The big news this week is that dogs are being used to test a drug that might help humans live longer. But I don’t think I want to live longer. I just want my 9-year-old Boston terrier to live longer so I can put off falling to pieces, and having to tell my daughter Rosie died. Statistics and other parents’ anecdotes tell me Rosie will almost certainly pass six weeks after my kid leaves for college, causing apocalyptic crying jags, expensive airplane tickets and a missed midterm. Stopping all that is worth any price.
Matt Kaeberlein, a University of Washington researcher in the biology of aging and the leader of the study, sort of agrees about the importance of slowing dog aging in and of itself — as do the 1,500 dog owners who clamored to get their pets into his study.
The research began with rodents in 2006, when Kaeberlein and other scientists showed that a drug called rapamycin could extend the life span of mice without significant side effects. Give it to young mice and the average life span increases 25 percent.
The first 10-week trial with dogs has concluded, and it showed that the canines that got the drug had better heart function afterward than the control group. Researchers are looking for funding for a much bigger project.
“The thing about dogs is they have a manageable life span to study,” Kaeberlein said in an interview. “If we start studying middle-aged dogs, we will know in five years if they are living longer. With humans, it’s going to take a very long time to know if the drug is working.”
And is he doing the study to find answers for people or puppies?
“I think that both goals are important,” said Kaeberlein, who owns a 10-year-old keeshond named Chloe and a 4-year-old German shepherd named Dobby. “If my dogs or anyone’s dogs could live two or three years longer, that would be a huge value.”
But only if they could live well, he cautioned. And therein lies one of the most troubling aspects of longevity research, whether for dogs or humans.
According to Kaeberlein, there are many chronic diseases, like certain cancers or Alzheimer’s or heart disease, for which the primary risk factor is age. But curing diseases primarily caused by old age wouldn’t save most lives for long. Within a few years, patients would die of a different age-related cause. And while people are living longer, they’re not always living better. Being granted a few extra years of the life people experience in their mid-90s wouldn’t attract most of us as much as actually aging more slowly.
But Kaeberlein says it is possible to look at the problem as if aging is the disease, and the age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and certain cancers are symptoms. Slow the aging, slow the diseases, and delay the general falling apart.
The same is true with dogs. Most people who have dogs for 15 years would like them to live longer, but would have liked it far more if they’d stayed youthful longer, too. Aging pets are often unhappy, and deciding when to end their pain is a terrible dilemma.
And how long do we want to live? It heavily depends on what comes after we die, which none of us is certain of. But not forever. Most of us get a certain satisfaction out of getting through a day without doing anything too horrible, but we can’t kid ourselves that we can keep the streak alive indefinitely. And what if this climate change thing gets out of control? I’m scheduled to die around 2050 or 2060. That could be just right.
For now, just figure out how to keep our dogs young and spry, Doc. I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude on the people longevity thing.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.