17α-estradiol is a relatively (or completely) non-feminizing form of estradiol (E2), or estrogen. It is a naturally occurring enantiomer of 17β-estradiol (the much more common form of estradiol, usually just referred to as ‘estradiol’) which is found in both male and female humans. This post a a brief essay that discusses the prospect of it extending lifespan in humans. There are two primary types of estrogen receptors, ERα and Erβ, and as you may expect, 17α-estradiol appears to show a stronger binding affinity for ERα. It has a very low binding affinity in locations that generally induce feminization (which appear to be sometimes be both ERα and ERβ), so it’s also possible to take as a male without significantly altering one’s appearance towards the opposite gender. Although we can definitively point to a plethora of effects of regular estrogen, it is difficult to tell what the true purpose of 17α-estradiol is in humans, with Stout et al. (2016) stating “the physiological functions of endogenous 17α-E2 are unclear”. There is evidence it has neuroprotective properties, can help treat Parkinson’s disease, cerebrovascular disease, and much more. This likely involves ER-X, which in turn activates MAPK/ERK and many, many other things down the line (as usual..), but it’s difficult to know for certain. Although these reasons were among the reasons that researchers took into account when deciding to dedicate funding to testing 17α-estradiol in mice for longevity effects, subsequent papers have found more exciting mechanisms of action which are elaborated upon below. For some interesting further reading on this topic that goes into more detail exploring possible mechanisms of action here I’d also suggest reading the following papers: Castration delays epigenetic aging and feminizes DNA methylation at androgen-regulated loci, Hypermethylation of estrogen receptor-alpha gene in atheromatosis patients and its correlation with homocysteine.
17α-estradiol has been found to consistently and significantly extend the median lifespan of male mice, including by the NIH’s Intervention Testing Program, the closest thing we have to a gold standard of longevity RCT experimentation in mice, where three studies are rigorously performed at three separate locations, allowing the results to be instantly compared and reproduced by the two other parties and locations upon completion. Strong et al. (2016) find that 17α-estradiol extends median lifespan of male mice by an average of 19% (26%, 23%, and 9% from the three independent testing sites), and increased the maximum age by an average of 12% (21%, 8%, and 8% from the three testing sites, using the 90th percentile). Harrison et al. (2014) similarly find that median male lifespan was increased by 12%, but did not find an increase in maximum lifespan, and these results have been replicated even more in recent years.
These are some impressive results for such a common and simple endogenous substance! One of the first things we notice is that this effect only applies to males, with female lifespan (both median and maximum) being unaffected. As the substance in question is an estrogen, we can assume that this is either due to female mice already having this benefit, as they already have a sufficient level of it, or that something more complex is at play, and there is a different downstream pathway that is only being activated in males for some reason (more on this later). I had initially assumed the former hypothesis was at least a partial explanation, having known that females consistently live longer than males when it comes to humans, and that this was obviously biological in nature. However, it’s much more complicated in mice as females do not always outlive males, and in fact many times the opposite is true. One meta-analysis (good overview, original book source) finds 65 studies where males lived longer and 51 where females lived longer, with this often depending on the strain of mice used, which varies greatly depending on the type of reseasrch and time period. Regardless, it’s clear there is much more at play in this scenario, and perhaps something special about 17α-estradiol in particular.
Although the ITP studies initially included 17α-estradiol due to the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph, later research such as Stout et al. (2016) has now found that 17α-estradiol not only increased AMPK levels (as some other notable longevity substances such as Metformin also do), but also reduced mTOR activity (complex 1!) in visceral adipose tissue, which is rather reminiscent of Rapamycin, which has extended the lifespan of every organism we have performed an RCT with thus far (and likely can in humans too, if you ask me). In a way, this is significantly more exciting, because it gives us a much more plausible way to explain the lifespan extension effects we are noticing. However, it is also partially a disappointment: if these effects are the real reasons why 17α-estradiol extends male mice lifespan, then this substance may offer us nothing that we do not already have via rapamycin and metformin, among others. The paper also noted that fasting glucose, insulin, and glycosylated hemoglobin were reduced along with inflammatory markers improving. These are similar to the types of positive side effects we would expect from a longevity agent, and the study also notes that no feminization nor cardiac dysfunction occurred.
