John O'Connor

Conventional wisdom holds that the sweet spot for long-term care residents is around age 85, give or take. But what if that figure were to increase dramatically?

One result could be facilities where 100-year-old residents became the rule rather than the exception. The discovery of some dirt on Easter Island might make such scenarios possible. 

That’s because the soil in question contains a bacterium called Streptomyces hygroscopicus. Turns out this bacterium secretes an antifungal compound that is the source of rapamycin. And rapamycin may be able to do what other promising cures could not — delay and/or minimize the diseases of aging.

To be sure, rapamycin has many predecessors. The early Greeks are credited with being the first to put such thoughts on paper. And Ponce de Leon was believed to have been looking for a fountain of youth when he stumbled upon Florida in 1513. During the 1800s, the French physiologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard suggested such a fountain could be found in the extracts of crushed animal testicles. 

But rapamycin is different. For one thing, it has already shown its usefulness. In addition to its antifungal properties, rapamycin helps suppress the immune system, and is commonly used for patients receiving organ transplants. 

But its legacy payoff may be yet to come. For you see, it is also showing promise in delaying the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s — and perhaps extending years of healthier living as well.

Rapamycin works by inhibiting cellular pathways that monitor growth and metabolism. It essentially gets the user’s body to behave as if it were in hungry mode, when cells tend to be less prone to self-destruction.

That doesn’t mean rapamycin will soon be prescribed to everyone with an AARP membership. There are some potential downsides, not the least of which is that a user’s immune system may be undermined. The medication also has been shown to slow wound healing and cause canker sores. 

But to someone confronting Alzheimer’s, frailty or imminent death, those might be risks worth chancing.