Longevity Seekers Embraced This Drug. But Does It Actually Fight Aging?


By Alex Janin

An antiaging crowd latched onto the diabetes drug metformin hoping it would extend their lifespan. Studies give conflicting results.

Some health-obsessed Americans once thought they’d found a fountain of youth in a decades-old diabetes drug. Now, some are having second thoughts.

Metformin, which lowers blood-sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes, has been used as a diabetes medication in Europe since the 1950s and was FDA-approved in the U.S. in the 1990s. Researchers have been investigating it for another possible use—to fight aging—since at least the 1980s, after observing that some people taking metformin appeared to experience other benefits.

The medication gained traction as a potential longevity drug in certain health-enthusiast circles after a 2014 study found that people with Type 2 diabetes taking metformin as their only treatment lived longer than those without diabetes.

Spurred by a selection of research that has suggested metformin could improve longevity, a growing community of self-described biohackers latched onto it, taking it even though they don’t have diabetes. A tech-heavy crowd seeking to engineer improvements in their health through gadgets, data analysis and medications, they trade tips in forums on sites like Facebook, Reddit and chat app Discord.

As a treatment for people with Type 2 diabetes, metformin is considered safe. Doctors say off-label use doesn’t appear to have big risks, although some research has indicated the drug may be associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease and may make it harder to build muscle mass through exercise.

However, the science behind its effectiveness as a longevity improver in healthy people is mixed, and some recent studies have been discouraging, giving some advocates pause.

Brad Stanfield, a primary-care physician in New Zealand, and a prominent figure in the longevity community whose YouTube channel on aging research has amassed more than 160,000 followers, made waves when he announced last year that he had stopped taking metformin.

Previously, he had touted its potential benefits to his followers and had taken the drug himself since 2019. He says he changed his mind after reviewing newer studies, including a 21-year randomized controlled trial that found metformin didn’t reduce cancer, cardiovascular disease or mortality rates in adults who were nondiabetic but at high risk for Type 2 diabetes.

“There have always been people spouting that they’ve found the fountain of youth,” Dr. Stanfield says. “It’s alluring, and you want to believe it.”

A study published last year that attempted to replicate the 2014 study linking metformin with longer lives found the drug wasn’t associated with a lifespan equal to or better than that of the general population. Other studies of people with diabetes and in animals have shown conflicting results on metformin’s potential to increase longevity and delay age-related disease.

James D. Miller, a professor of economics in Northampton, Mass., says he started taking the drug about 10 years ago after reading about the 2014 study linking metformin with longer lives.

But he halved his daily dose after watching Dr. Stanfield’s videos on why he changed his mind about metformin.

“It is deeply annoying that I don’t quite know what to do,” says Dr. Miller, 56 years old. “I don’t know what’s optimal.”

Metformin still generates plenty of interest in the longevity world. Many people in this community work in technology, engineering and academia, and are naturally data-focused. They enjoy experimenting with health trends, from daily cold showers to intermittent fasting, by analyzing research before it reaches the mainstream. They help each other with wellness routines and discuss new studies.

“Any tips to handle insomnia during fasting?” one Facebook user asked in an antiaging group called “End Aging Now” in January. “What protocols does everyone follow for hot immersion?” another inquired in a separate group in March. “What is the current thinking on metformin?” another commenter wrote elsewhere.

Adam Bataineh, a physician and founder of Numenor Health, a U.K.-based telehealth company focused on longevity that launched in October 2022, says roughly half of his patients ask about metformin.

His client base consists of people he calls “optimizers,” most often men in their late 40s to 50s who are starting to feel the effects of aging. Dr. Bataineh says he doesn’t take metformin himself.

Lee Spaziano, 49, an electrical engineer in Orlando, Fla., says he started taking metformin in 2021 after reading about the drug in a book by Harvard longevity researcher David Sinclair. He was so convinced, he says, that he bought a second copy, a bookmark, and a bow and dropped it off at his doctor’s office with the sections on metformin marked. He got a prescription.

Recently, research suggesting that metformin might reduce the benefits of exercise has given him pause. Mr. Spaziano still takes the drug, but tries to compensate by lifting weights several times a week and getting plenty of protein.

Dr. Sinclair, professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at Harvard Medical School, says he still takes metformin as prescribed by his doctor and monitors his blood work. He says he doesn’t have Type 2 diabetes but his family has a history of the condition. He believes the potential health benefits beyond treating or preventing diabetes outweigh the risks, but cautions against a blanket endorsement.

“What I do doesn’t mean others should simply do the same thing or that I encourage taking of medicines, unless a doctor approves it,” he says.

Adrian Massey, a 43-year-old UX designer for a tech company, was inspired to take metformin for longevity after reading research and observing that relatives who took it for diabetes appeared younger than their age, he says. He struggled to get his primary-care doctor to supply the drug and opted to get it through a telehealth platform.

A bout of nausea in the first few weeks of taking the drug also did little to discourage him, but the muscle cramps that followed for the next month or so proved too much to ignore. He discontinued the drug.

“I was like, ‘This is too painful,’” he says.


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