How do these effects (such as AMPK and mTOR modulation) occur? I don’t know, and apparently neither does anyone else. As is often the unfortunate case in biology, the paper has this to say: “The signaling mechanism(s) by which 17α-E2 elicits downstream effects remains elusive despite having been investigated for several decades”. Perhaps just a few more decades to go and this section will be updated with more information, then. Mann et al (2020) find that male mice without ERα do not benefit from 17α-estradiol, which helps us narrow down the first step by excluding Erβ, ER-X and other less-predictable initial mechanisms. Interestingly, they also note that “both 17α-estradiol and 17β-estradiol elicit similar genomic binding and transcriptional activation of ERα”, which would leave us with the question of why we are focusing on 17α-estradiol specifically, if 17β-estradiol (which is much more common) suffices as well. Importantly, they also seem to think changes in the liver might be involved. Garratt et al. (2018) add that distinct sex-specific changes in the metabolomic profile of the liver and plasma were found, and also notes that the longevity benefit for males disappears post-castration. They first supplement males and females, showing many differences related to metabolism including with amino acids. Then they use castrated males and notice that their profiles are the same as the control group, and thus conclude that they are no longer being positively affected by 17α-estradiol. I am unsure if we should be focusing on the AMKP/mTOR effects (which are very relevant to longevity) or on the liver/metabolic effects (which are also very relevant), or if these are in fact just two different temporal points on the same biological pathway which we don’t yet fully understand, but this helps us connect at least a few more dots.
All of the above sounds exciting, but it’s also all in mice. Sometimes this is useful, as mice are actually quite similar to humans (more so than many may expect), but a lot of it is also less useful or outright misleading. I cannot find a way to take only 17α-estradiol in a safe way as a human, however there is a topical cream of it (alfatradiol) which is used to treat pattern hair loss.
Luckily, one thing that the ITP study found was that 17α-estradiol was among one of the substances that seems to perform well with respect to longevity (if not fully) when given later in life (this has replicated afterwards as well), contrary to some others which have the best effect when started in youth and continued until death. In theory I wouldn’t mind waiting a decade or two until we have a better idea of what is going on here, after which point I would hope we have more fruitful and actionable results (especially in humans); although at the same time there’s likely many reasonable and safe ways we can go about achieving this (hopeful) effect in human males (assigned at birth) already, either via a type of estrogen or an estrogenic drug such as a SERM.
It is worth reminding ourselves that 17α-estradiol is already present in humans, and in both sexes, with women generally having significantly higher levels, as one expects of estrogen. Similarly, regular estrogen binds to both estrogen receptors, including our target, which we now know to be the alpha receptor. Given this, is it possible that just taking regular estradiol (for example, estradiol valerate, which for most purposes ends up biologically equivalent to endogenous estradiol and thus also binds to both primary estrogen receptors) to increase the levels of estrogen is a potential longevity intervention?
This is a difficult question to answer with the data currently available, although there are millions of persons assigned male at birth that are already on various forms of estradiol for various reasons, one of them being to assist in gender transition from male to female. As the lifespan benefit only applied to male (assigned at birth) mice, there would be benefits to analyzing these cohorts for more information, especially if we were able to have DNA methylation clocks used on these groups alongside a control (although this would not be a true RCT, as which persons decide to undergo feminizing HRT would not be random, I suspect we could still get the information we’d want with a good sample size).
