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Does Red Wine Fuel the Fountain of Youth?

Research tests on mice show that a substance found in red wine may let humans enjoy a long and healthful life -- even if they are overweight. But the Harvard study shows that being healthy is not as simple as a sip of wine every day.

The substance, resveratrol, is found in red grapes and other foods. Previous studies have found that it seems to extend the lives of worms, flies, and fish.

David Sinclair, who is part of a Harvard team that gave concentrated quantities of resveratrol to some mice on a high-fat diet, says the mice put on a lot of weight. But they remained much healthier than fat mice on the same diet -- but who didn't get resveratrol.

"The chance of dying was reduced about 30 percent," Sinclair says. "And the reason I can't tell you exactly how much longer they lived is the study is still going. We rushed it to publication because it was so dramatic."

The Harvard study was published online by the journal Nature.

Sinclair says the fat mice getting resveratrol -- and a diet that was 60-percent fat -- did as well as lean mice fed a standard diet.

"They lived just as long, and they were just as healthy and in physical tests, like balancing on a beam," Sinclair says. "They did just as well as young, lean mice, even though they were old and fat."

Similar tests to those conducted on mice haven't yet been performed on humans. But Sinclair, who's involved with a company that hopes to market resveratrol, says he's optimistic.

"This is proving what is potentially possible with drugs of the future," Sinclair says. "So I'm saying that there might be a time when you could be prescribed a pill for, say, diabetes and as a side effect you might be protected against heart disease, cancer, and maybe even Alzheimer's."

But not everyone is that upbeat. Matt Kaeberlein, who studies the biology of aging at the University of Washington, says that the work has just begun.

"This is certainly an interesting and exciting finding," Kaeberlein says, "but I think it's also somewhat preliminary."

Kaeberlein says there are several reasons not to count on cabernets and pinots to save you from a lifetime of excess. One has to do with the tiny amount of resveratrol found in wine.

"If you look at how much red wine, for example, you would have to consume," Kaeberlein says, "it's something like 300 glasses of red wine a day to get a comparable amount of resveratrol to what was given to the mice in this study."

Sinclair says it's actually more like 100 glasses. But that's still a lot of drinking.

Of course, pills could provide much more resveratrol. Several dietary supplement companies already offer products advertised as containing resveratrol. But there's no easy way to know how much they contain.

And the issue of safety arises when a large quantity of a substance gets into the human body. Studies show that in rats, massive doses of resveratrol can cause kidney and digestive problems.

Kaeberlein says that consumers should remember that most scientific discoveries turn out to be disappointments.

After all, more than a decade ago, scientists and consumers were wildly excited about a hormone called leptin. It appeared to prevent obesity in mice. Humans are still waiting to benefit from that discovery.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.