Can You, Too, Live to 122?
Life insurance actuaries earn a good living by staking wagers on how long you are likely to live. They tell us that when you are turning eleven years old, you have the best chance of living to see your next birthday.
By eleven, you have survived your toughest year, the first, as well as the next ten years beset with infections, household poisons, accidents, congenital deformities and childhood tumors. And at eleven you generally haven’t started associating with folks prone to violence, fast driving nor seriously contemplated suicide.
The science of gerontology, the study of aging, begins in utero, the period of life when the rate of cell death is the highest. The science of geriatrics, the management of age-related disorders, seems to begin at eleven, the onset of age-related disease. Let’s say geriatricians could treat any chronic disorder with complete success. Barring an accident, we would have a high probability of living out our full life expectancy. But most of us would still die somewhere between 85 and 95, not from any disease but from old age, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Wonderful one hoss shay that ran a hundred years to the day.” His carriage-maker argued that in any vehicle, “There is always somewhere a weakest spot. Find it somewhere, you must and will — above or below, or within or without — and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt, a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.” This good New England Yankee proposes a remedy: ’t’s mighty plain Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain; ‘n’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain, Is only jest T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.”
Unlike your car, Holmes’ wonderful shay never did break down, but died of old age. After one hundred years “it fell to pieces all at once.” Some physicians are dissatisfied with the claim, “She died in her sleep of old age,” preferring a definitive event such as heart attack or stroke but the reality is that our bodies truly decay like the “one hoss shay.” The most important determinant of the rate of decay is not whether you buy organic produce or are vegetarian. It is your genes. Like species, individual humans are genetically endowed with a maximum lifespan.
Why Do We Age?
Gerontology attempts to extend the maximum human lifespan. In the twentieth century civil engineering collaborated with medical science in extending our life expectancy from 45 at the century’s start to over 77 at its end. But despite this dramatic progress, there has been no change in the maximum human lifespan. Once we get to 85 or ninety, our chances of living considerably longer are not much better today than they were when Holmes penned his poem in 1858. It’s up to your genes, the hand of DNA you were dealt.
Thermodynamic Theory…the pink sands of time
Change by itself appears to be no barrier to immortality because from birth until around 25 we are only changing for the better. After that, almost any elite athlete will tell you, change is usually in the direction of deterioration. Physicists call this decay entropy, the tendency of a system left at rest to evolve in the direction of greater disorder, like a heap of red and a heap of white sand side by side turning into a heap of pink sand and never vice versa. Entropy, says the second law of thermodynamics, is a one-way street.
It’s a statistical issue: there are a million ways for the next change to be one of greater mixing but only a few improbable ways leading to greater purity of the piles. Similarly, rusting cars inexorably deteriorate and never spontaneously reorganize themselves into orderly new cars.
Fortunately hope for this bleak picture for a rusting human body is available in the third law of thermodynamics, which states that cooling a system reduces its entropy, as seen in superconductors near absolute zero, which exhibit the frictionless flow of electrons within their circuitry; or superfluids which once set in motion will flow around a beaker forever without turbulence because their atoms display a perfectly coherent, orderly interaction.
The physiological equivalent of a superfluid would be a physiology that maintained a low metabolic rate. Indeed it has long been noted that the longest lived species, say elephants and hippopotami, have the lowest metabolic rates, compared with the high metabolizing mouse, which is short-lived. These observations led Clive McCay in the 1930’s, followed by George Sacher in the 1960’s, to report that you could get caged lab rats to live up to 75% longer without the aid of nutritional supplements or body wraps. You simply had to restrict their caloric intake 30-40% from what they normally ate. Animals in captivity are known to live much longer than wild animals that suffer from the chronic stresses in their dog eat dog world. McCay and Sacher showed that caged animals on a diet live longer than even pampered captive ones.
Rate of Living Theory….an enormous pile of food
These observations have been verified and extended to other species. The rate of living theory was born. This theory basically states that if all the food you will require during your lifetime is put into an enormous pile, your lifespan will be the time it takes you to consume that food. You can stretch your life out by applying great self-discipline or flame out young in hedonistic overindulgence. Rate of living proponents may also point to recent research showing that women who keep within ten pounds of their college weight lived longer.
