Two of the most common denizens of aging are atherosclerosis, a clogging of the arteries that can lead to life-shortening heart disease, and a declining immune system, which can mean decreased resistance to infectious diseases and even cancer. Metformin, a drug used for years in Europe to treat adult-onset diabetes, may also have some anti-aging properties-lowering cholesterol, for example, and boosting the immune system. New evidence from the University of Milan suggests that metformin may also help treat atherosclerosis.

Over the past 25 years, tests in rats and rabbits have shown that metformin reduces the ability of very low density lipoprotein, a form of “bad” cholesterol, to bind to blood vessel walls, while making blood platelets less likely to coagulate and form dangerous clots.

There’s exciting recent news concerning what may turn out to be one of metformin’s most important anti-aging properties: its ability to treat patients whose blood vessels are constricted by atherosclerosis. In 1992, a research team led by C.R. Sirtori of the Institute of Pharmacological Sciences at the University of Milan tested metformin on 11 patients with peripheral vascular disease. Their blood vessels were so clogged that they could not walk normally for more than about 550 yards. After treatment with metformin, however, the patients’ blood flow increased by 30 percent, and their exercise capacity increased by anywhere from 53 percent to 105 percent.

At the low doses (two 500 mg doses per day) used in the Italian study, no side effects were noted. Higher doses can produce lactic acidosis, a condition in which the blood becomes acidic, and which can lead to nausea and vomiting.

Because it helps normalize the metabolism of glucose, metformin is widely used in western Europe to treat adult-onset diabetes.

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