December 31, 2017
Aging Part I: The Opportunities and Challenges of an Extended Life
BY Mary Mahoney
Human longevity has spurred a new wave of interest in the medical community, thanks to some recent discoveries that may make it possible for us to 120 or older. But living longer could bring new challenges.
What would our quality of life be like if we survive to 100 or even 120? Would it be possible to have not just a good life, but a great life after 80? Could we slow down or even reverse the aging process and regain the vitality we enjoyed in our 20s?
Are these fantasies or facts? Scientists say they all will fall into the realm of possibilities in the not-too-distant future.
It’s hard to believe that life expectancy in the U.S. was only 47 in 1900. By 2013, life expectancy almost doubled, to 78.8 years. The 20th century has seen the single greatest leap in human longevity ever recorded, thanks to major medical and technological advances.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts the elderly population will explode during the next few decades, with those over 65 representing almost a quarter of the U.S. population by 2050. There also will be a “boomlet” of seniors aged 80 and older.
So, if we’re getting older anyway, why the interest in longevity? The answer is, quality of life: No one wants to spend their last 20 years disabled and in pain. If we must get old, we want to be healthy. And we want to stay and feel younger longer.
Yet Americans are not at the front of the “older but younger” trend. Average life expectancy in the U.S. is low compared with other developed countries. In fact, lifespans in the U.S. have stagnated, and we’re projected to be on par with Mexico by 2030, according to CNBC.
So why are we living longer, but not as long as the populations of other developing countries? Science Daily reported on a study released this summer that people who avoid “risky health behaviors” not only live longer but enjoy good health in their golden years.
The study of 14,000 people, showed that men and women who are not overweight, never smoked and drank moderately live an average of 11 and 12 years longer than the rest of the us.
Healthy senior citizens benefit everyone, noted the study: “In an aging society, the health of the elderly determines the amount of money spent on the health system. In addition, healthy elderly people are better able to participate in the labor market and to perform social roles, such as caring for grandchildren.”
Beside avoiding risky behaviors, what else can we do? Severely diminishing your food intake has been shown to extend lifespans significantly. Research is focusing both on calorie restriction, which activates autophagy, or cell regeneration.
A study just released shows autophagy can affect certain illnesses and the aging process. “We can actually see the autophagy process activated through caloric restriction,” said one of the researchers, adding that increased autophagy moderates the impact of disease.
Over a decade ago, researchers found that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, could extend the lifespans of yeast, worms, flies and fish, but not people. An article in March 2017 in Chemical and Engeneering News notes renewed interest in studying resveratrol:
“A new batch of research is now exploring resveratrol’s effects on major age-related diseases in humans, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Results from some early Phase II studies suggest resveratrol influences certain molecules in the body that are indicators, or biomarkers, of disease.”
Pterostilbene, a natural compound found in blueberries, may steal the show. A National Institutes of Health reports says pterostilbene may offer preventive and therapeutic properties in treating neurological, cardiovascular, metabolic and hematologic disorders. It also was found to “modulate cellular stress,” i.e. aging.
Next we’ll look at the prospect of reversing aging and what it means, not just for wrinkles but also for killer diseases.