But there are a few problems with this theory. First, leg banding has shown that bats smaller than a mouse have been noted to live for thirty years and more. Theory proponents argue these bats have long lives because they spend most of their time hibernating in literal suspended animation, hardly metabolizing at all. And some bigger animals, especially marsupials like kangaroos and opossums, may live only as long as a mouse. The other problem with this theory, say its detractors, is that the control lab animals in the cages eating as much as they desire are simply overfed couch potatoes, not unlike the rest of us, not subject to the exercise requirements of an animal in the wild.
Cellular Breakdown…outdated equipment in disrepair
Other theories of why we age, together with possible cures for this universal disorder, have some good logic as well as plenty of holes. One theory sees aging as caused by the inability of the aging body to repair damage, especially in its DNA, creating metabolic errors that result in the accumulation of debris in the cells. The finding that fetal cells can only divide about 55 times, called the Hayflick limit, before they fill with debris and stop proliferating, supports this theory. All organisms have proteins to make these repairs. So why do the repair mechanisms get overwhelmed?
Or perhaps aging is just so much oxidation or weathering, turning our supple cell membranes into leather, an extension of the rate of living theory. And perhaps this oxidation can be countered by taking huge doses of antioxidants. There was a time when health food zealots who fought to banish BHA and BHT as additives to retard spoilage from oxidation found themselves popping it in enormous doses when it was marketed as an anti-aging cure.
Or perhaps aging is a hormonal issue. After all, growth hormone and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) go down with age and when replaced in large doses produce rejuvenating changes in humans and lab animals that had some researchers calling them the fountain of youth. Unfortunately, growth hormone also has serious side effects and although you may gain lean muscle mass, energy and endurance, similar benefits of youthfulness can be had, but with a lot more work through improvements in diet and exercise. And they don’t extend the maximum lifespan.
DNA Programming…the price of genetic immorality is death
Or perhaps the price we pay for the immortality of our genes is aging and death. In River Out of Eden Richard Dawkins writes, “A river of DNA flows through time, not space. It is a river of information, not a river of bones and tissues: a river of abstract instructions for building bodies, not a river of solid bodies themselves. The information passes through bodies and affects them, but it is not affected by them on its way through.” Perhaps the evolutionary effect of time is not concerned with making our lives prolonged beyond the time it takes to conceive and raise a child to carry on the task. Or perhaps our DNA has been programmed with a death hormone that kicks in after seven to nine decades to bring our days to an end so our more viable progeny will be less encumbered in their role as custodians of DNA. And perhaps such a booby-trap, like in a good nail-biter, could be defused!
In Search of Longevity
Is there any proof that extreme longevity is possible? Although some areas of the world have been claimed to be home to people living to 130 or 140, such as the Hunzas of Kashmir, the people of the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and the Incan descendants in the Andean valley of Vilcabamba of Ecuador, the authenticity of these claims are not supported by any documentation. One thing all these places have in common besides their being remote and mountainous is the reverence they have for the elderly. Unlike in our culture, in these areas there is a strong incentive to exaggerate one’s age.
Jeanne Calment is another story. This woman, who descended from generations of extremely long-lived ancestors, passed away in 1997 in Southern France where she had lived for her entire 122 years. She was riding a bicycle until 110 and for most of her life was a smoker. Most importantly, a demographer, a gerontologist and her physician were able to document every event in her extraordinarily long life with existing historical records. Remarkably, despite her frailty and deprivation of hearing and sight, she maintained a sharp, alert mind.
If this woman could live so long and well, why can’t you? This brings us to the critical issue for anyone serious about longevity: even if you are a toddler, it is unlikely you will ever be able to swallow in confidence a harmless magic bullet against aging due to the sheer length of a human lifetime.
Let’s say a new hormone is discovered that has promising potential at arresting the aging process. You would be reluctant to take it yourself without knowing if the benefits outweighed the side effects after a lifetime of ingesting it. Before swallowing your first dose you would want to see the results of a randomized controlled trial, whereby scientists draw straws to assign a few hundred newborns to receive the hormone or a placebo, then follow them for the next 100 years or so, keeping all the other conditions the same, to see which group lived the longest.