There are other potential avenues of statistical analysis that could be attempted here, although they prove to be difficult for various reasons. Most male to female transgender individuals decide to transition earlier in their life, and this was also a particularly uncommon choice to make many decades ago in comparison to the present, so we have very few deaths due to age-related causes that we would be able to analyze to attain a proper hazard ratio. Even if we waited a long time for this (or had this data already), it would be terribly confounded due to the lack of randomization and many potential selection effects. Even so, one of the following must be true:
- 17α-estradiol does not extend male (assigned at birth) human lifespan
- 17α-estradiol does extend male (assigned at birth) human lifespan, however this does not apply to most/any transgender (m->f) individuals. This could be due to insufficient dosage, insufficient affinity for the alpha receptor, the inclusion of 17β-estradiol, the common addition of other substances such as anti-androgens, or another unknown factors/confounders
- 17α-estradiol does extend male (assigned at birth) human lifespan, and this effect therefore does apply to most transgender (m->f) individuals, however we have either failed to notice it completely, or other effects/confounding variables ablate this, for example an increased risk of blood clots from estrogen supplementation (which depends greatly on the route of administration as well as type of estrogen used) or various potential side-effects from anti-androgen usage
Option one is certainly a possibility, as it always is in longevity when all of our studies are only in mice. We could differ too much from mice for the mechanism of action to apply to us (perhaps if it is related to metabolism or some newer subset of liver functionality), or if the mechanism of action is indeed the AMPK/mTOR pathways, perhaps 17α-estradiol does not modulate these in humans as it does in mice. This could have implications for other potential longevity agents such as metformin and rapamycin in humans as well, which also heavily involve these pathways, which could cause these agents to interplay synergistically or perhaps cancel one another out, as there may be no further benefit that can be gained after one of these agents is already taken at the optimal dosage. It is worth noting that many aspects related to AMPK/mTOR and DNA methylation are heavily evolutionary conserved as well (mTOR quite strongly, which is another reason why rapamycin likely extends human lifespan). We also already know that human females have longer lifespans than males for biological reasons, and that there are quite a few reports that the lifespan of castrated males is significantly increased. If 17α-estradiol (or estradiol valerate perhaps) does not extend human male lifespan, I would have to believe there is some other similar route that likely does, and we just have to find the best way to go about pursuing it.
Option two is, in my opinion, moderately plausible. It could the case that when we do have groups that supplement estradiol, the dosage taken is nowhere near sufficient for a noticeable longevity improvement, and that if we would simply increase it by some factor, longevity benefits would become apparent. There does seem to be a dose-dependent relationship for the longevity benefits in mice, and it may be possible that estrogen receptor alpha simply isn’t being agonized nearly enough. This may depend on the type of estrogen and route of administration used, as well as other drugs that may be taken (for example, most male to female transgender individuals take an anti-androgen as well as an estrogen, and this could potentially ablate benefits). My personal conjecture would be that estrogen monotherapy via injections would have the best probability of a longevity benefit for those assigned male at birth, although modulating or combining this with SERMs may also be of interest, although much more experimental and difficult to get right (I may add more to this later as this is a pretty interesting avenue to me for multiple reasons).
As for option three, it may seem difficult at first glance to think that millions of male to female transgender individuals are all currently supplementing a substance that may increase their lifespan by 5-20%, but yet none of us (or them) have noticed this yet. However, there are no preventative reasons for why this couldn’t be the case, nor statistical evidence against this possibility. It could even be that suppressing testosterone and activating estrogen receptor alpha are additive in nature, and we end up with a particularly impressive lifespan extension effect from conventional feminizing HRT.
Although I obviously cannot be sure of any specifics, I do think there is likely some hormonal intervention that should significantly increase male (assigned at birth) human lifespan, but that we just may need another decade or two to get the optimal intervention figured out properly. It would be great to have substances like 17α-estradiol in human trials already, as the potential ROI for successful longevity interventions is massive both in terms of billions of additional QALYs and trillions of dollars saved in healthcare expenditure.
In conclusion, 17α-estradiol might notably extend human lifespan for those assigned male at birth. There are many potential mechanisms of action that could cause this, with the most interesting one perhaps being activation of the mTOR and AMPK pathways, resulting in more ‘feminine’ DNA methylation. This longevity benefit, if it exists, may apply to many male to female transgender individuals, or could also be weaker or stronger for various reasons, such as due to the common usage of anti-androgens. If this longevity benefit does not apply to these groups, there may be alternative hormonal interventions that work instead, such as supplementing 17α-estradiol directly, using a SERM with a strong binding affinity in the right areas, or other modifications to the HPG axis that reduce some potential negative longevity effects of testosterone.
Disclaimer: I’m a random person on the Internet and none of this is medical advice. I’d like to rewrite and expand on the potential mechanisms of actions in this post and talk a bit more about what I do myself in this area some time too. Feel free to mention any corrections or comments to me (see: About page).