From the time of the earliest human civilizations to the present, we have shown a persistent fascination with the possibility of slowing or even turning back the effects of aging. This persistent pursuit of the miracle anti-aging cure has led to a range of bizarre and in some cases dangerous cures as well as a few useful discoveries.
The history of anti-aging treatments goes back to the ancient world. Legendary Egyptian queen Cleopatra was reputed to take daily milk baths in order to preserve her beauty and fight the signs of aging. The milk came from donkeys, and her servants had to maintain a stable with 700 donkeys in order to keep up with her daily bathing demands.
In the 2nd century AD, Greek doctor Galen is reputed to have invented the first ever anti-aging cream. The original cold cream combined water, olive oil and beeswax, and inadvertently started an industry that remains lucrative to this day!
During the Renaissance, there were rapid developments in many fields of human endeavor, from art to astronomy, and an ongoing fascination with the possibility of eternal youth. In 1513, famous Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León set off for the New World in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth, which was supposed to confer eternal youth on all who drank its waters. Unfortunately, he didn’t find the Fountain, but he did discover Florida
In England, the pursuit of beauty at the court of Elizabeth I led to all kinds of bizarre makeup habits, including the application of ceruse, a skin whitener that contained lead, and an anti-aging treatment that involved laying slices of raw meat on their faces.
None of these treatments managed to slow down the aging process, though many of them did contribute to our understanding of how to combat the visible signs of aging. For example, Cleopatra’s milk treatment had some benefits as the alpha hydroxy acids in the milk are powerful exfoliants and can also have a softening effect on the skin. Galen’s cold cream didn’t turn back aging, but it did have a desirable exfoliating effect, as did the 18th-century French habit, popular with aristocratic women, of treating the face with aged wine.
In the 20th century, the fight against aging took on a more apparently scientific flavour. From synthetic hormone creams to Botox, scientists and the cosmetic industry worked together to come up with new ways to slow the apparent effects of aging, but as with Cleopatra’s milk and the Elizabethans’ meat facials, these only provided temporary relief from aging, and in some cases, came with unpleasant side effects.
However, the early years of the 21st century have seen a rapid development in our understanding of the aging process. Much of this knowledge has come out of research into how to combat some common diseases and medical conditions, often associated with the aging process, including dementia and certain forms of cancer.
Oncologist Mikhail Blagosklonny is one of many medical experts in the US who is involved in pushing back the frontiers of our knowledge, and the developments that the medical profession are exploring hold out the possibility of major advances in anti-aging science.
One of the most interesting developments is associated with the fledgling science of stem cell technology. It is believed that a major part of the aging process is the depletion or malfunctioning of stem cells, and many scientists are optimistic that stem cell research could one day lead to effective treatments for many of the most common diseases of aging.
The drug rapamycin is another intriguing possibility. It is currently used as an immunosuppressant to prevent organ rejection, but when used in studies on mice, it was shown to increase life span by more than 10%. There have also been some positive effects from trials with elderly volunteers, though much more work needs to be done.
This centuries-long fight against the aging process is an extension of our fear of mortality, and as such, it has tended to focus on the visible markers of age, particularly wrinkles and the aging of the skin. However, as the science develops, we are closer than we have ever been to finding out precisely how aging works, and how to stop it. The next few decades promise the possibility of an effective treatment for aging, and at the same time, a cure for many of the most debilitating age-related conditions that have long afflicted our species.