The Ultimate Pain Killer

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"The Secret Killer" by David Stipp in Fortune (Oct. 27, 2003), 1271 Sixth Ave., 16th fl., New York, N.Y. 10020.

Recent medical studies suggest that antiaging pills—the miracle drugs we’ve all been waiting for—may be as close as our own medicine cabinets. According to Stipp, a senior writer at Fortune, aspirin, ibuprofen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) could be the "rough draft" of drugs that will extend life spans and stem the alarming increase in age-related diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer.

Over the past decade medical researchers have focused on "smoldering, low-level inflammation in places like arterial walls and the brain" as the root of many ailments of old age. Claudio Franceschi, scientific director at the Italian National Research Center on Aging, says, "Inflammation is probably the background and driving force behind all major age-related diseases." But that opinion is hardly unanimous in the medical community.

Franceschi began formulating his "inflammaging" theory a decade ago, when his research revealed that as people age, vital immune cells become more prone to inflammation. The male centenarians he and his colleagues have studied appear to possess gene variants that lessened this "pro-inflammatory effect of aging." Another "strong producer of pro-inflammatory molecules," Stipp adds, is body fat, which has been linked to a host of diseases.

Franceschi is not the only scientist to study the relationship between inflammation and disease. A 2001 study by a Dutch team discovered that regular NSAID users had an 80 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and another recent study found that long-term aspirin users had 32 percent less risk of heart attacks. Other studies suggest that NSAIDs may substantially cut the risk of colon, lung, prostate (in men), and breast (in women) cancer. That’s not all. A second class of drugs, called statins, usually prescribed to lower cholesterol levels also reduce inflammation, and like NSAIDs they seem to have significant disease-reducing effects.

Many medical experts remain skeptical, pointing out that there are few, if any, studies conclusively proving that inflammation causes certain diseases. They believe that "low-level inflammation may be a symptom, rather than an inducer, of inner decay," Stipp says. He explains that since NSAIDs aren’t patented high-revenue drugs, pharmaceutical companies haven’t had much incentive to study them. However, better-targeted drugs free of NSAID side effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding could be very lucrative, and studies likely to produce more conclusive findings are now under way. Yet it could be years before scientists learn if, or exactly how, NSAIDs affect specific age-related diseases, and "we may never know for sure whether [they] work as broad preventatives." In the meantime, Stipp concludes, losing weight and taking an aspirin every day or two (with a doctor’s okay) couldn’t hurt.


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