Here’s the Secret About Long Life: It Doesn’t Come in a Pill

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Good news travels fast, but dubious news travels faster, especially if it heralds a possible nostrum to vanquish age. An article in the Oct. 21 issue of the British mass-market newspaper, the Daily Mail, suggested that DHEAS, a hormone believed to play a protective role against the biological changes associated with stress, “could be the elixir of life, scientists believe.” That angle was swiftly picked up by other media and would appear destined to burnish sales pitches for DHEA and DHEAS supplementation, already on offer as part of some age-management programs.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an eminent British expert in epidemiology and public health, who was quoted in the article, uttered a faint “good heavens” on seeing his comments on the newly released findings framed in terms of life expectancy. “We did not link DHEAS to longevity. I only talk about what our research shows. I don’t speculate wildly,” he says. (More on Time.com: How Not to Get Sick)

What about the Mail’s assertion that “research suggests that in future tablets, patches or injections could boost DHEA level”? That, says Marmot, is “100 percent the opposite” of the message he hoped to convey. “The journalist said, ‘Would a pill do it?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s the way we should be thinking about it.'”

Marmot’s reservations about the idea of a pill — the “mechanical” approach ignores the possibility that DHEAS levels do not themselves impact health but are markers of health — are finally flicked at in the 12th paragraph of the 19-paragraph article. The real import of the findings, contained in the newly published report on the fourth wave of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), is that DHEAS levels appear directly linked to the social and economic position of the study’s participants. “Everything we’ve looked at in [the study] suggests that all the different health measures follow the wealth gradient: the top quintile has the best health, the next quintile worse, the lower your wealth, the worse your health. Then we looked at DHEAS and we found the same gradient,” explains Marmot. (More on Time.com: The Hispanic Mortality Paradox: Why Do Latinos Outlive Other Americans?)

The principal investigator of ELSA, he also chaired a review of health inequalities in England that was published in February. Despite the country’s comparative affluence, its wealth and health divide is stark, and that indeed feeds differences in life expectancy. People in the poorest English neighborhoods die, on average, seven years before their counterparts in the richest neighborhoods; there’s a gulf of 17 years in disability-free life expectancy. The correlation between DHEAS and wealth is potentially extremely significant because “without claiming that DHEAS by itself is the mediator, it does provide a potential handle on the biological pathways by which your social position might influence your health,” says Marmot. He hopes the research will help inform efforts to reduce health inequalities. His prescription: good public health policies, not pills.

More on Time.com:

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Even More Evidence for the Health Benefits of Drinking

Paradise Paradox: Why Life in Hawaii Leads to an Early Death

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