Longevity as a Commodity

Last week, GlaxoSmithKline announced it will buy Sirtris Pharmaceuticals for US$720 million, giving weight to the claim that antiaging biotech firms can be a good bet. This is good news for Americans, given that a recent Harvard-affiliated study showed that some parts of the country have seen declines in expected longevity.

Sirtris, located in Cambridge, Mass., is focused on developing drugs based on resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, in order to fight diabetes and other diseases associated with aging. David Sinclair, a Harvard professor and cofounder of Sirtris, has shown that resveratrol may protect against the effects of bad habits like eating junk food.

In experiments, Sinclair fed mice a high-fat diet and resveratrol. These mice lived as long as the ones on a regular diet, and at least 15 percent longer than their non-dosed, obese peers. Results along this line are encouraging, and may help Americans in pockets around the country where life expectancy took a beating.

Life expectancy continues to climb for most Americans (between 1961 and 1999, it rose seven years for men and six years for women), but there are some areas where it has decreased, such as the deep South, along the Mississippi River and in Appalachia, as well as in the southern plains and Texas, according to “The Reversal of Fortunes: Trends in County Mortality and Cross-County Mortality Disparities in the United States,” published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Life expectancy for approximately 4 percent of the male population and 19 percent of the female population either statistically declined or stagnated between 1961 and 1999, reported the study’s authors, affiliated with the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. The reasons for the decline involved trends in smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, among others. These findings were consistent with a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report earlier this month that concluded that higher wealth and education levels are correlated with greater life expectancy.

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