NEW YORK - Is 90 the new 50?

Not yet, researchers on aging say, but medical breakthroughs to significantly extend life and ease the ailments of getting older are closer than many people think.

"The general public has no idea what's coming," said David Sinclair, a Harvard Medical School professor who has made headlines with research into the health benefits of a substance found in red wine called resveratrol.

Speaking on a panel of experts on aging, Sinclair had the boldest predictions. He said that scientists could greatly increase longevity and improve health in lab animals such as mice and that drugs to benefit people are on the way.

"It's not an

if

but a

when

," said Sinclair, who cofounded Sirtris Pharmaceuticals to pursue such drugs. The company, which is testing medicine in people with Type 2 diabetes, was recently bought for $720 million by GlaxoSmithKline, the world's second-largest drugmaker.

Sinclair said treatments could be a few years or a decade away, but they were "really close. It's not something [from] science fiction and it's not something for the next generation."

The discussion of aging was a closing event of the first World Science Festival, a five-day celebration of science for the public that brought together researchers ranging from biologists to quantum physicists. Participants included Nobel laureates, business leaders and philosophers.

At the longevity event, hundreds of people young and old packed a sold-out New York University hall, including actress Jane Fonda, who turned 70 in December.

The experts here Sunday night said research on aging, once a backwater of science, was experiencing an explosion of interest and optimism.

Robert Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for the book

Why Survive? Being Old in America,

said that "people live longer and better by having a sense of purpose." He said that while medicine and biology were important for longevity, having friendships and close relationships also had a big impact.

Butler said a revolution in longevity has already arrived, noting that in the last century, life spans increased 30 years, more than in the previous 5,000 years of human history.

Given the latest research, he said, more resources must be devoted to understanding the biology of aging, since "with one pill, we might be able to do a lot for many different conditions."

Some of that research comes from Richard Weindruch, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and director of LifeGen Technologies who studies how extremely low-calorie diets affect aging.

Weindruch said his research, which began by showing how consuming little food could greatly increase the life spans of mice, moved on in 1989 to a long-term study on monkeys that can live up to 40 years.

"Just now we're starting to see statistically significant improvements in survival and resistance to disease and favorable effects on brain aging," he said. He said his team hoped to publish these results soon.

Sinclair said that based on Weindruch's work, he set out a decade ago to find the genes involved in caloric restriction and find a pill that could provide the benefits "without you feeling hungry all the time."