Many of us like to say we’re “young at heart.” But no matter how old you feel, your body’s true age has nothing to do with your birthday. In the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to check into the Human Longevity Laboratory to find out how old you really are, physiologically speaking.
At the lab, clinicians will check a litany of body systems, as well as your neurological and orthopedic health. And if the diagnosis is less than optimal, you’ll be prescribed an intervention to stave off further decline or — better yet — restore your vitality.
It may sound like sci-fi, but it’s actually the mission of the new Potocsnak Longevity Institute, which recently launched at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The Human Longevity Laboratory is just one part of the ambitious, multicenter institute, whose goal is to build on Northwestern’s ongoing research in the rapidly advancing science of aging.
“The biological processes that drive aging may be malleable,” says Douglas Vaughan, director of the institute and chair of the Department of Medicine at Feinberg. “We think we can slow that process down, delay it, even theoretically reverse it. The curtain is being pulled back on what drives aging. We want to contribute to that larger discovery process.”
Funded by a gift from Chicago industrialist John Potocsnak and his family, the institute aims to extend what Vaughan calls the human “healthspan.” Scientists and clinicians will address the period of life when people are at the greatest risk for aging-related comorbidities — arthritis, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, hypertension and frailty.
“We want to make it possible to live healthily for a longer period of time, not just live longer,” says Vaughan, who is also the Irving S. Cutter Professor of Medicine. “Aging is the most important risk factor for every disease we care for in adult medicine. If we can push that process back, we can push back the onset of disease.”
The institute builds on the decades of work by Vaughan and scientists across the University, unifying programs that study populations who seem resistant to some of the negative consequences of aging. These include certain members of an Amish community in Berne, Ind., who carry a unique genetic mutation that promotes longevity, and a group of cognitively young octogenarians called SuperAgers. Other projects will continue to study HIV’s impact on aging and capitalize on Northwestern’s expertise in nanoscience, bioengineering and chemistry by investigating anti-aging approaches such as new drugs and therapeutic devices.
“At the Human Longevity Laboratory, we will design clinical trials to study important aspects of aging in order to identify ways to extend the healthspan and delay or prevent harmful aging processes,” says Frank Palella ’83, ’92 GME, associate director of the institute and the Potocsnak Family C.S.C. Professor. “We plan to ascertain those factors that determine not just how long people live but how well they live.”