How long can we live?
I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time thinking about the aging process. Healthy aging. Successful aging. Aging in general. It appears that I’m not alone. Researchers around the world are spending billions of dollars annually on trying to eradicate cancer, dementia, diabetes and other deadly diseases. But guess what? Even if we could cure these diseases, it won’t prevent us from aging and dying. But what if we’re going about this the wrong way? What would happen if we focused research on aging instead? Many researchers believe that eliminating deadly diseases to prevent death itself might be the way to go. And how are they proposing to do this? They are experimenting with reverse engineering of our molecular biological clock! If they succeed, this would be the greatest “hack” ever.
1,000 years old?
As strange as it seems, one scientist who believes we can live for several hundred years is biomedical gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey. Not only does he believe this, but he also thinks the first person to reach the thousand-year mark is already alive today. Of course, that will depend on future medicines, he adds. “The whole idea is that there would not be a limit on how long we can keep people healthy,” de Grey says. De Grey, chief science officer and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, which funds research on reversing aging, believes that anti-aging drugs may one day “eliminate damage from the body by resetting or turning back the clock. Longevity is a side effect of health,” de Grey says. “If we can keep people healthy, then their likelihood of dying is reduced.”
Is the secret under the sea?
It seems that nature has already provided us with an excellent example of this unusual process – the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). This is the only animal that we know of so far that reverts from adulthood to its polyp stage when facing starvation or danger, thereby escaping death. Other marine animals seem to cope well with aging, such as certain clams that can live more than 500 years and lobsters. This remarkable crustacean has what appears to be an unlimited supply of a youthful enzyme. So much, in fact, that scientists wonder if the lobster could live forever under the right conditions.
At the forefront of this research on super-agers is Dr. Jay Olshansky, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of “The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging.” Super-agers are people who live quite long (usually well past 80) and, despite having many of the bad habits others have, don’t seem to contract many of the chronic diseases that impact other people their age. They don’t suffer the cognitive or physical decline seen in others with average lifespans. Diseases such as cancer, diabetes, coronary issues and stroke didn’t appear in super-agers until between 95 and 112, some 24 years later than those with ordinary lifespans. Scientists are studying this group closely to find out how they do it. But other researchers focus more on the “healthspan.”
Long lives vs. healthy lives
The “healthspan” is the period of life where we are free from disease. Many researchers say we should focus on extending this period instead. There are simple ways to slow down aging, of course. Don’t smoke, eat well, keep a normal weight, exercise more than six hours a week and get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Drugs can also target such aging markers as inflammation, slower cell metabolism and oxidative stress. “You don’t have to target all of these hallmarks to get improvement in healthspans. “If you target one, you show benefit in the others,” says Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research.
As we age, our cells don’t die but instead begin to deteriorate and stop multiplying, which can impact our health immensely when our mitochondria can no longer provide energy to our cells efficiently. The cellular damage produced by this can lead to chronic inflammation (a subject of previous posts in my blog), which, in turn, can lead to a variety of diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis and ulcerative colitis, among others. When cells become damaged, our bodies “deactivate” them to shield us from harmful cell division. This stockpile of deactivated cells grows larger as we age, encourages other cells to become dysfunctional and emits proteins that trigger inflammation. A healthy body naturally removes this stockpile of dormant cells, but older immune systems find it difficult to remove these deactivated cells. Some experts believe that flushing out this stockpile could help avert aging.
My two cents
While I find this cutting-edge research very exciting, I have mixed feelings about the prospects of living as long as some researchers believe possible. The oldest person on record was Jeanne Calment, who died in France in 1997 at 122 years and 165 days old. I’ll be 74 in a few months, and more than anything else, I want my remaining years (however many they may be) to be quality years – mentally and physically. I don’t relish the idea of being parked in a place where staff have to assist me in just about everything I do. That’s not a quality life, in my opinion. When I reach a stage where my cognitive and physical abilities are so poor that I become a burden on my loved ones, then I’ll be ready to set off on my next great adventure. There’s no sense in fearing it. We’re all going to do it. “When I come to the end of the road and the sun has set for me. I want no rites in a bloom-filled room, why cry for a soul set free?”