The Myth of Eternal Youth; Antioxidant Diets Don't Work, after All, and the Immortality Pill Is Still Science Fiction. as the Experts Claim We'll Soon Live to 120, We Expose the Flaws in Their Research and Debunk the Myths of the Anti-Ageing Industry

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THE QUEST for eternal youth has always been a holy grail. In the past, the quest for a 'cure' for dying has led people to eat -monkey glands and bathe in virgins' blood.

Today's treatments are no less extraordinary. And yet there's never been a pill, potion or vitamin proven to be capable of extending the lifespan of a mammal.

Nonetheless, expectations that a cure for ageing is just around the corner have been steadily growing for years.

'We now know ageing is neither inevitable nor necessary - it is malleable,' said Tom Kirkwood, professor of gerontology at the University of Newcastle, delivering the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC earlier this year.

Sea anemones and freshwater hydra show no signs of ageing.

Several species of fish and giant tortoise live many years longer than us.

If a reptile with a shell can live for 177 years, why shouldn't we?

Recently, hopes that we may soon extend the human lifespan to 120 years have been voiced by many scientists, backing their claims with experiments that artificially prolong the lives of mice, fruit flies and nematode worms.

But people are complex beings - so the odds are that the treatments that work so well on insects won't do much to help us.

The medical and beauty industries propagate half-truths and even lies in an effort to profit from our desire to live longer and look better.

In recent years, thousands of private doctors, clinics and internet sites have set up shop, offering a vast range of anti-ageing remedies, from herbal extracts and vitamins to powerful pharmaceuticals such as Deprenyl and even antidepressants.

An immortality pill is just around the corner, they tell us. But is it?

The internationally-respected journal New Scientist recently set out to examine the scientific data behind the claims. Its findings surprised many.

MYTH ONE: SCIENTISTS CAN MAKE WORMS AND FLIES LIVE LONGER THAN NORMAL, SO A TREATMENT FOR SLOWING DOWN AGEING IN PEOPLE IS INEVITABLE FAR from it. Scientists might bill such creatures as models for understanding human biology, but the differences between us and them are immense.

At the University of California in Los Angeles, fruit flies have been bred to live for 130 days instead of the usual 40. However, neither the flies nor the worms get diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer's disease in the normal course of events.

Nematode worms are submillimetre creatures built from around only 1,000 cells, none of which is destined to divide (and not having any bones, osteoporosis isn't much of a problem either).

They are used simply because their short lifespans make the experiments so much easier and faster. And this is the big flaw in research into longevity - much of it is based on lab creatures that lack it.

Fruit flies usually live 40 days, worms just 20. Their ability to resist ageing is a thousandfold worse than ours, so it's not surprising-that it's easy to boost it by tampering with their genes.

In addition, the worm's peculiar biology means that it has a naturally elastic lifespan. When food is scarce, nematodes go into a state of hibernation, where they age far more slowly, lasting up to 70 days instead of the usual 20.

This ability to slow down makes it easy to artificially double or triple the worm's lifespan. But the mutants grow up, breathe, swim, feed and defecate more slowly and are far less fertile.

Live slow, die old seems to be the trade-off these mutants make. But would anyone want to live to 120 if it meant going through puberty in their mid-20s and never playing sport?

What is clear is that long-life mutations in lab mice - model organisms that at least have backbones - are rarer and nowhere near as dramatic as those seen in flies or worms.

The mouse longevity record is held by a team that altered a gene for a hormone receptor called IGF-1. …