses aren’t dangerous, the new type that we now recognize as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV 2) is a different story. This virus is the cause of COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019).
COVID-19 affects both the lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs) and the upper respiratory tract (throat, nose, and sinuses) of the patient. It is a highly infectious disease that causes a range of different symptoms, including:
- Dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- Swollen eyes
A person’s age greatly determines the severity of their symptoms.
The connection between COVID-19 and aging
While mortality rates are relatively low for people under 50, those over 50 have a markedly increased risk of dying. The same applies to anyone who suffers from chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and more. All of these are well-known aspects of aging and the link between the two issues is obvious.
The main reason this disease can be so devastating lies in the aging immune system. The role of the immune system is to protect the body from foreign invaders and harmful substances by making new cells and antibodies to fight them off. Some examples include bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, various toxins, and even blood or tissues from another person. As we get older, the immune system begins to fail and we become more prone to infections and life-threatening complications.
Aging affects the immune system in many different ways and here are some changes that you may feel as the damage builds up:
- Your body recovers from stressors more slowly in general.
- The immune system responds more slowly, which increases your risk of infections.
- Its ability to detect and correct faulty cells also declines, which increases the risk of cancer.
- Because of this, vaccines may no longer protect you as effectively as they once did.
- The likelihood of developing an autoimmune disorder rises.
The sixth decade of one’s life is usually the critical point. This is when the immune system undergoes most of the previously mentioned changes, leading to immunosenescence. While we have ways to slow this down to a certain degree (by eating well, exercising, etc.), we need radical new interventions if we want to make a real difference.
Addressing the COVID-19 issue with longevity-related interventions
The conclusion is obvious - we need to attack this foe at its source. The best long-term strategy to overcome COVID-19 lies in anti-aging interventions. Instead of choosing who should be saved and who shouldn’t depending on their chronological age, we can rejuvenate everyone to improve their odds of beating the virus.
Here are some interventions that we may want to consider:
Gene therapy holds the biggest promise not only in the context of previously incurable diseases but aging as well. This intervention is the primary focus of both BioViva and Integrated Health Systems.
As we know, telomere attrition is a primary hallmark of aging and a direct cause of many age-related problems. Scientists at John Hopkins have now discovered that people with abnormally short telomeres have immune system cells that age and die prematurely. Furthermore, they’ve also found that their immune systems share similar characteristics with the immune systems of slightly older individuals without telomere disorders. The hTERT gene therapy offered by IHS may hold the key to overcoming this problem.
Another example is Klotho, “the queen of anti-aging proteins.” While Klotho is well-known for its beneficial effects, some mouse studies suggest this protein may have another role to play. Namely, a 2018 study suggests that Klotho controls the brain–immune system interface in the choroid plexus, and that its depletion from this structure promotes brain inflammation as a result of the aging process. The Klotho gene therapy is yet another intervention that IHS is offering to counteract the effects of aging today.
Senescent cell removal
Cellular senescence is yet another hallmark of aging that we need to address and senescent cells are a real burden for our bodies.
Based on preliminary evidence, our lungs are among the most affected by senescent cells. Over time, their accumulation leads to a range of different age-related problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). On top of that, our lungs lose their function regularly as we age, which makes them even more vulnerable to a threat like COVID-19. We need to purge the senescent cells from the body if we want to protect our lungs from aging and SARS-CoV 2.
A novel class of drugs called senolytics can selectively kill off harmful cells and reverse the aforementioned pathologies. Early data is encouraging and the studies show that senescent cell removal in the aging mice can restore youthful lung function. At the moment, there are several different human trials going on, including the trial of Fisetin by Mayo Clinic.
Self-destruction of mutation-prone cells
Retrotransposons also need to be considered both in the context of age reversal and protection against SARS-CoV2. What are retrotransposons? They are genetic components that can amplify themselves in a genome. Technically, they are “dead” DNA, but in some cases, they can be activated again. If such an event happens, we may see mutations in our functional genes or even a disruption in the expression of other, non-mutated genes, which results in apoptosis (cellular death), cancer, and ultimately, cellular senescence.
A solution to this problem is similar to what we have with senolytics - we can use novel drugs (in this case, we’re talking about retrolytic drugs) to remove the faulty cells from the body before they can cause further damage. That way, not only are we going to alleviate the symptoms of aging, but we will also prevent SARS-CoV2 from using these cells as fuel to replicate itself.
Dr. Andrei Gudkov is currently doing critically important research in this area, and his work is fully backed by the SENS Research Foundation. At the moment, we can only hope for the best!
The current pandemic has united all of us in pain, fear, and agony. We can safely say that COVID-19 changed the world as we know it and nothing will ever be the same. But if there is one conclusion that we can draw here, it would be this one - we need to target aging as a whole if we want to move forward. The biggest risk factor for death from SARS-CoV2 is one’s biological age. The sooner we can repair the damage associated with aging, the better. We need a new paradigm that will help people live longer and healthier lives regardless of how old they are and now is the time to act.
The crisis has highlighted what the main problem is and the future of healthcare depends on us and the decisions that we make today. We need to be proactive if we want that future to be bright both for us and generations to come.
About the author:
I am a biotechnologist, digital economy expert, software developer, and entrepreneur. I have cooperated with companies from many different niches both locally and worldwide. My main goal is to use the power of technology to improve people's lives and overcome previously untreatable diseases. I believe that the combination of biotechnology and artificial intelligence is the key to taking full control of our health in the near future.