Old age is not fun unless by a miracle you are athletically fit and your brain functions have maintained their ability to serve you well. Anything that scientists can produce to hold back old age would be the greatest discovery that people of a certain stage would welcome with great enthusiasm. It’s certainly been a long time coming if it materialises. But a ‘fountain of youth’ drug could now be just a decade away. Experts say bathroom cabinets could soon be stocked with a pill that helps us live longer. By slowing ageing, the medicine should be able to prevent many of the ills of old age – and even a single dose could be effective. It means people could work for longer or simply make the most of their retirement.

The remarkable predictions follow experiments in which Lithium, a drug normally used to treat bi-polar disorder, was found to significantly extend life. The work was on fruit flies, but the British and US researchers believe it holds out real hope for humans. The team from University College, London, and Harvard Medical School, studied the effect of various doses of Lithium on flies. Despite their appearance the insects are very similar to us genetically. And, with lifespans of just 2 to 3 months they are ideal for experiments in which health needs to be tracked from the cradle to the grave.

Low doses of Lithium extended life by up to 16 per cent – and stopped flies on a sugary diet from putting on weight. What is more, treated flies remain supple well into old age, suggesting any extra years for humans may well be healthy ones. The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, found Lithium works even if given for the first time late in life. This is important, as it could be difficult to persuade people to take an anti-ageing pill for their entire period on earth.

Professor Dame Linda Partridge of UCL, said: ‘Our aim is to identify ways to intervene in ageing, with the end goal of keeping us all healthier for longer and compressing the time at the end of life when we suffer from physical decline and disease. This can be done by diet, genetics or drugs, which is why we want to identify promising drug targets.’ She added: ‘The response we’ve seen in flies to low doses of Lithium is very encouraging.’

The chemical was found to work its magic by switching off a gene called GSK3 that is linked to age-related illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, Parkinson’s, some cancers and heart disease. Switching off this gene activates another gene which helps detox the body and protects cells from damage. Lithium itself may be too toxic for widespread use. However, pharmaceutical companies have already developed similar chemicals which may be safer. Claire Bale of Parkinson’s UK said the findings can provide ‘significant insights into how we could potentially treat or even prevent conditions of ageing like Parkinson’s.’

Project Leader Dr Jorge Ivan Castilio, of Harvard Medical School, said the miracle medicine could be 10 years’ away. ‘It’s not that long. If there was a pill to extend the healthy period of life I would take it.’

So do I, only because, as you get older, knowledge becomes an obsession and since technology and the sciences are discovering remarkable things in every sphere, we Oldies don’t want to miss the enrichment that such discoveries await the next generation.

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