Ugggghh, getting old sucks! It's something you hear all the time, right? From a 31-year-old, suddenly unable to have two glasses of wine without waking up hungover the next day. A 43-year-old with a bum knee. A 65-year-old who can't remember where she put her keys. And on. And on. And on.
As conventional wisdom has it, the effects of aging are non-negotiable. Plus, people are living longer than ever, which potentially means more years spent in less-than-optimal condition. But proponents of a new technology—stem-cell banking—claim getting older doesn't have to come with the irreversible downward health spiral we've all been conditioned to expect. Their claim: Storing and eventually re-injecting your own adult stem cells may help your body heal the first signs of age-related disease down the line, keeping you feeling vital longer.
Sounds intriguing—but is it legit?
Read on for a primer in stem-cell banking—and whether it can actually reverse the signs of aging.
What is stem-cell banking?
Here's the deal: Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the potential to multiply and grow into many different types of cells throughout the body, from bone to muscle to neuron and beyond. By extracting and freezing these repair cells from your own body—banking them, essentially—the idea is that when your health starts to decline, you can have them reinserted into your body right at the site of the problem. If you start suffering from arthritis, for example, your stored stem cells would be inserted into your joints so healthy cells will multiply and take over, theoretically eliminating your pain.
One such stem-cell preservation company is Forever Labs, which is currently working with physicians in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Boston, Washington, DC, and more. "Forever Labs was born out of our own mid-life crises," says strategic growth expert Steve Clausnitzer, who co-founded the biz with friend and longtime stem-cell researcher Mark Katakowski, PhD. "Three years ago, I was turning 40, and I said to Steve, I'm convinced that I want to have my young cells later in life," Katakowski says. "And he said, You know what? I'd like to have that too."
Those "young cells" they were talking about are, of course, stem cells. Doctors are already using these to help the body heal, taking healthy stem cells from a strong part of the body and immediately transplanting them to whatever area new cells are needed. Orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine doctors use bone marrow-derived stem cells to treat injuries, including joint issues and musculoskeletal problems. They're regularly used for skin grafts and for cancer patients, replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by chemo or radiation.
Armin Tehrany, MD, founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care (who is unaffiliated with Forever Labs), sees stem-cell therapy as an effective form of treatment—at least in his field of medicine—although he admits scientists aren't exactly sure how or why it works. "There are theories that what [stem cells] do is attach to the body’s actual tissue and potentially change the tissue... turning those cells on so they become what they’re supposed to be, as opposed to being degenerated part of the tissue," he says.
"Banking yourself basically creates a pool of young biology that doesn’t experience the wear and tear of life." —Steve Clausnitzer, Forever Labs cofounder
Yet, as Katakowski will tell you, one of the sad truths about stem cells is that they lose function as they age. "For 17 years, I'd been working with bone-marrow stem cells developing treatment for stroke and other neural injuries and diseases, learning firsthand the therapeutic value of the cells, but also that the number of cells and their efficacy is less with age," he explains.
That's where stem cell banking comes in. Extracting them from your bone marrow or fat stores and cryogenically freezing them while they're still young and strong is an entirely new concept. (In fact, Forever Labs is the first company that's set on using stem cells to extend human healthspans.) But that may be about to change. "There's been an explosion of clinical application of this knowledge—a couple hundred clinical studies at last count," Katakowski says.
Why bank your own stem cells, as opposed to, say, getting them from a younger donor? "The short answer is that if you want to replace tissue, you need your own cells," Katakowski says. "There is some evidence that you can get some acute benefit using someone else’s, but it’s a short kind of benefit because cells don’t stick around. Your body finds them and weeds them out." (It's similar to the way bodies sometimes reject a transplanted organ—that means there's no bank-one-for-the-whole-family type of deal.)
Katakowski believes the best time to bank stem cells is between the ages of 20 and 40. That said, he still advises older people to do it, too—his mother banked hers at 70. Dr. Tehrany says it's more important to consider your health than actual age when considering any type of stem-cell therapy. "Someone can be 75, but physiologically and genetically be 55," he says. "[Conversely,] if someone's overall health is declining, it's safe to say their stem cell functionality is declining too."
But does stem-cell banking really work?
So let's say you buy into this whole freezing-your-stem-cells thing. When, exactly, would you ask for them back? According to Katakowski and Clausnitzer, the time to use them is when you start experiencing undesirable health impacts brought on by aging. This can be caused by something sudden, like having a stroke, or something you notice gradually, like a slow decline in memory. At that point, a doctor would inject your stored stem cells back into the affected body part. (Or parts—because, let's be honest, aging is a full-body kind of deal.) In theory, the stem cells would then help the not-so-healthy tissue regenerate and become more vital.
Emphasis on the "theory" part. Since the technology is still so new, its actual success rate is still very much TBD. While Forever Labs has undertaken many encouraging studies with mice, the company's human studies—more than 700 of them—are still underway, and it will take years to see the long-term effects. Dr. Tehrany affirms that this is cutting-edge stuff, and the scientific backup just isn't there yet. But that doesn't mean he's ruling out the stem-cell banking concept. "Based on how successful stem cells are as a treatment, I do think it's important to respect and value the potential of them as a preventative," he says.
There's also the lingering thought that maybe you'll get lucky and age without any problems at all. Then, wouldn't it be a huge waste of money to pay for decades of stem-cell freezing? (At $2,500 for the procedure and $300 a year for storage, it isn't cheap.) After all, there's tons of emerging research that indicates a healthy diet and regular exercise can go a long way in preventing age-related decline—and those are basically free. (Ah, the boring, yet sound advice that's been preached for decades.)
Clausnitzer personally believes it's not wise to play the odds. "There's a lot of evidence that as you get into middle age, all this damage accrues in your cells and a lot of that is irreversible, such as DNA mutations," Clausnitzer says. "Banking yourself basically creates a pool of young biology that doesn’t experience the wear and tear of life. So what you bank is kind of like the seeds that you can use to grow many, many of your own young stem cells to treat yourself."
Ultimately, no so-called illness-proofing option comes with any guarantees, making the choice a totally personal one. But it does raise the question: If you're 90 years old, but your cells are only 40, how old are you really?
Speaking of longevity, this is the type of exercise that'll add years to your life. Having these personality traits helps, too.
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