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In this longevity lab, scientists are looking for ways to slow aging down

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The subject of aging can be a turnoff unless you think of it as an opportunity, which is the goal of our new reporting project called How To Thrive As You Age. NPR's Allison Aubrey visited a longevity lab where scientists are looking for ways to slow down biological aging.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Everyone knows their chronological age. That's the date on your birth certificate. But your biological age? That's something else. It's an estimate of how quickly or slowly you're aging. Dr. Doug Vaughan of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine leads the project.

DOUG VAUGHAN: It's a healthspan prolongation lab. We want to push back the onset of aging-related disease. That's our fundamental goal.

AUBREY: His research shows it's possible to slow down aging in mice. Now he wants to test ways in people. So I decided to roll up my sleeve for science.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACKAGE OPENING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. Slight pinch, needle coming up.

AUBREY: All righty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Done.

AUBREY: Over the next four hours, I was poked and prodded, put through a battery of tests to measure a bunch of different markers of aging, including a scan of my eye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK. Now we're moving over to the left eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Try not to blink.

VAUGHAN: We're going to just take a picture of the background of your eye, of your retina, and then that'll be analyzed using AI. And it'll look for changes in the retina itself and in the vessels in there as well.

AUBREY: Changes in the eye can be an early indicator of age-related diseases, and sense of smell is a useful marker, too.

VAUGHAN: You will sniff some little test strips and tell us what you think it is.

AUBREY: They placed the strips right under my nose.

Oh, that's chocolate.

There was a range of distinctive scents.

Strawberry.

Some of the tests were making me nervous, but this one gave me a sense of relief.

VAUGHAN: Four out of four.

AUBREY: All right.

Next, it's on to physical endurance.

VAUGHAN: The six-minute walk tells us a lot about your overall musculoskeletal functioning and cardiovascular functioning, too.

AUBREY: All right. I'm going to walk as quickly as I can right now. All right. You ready? All right, here I go.

Dr. John Wilkins evaluates.

JOHN WILKINS: She walks fairly rapidly, and she doesn't seem to be slowing down, so she has good endurance.

AUBREY: The lab does all these measurements, including a DNA analysis, to help evaluate my biological age. Fortunately, it came back younger than my actual age. But there were some surprises. I need to work on building strength. And some tests suggest it may be helpful to reduce stress.

VAUGHAN: We have the tools now to be able to answer that question, does stress drive an acceleration in your biological age?

AUBREY: What he plans to do next is study different interventions that may help slow aging. It could be strength training, changes to diet, or even medicines that may have anti-aging properties, such as the diabetes drug metformin, or something yet to be developed.

VAUGHAN: When I talk to residents and students here, I say, I have no doubt that during your career, you're going to be prescribing interventions that slow down biological aging in your patient. I don't know exactly what that's going to be. It might be a drug. It might be a lifestyle intervention. For all I know, it might be gene editing. But there are going to be ways that we're going to slow down this process and give people a longer healthspan.

AUBREY: The goal is not simply to help us live longer, but more importantly, to extend the number of years we live with good health.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.