Is Metformin an Anti-Aging Wonder Drug?
Metformin is a promising medication that may help with everything from diabetes to cancer to weight loss. Some early studies also show that it may affect the aging processes within our bodies and extend the lifespan of those with diabetes. However, so far research doesn’t support the idea that metformin is a magic pill that can automatically help most people live longer.
What Is Metformin?
Metformin is a medication, also sold under the brand names Fortamet, Glumetza and Glucophage. It has been used for decades as a treatment for type 2 diabetes, although its history can be traced back even further. In 1772, experts first recommended an herb called Galega officinalis or goat’s rue for diabetes symptoms. Over the next couple of centuries, researchers determined which chemical within the herb was responsible for its beneficial effects and learned how to make related substances, including metformin, in the laboratory.
For people with diabetes, metformin can control blood sugar levels and allow the body to better use energy. It may also help prevent diabetes for people who are at risk of developing the condition.
Doctors also sometimes recommend metformin for other health conditions, including:
- Gestational diabetes, or diabetes that develops during pregnancy
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Weight gain caused by antipsychotic medications
How Might Metformin Help With Aging?
The older you get, the higher your chances of developing multiple types of chronic health conditions. Age-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are some of the leading causes of death.
Metformin may help protect against some of these conditions, particularly for those with type 2 diabetes. This medication could also help lower the risk of early death for diabetics, although it’s less clear whether it can also help extend life for those without diabetes.
Heart problems such as heart attack, stroke, and heart disease are more common in older adults than in young people, commonly developing after the age of 65. Heart-related conditions are the number one cause of death throughout the world.
Some studies have found that metformin may help your heart cells work more efficiently and get rid of dead heart tissue. In some cases, researchers also observed that metformin led to signs of better heart health on heart and blood tests.
These effects within the heart may translate to better overall health. One large analysis that included data from more than 1 million people found that those who took metformin:
- Had a 17% lower chance of experiencing heart problems like heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, and heart failure
- Were 19% less likely to die from heart problems
- Were 33% less likely to die from any cause
It is important to note that most of the people in this analysis had diabetes. When it came to study participants without diabetes, researchers found that metformin didn’t seem to offer much protection against heart problems.
Dementia and Cognitive Impairment
Every three seconds, someone develops dementia, a condition that prevents people from thinking and remembering to a degree that it affects their ability to function on their own. Dementia, which includes disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, is most likely to affect elderly adults. About 1 in 3 people over the age of 85 have dementia. It is one of the top ten leading causes of death worldwide.
Multiple studies have found that dementia is much less likely in diabetics who take metformin compared to diabetics who use other treatments. Additionally, people with diabetes who use this medication are half as likely to develop cognitive impairment, a condition in which thinking abilities start to decline but aren’t yet severe. In some cases, cognitive impairment can progress to dementia.
Researchers are continuing to study how metformin may affect health and disease within the nervous system.
Nearly 2 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. Cancer is closely tied to aging — while children can develop tumors, a person’s risk of cancer rises the longer they live. Half of people diagnosed with cancer are at least 66 years old.
There is a link between cancer and metabolism. When the body can’t correctly use sugar, levels of the insulin hormone rise. At the same time, the body also tends to make more proteins called insulin-like growth factors or IGFs. These proteins cause cells to start growing and dividing more quickly and may increase cancer risk. This has led experts to wonder whether medications like metformin — which helps reduce insulin levels — may protect against cancer.
In one recent study, researchers combined data from more than 10 million people with diabetes. Study participants who used metformin were 30% less likely to develop cancer. Other research has also found that diabetics have lower rates of breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, and head and neck cancer when they use metformin.
Metformin may also help those who have already been diagnosed with cancer. For example, one study found that the longer diabetic men with prostate cancer had taken metformin, the longer they tended to live.
Some smaller studies have also analyzed metformin’s ability to fight or prevent cancer in people without diabetes. For non-diabetic individuals with breast or colorectal cancer, metformin may make cancer cells grow more slowly and reverse abnormal gene changes. At least one study of non-diabetic women has also found that metformin helped breast cancer cells respond better to treatment, but this unfortunately didn’t translate into longer survival rates.
Researchers are continuing to study how metformin may help prevent or treat cancer in additional clinical trials.
Can Metformin Increase Your Lifespan?
Many studies have found that people with diabetes who use metformin tend to live longer than those who use other treatments. One study also found that diabetic patients treated with metformin had slightly longer lifespans compared to healthy individuals without diabetes. However, it’s less clear how metformin could help those without the condition.
Animal studies are mixed when it comes to the ability of metformin to extend the lifespan. This drug may help worms and mice live longer, but does not seem to have these effects in flies and rats. Human studies are ongoing.
Metformin in People Without Diabetes
In humans, it’s not yet entirely clear whether metformin helps people without diabetes live longer lives. One initial study found that metformin helped turn on and off different age-related genes to help people’s cells seem younger. Another larger study, Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), will soon be conducted to analyze whether people live longer and have fewer chronic diseases while using metformin.
Experts don’t yet fully understand how metformin affects aging and the lifespan of people without diabetes. Most of the people who take this drug have diabetes, so the majority of the information we have is only relevant to people with that condition. Diabetes can increase the risk of conditions like heart disease and cancer, so the question remains: can metformin prevent chronic disease for everyone, or is it only helping people with diabetes by reducing their risk of disease to normal levels?
This type of question can take a long time to answer. Because nondiabetics don’t often use metformin, there’s not as much data currently available to help us understand how this medication affects healthy adults. Additionally, because many chronic conditions don’t develop until later in life, it may take many years to learn whether long-term metformin use can lower rates of these diseases.
How To Take Metformin
Metformin comes in the form of a tablet or liquid. Some products also come in extended-release forms that last longer within your body. You will need a doctor’s prescription to take this medication.
Because metformin isn’t often used for anti-aging purposes, there’s no standard dosage when you want to use it for this reason. However, when this medication is used for other conditions, doctors often recommend an initial dose of 500 mg daily. However, some people may need a smaller dose, such as those with kidney problems or liver failure. Talk to your doctor to find out what they recommend.
Limit how much alcohol you drink when you are on metformin. Heavy drinking combined with this medication could make it harder for your body to get rid of toxic substances and lead to serious health problems.
As you use metformin, your doctor may want to regularly check your blood sugar levels or use blood tests to monitor your kidney function. These tests can help make sure you aren’t dealing with potentially severe health problems caused by metformin.
Is Metformin Safe?
Metformin is safe for most people to take. Many people have used this drug for years with few issues. However, side effects can occasionally arise, and metformin may not be a good idea for everyone.
Nearly 1 out of 3 people who use metformin experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other digestive symptoms.
Other possible side effects include:
- Chest pain
- Increased sweating
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Extreme fatigue or weakness
- Stomach cramps
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- A fast breathing rate
- Muscle or body aches
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels), which may lead to a racing heartbeat, nervousness, shaking, and hunger
Over time, metformin can lead to low levels of vitamin B12. If you develop a deficiency, it may be a good idea to take a supplement or multivitamin that contains this vitamin. Rarely, metformin can cause a serious side effect called lactic acidosis. Tell your doctor right away if you have a hard time breathing or generally feel sick, as you may be experiencing this condition.
Who Shouldn’t Take Metformin?
Using metformin may not be a good idea if you have severe kidney problems. The medication may be okay for those with mild kidney disease — talk to your doctor first to make sure. It may also lead to harmful effects in people with low blood sugar levels, anemia, heart failure, or liver disease.
If you’re about to undergo surgery, it may not a good idea to take this drug on the day of your procedure. Check with your doctor.
Metformin can interact with certain medications, increasing your risk of side effects or lowering your blood sugar levels. These medications may include, but are not limited to:
- Certain antidepressants
- Some types of antibiotics
- Certain heartburn medications
- Epilepsy medications
You may also experience more side effects if you take metformin along with some medications or natural supplements, including bitter melon, fenugreek, or psyllium. Tell your doctor about all of the medications you are taking. If you use metformin, your doctor may change your treatment plan or dosages of your other medications. Your doctor may also suggest regularly testing your blood sugar levels to make sure they aren’t too low.
Metformin can be very helpful in protecting the health of diabetics. For these individuals, metformin may prevent conditions like heart disease, dementia, and cancer, leading to a longer life. Additionally, metformin is often a good treatment choice because it is easy to take, inexpensive, and doesn’t typically cause problematic side effects.
For non-diabetic people, the benefits of metformin are less clear. While some early studies have found that metformin may help animals live longer, there has not yet been much human research conducted in this area. The research that has been completed hasn’t yet found strong benefits for healthy adults. In fact, in one recent review about the possible aging-related effects of metformin, experts concluded that “metformin should not be seen as a ‘quick fix’ panacea for aging.” These researchers wrote that people should continue to focus on healthy lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, which are also known to help prevent chronic disease and promote a long, healthy life.
Nonetheless, researchers are continuing to investigate whether metformin may prevent chronic health conditions or help people live longer. New studies may help us understand whether there are situations in which taking metformin may be helpful.