Since you will never have gold standard evidence upon which to base your choice of an anti-aging regimen, you are left with a few other options:
- forget trying to alter the rate at which you are aging and instead simply opt to avoid all the possible diseases that could shorten your life, even if most of them are the degenerative ones caused by aging;
- follow your own common sense and live every day as if it were your last — one day it will be;
- adopt time-tested medical traditions purported to promote longevity, perhaps not feeling perfectly satisfied they will give you the 122 years that you surely feel you deserve as much as Mme Calment, but at least comfortable that if the interventions have stood the test of time they can’t be harmful.
Let’s get practical. If you opt for number one, keep reading this column and this journal for advice on treating chronic disorders. If you opt only for number two, just go for it, you don’t need any help. If you opt for number three, here are a few practical points you can follow without much trouble, and which have the side benefit of making you feel and look better even if they haven’t been definitively been proved to make you live longer. Some of these tips are derived from observational studies of commonalities found in the oldest of the old. Some are extrapolations of observations made in animals and test-tube experiments that appear to improve general health in human populations. And some are derived from ancient medical texts, including those of Ayurveda.
Roadmap to the Fountain of Youth
- Transcend time and space on a regular basis. Visit the field of pure consciousness that is described as infinite, eternal and unbounded for a few minutes each day in order to take that infinity back into your life of boundaries. For starters, look into meditation; the research on TM shows that it cultivates a hypometabolic state opposite to the life-shortening stress response, increases DHEA sulfate, and improves scores on standardized tests of biological age.
- Culture an attitude of childlike innocence. This doesn’t mean being naïve. See every circumstance as fresh and new.
- Practice hatha yoga asanas, even ten minutes a day.
- Practice pranayama — yogic neuro-respiratory integration exercises that slow the breath — akin to hibernation.
- Get regular physical activity, but avoid arthritis and injury. The inability to walk in your 80’s is not auspicious for your making it to 100.
- Establish structured daily routines. Opt for a schedule that is royal, unhurried and free of hassle, including time for meditation, exercise and the other tips here that you find important.
- Adjust your routines with the season and, for women, the time of month.
- Practice devotion: to your partner, your family, and your higher power.
- Stay slim and eat frugally. This is one of the most important things you can do to reach your maximum lifespan, and research suggests perhaps even beyond it.
- Avoid toxins in your food and environment. This includes tobacco. Forget Jeanne Calment. The chances are one in several billion that you have similarly lucky genes.
- Take alcohol only in extreme moderation.
- Culture the ability to be flexible and find creative ways to make the best of adversity. This was one of the most important qualities in a Harvard study of the oldest of the old. For hints where to start, see #1 and #2 above.
- Avoid being critical or judgmental of yourself and others. The alternative saps life and energy.
- Moderation in meat, fowl and eggs. In those remote mountainous cultures reputed for their longevity, animal products are taken sparingly. North American Seventh Day Adventists and other vegetarians appear to have less heart disease and cancer.
- Get adequate rest. Schedule it in.
- Find a job you enjoy doing and that brings you a sense of satisfaction, a common finding in the oldest old.
- Avoid “going to pasture.”
- Culture a happy marriage/relationship. Fights and discontent will just wear you out prematurely.
- Properly metabolize the notion of time. If time seems to fly because you are absorbed in the present, you may be aging much more gracefully than when you feel like time crawls to a stop.
- Take a diet rich in natural antioxidants, i.e. fresh food of all different colors. If you want to add vitamins and supplements, that’s OK, but no proof of their benefits have yet been shown. Start with celery, broccoli, carrots, seeds and nuts, especially Brazil nuts rich in the antioxidant selenium.
- Olive oil. A component of the Mediterranean diet which seems to be associated with less heart disease and hypertension. Also a lot of fun to eat.
- Avoid excess sun and use sunscreen. At the very least you’ll look younger.
- Jeanne Calment: From van Gogh’s Time to Ours — 122 Extraordinary Years. Michel Allard and Victor Lebre. WH Freeman & Co. New York. 1998
- The Wonderful One Hoss Shay. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Boston and New York, 1891.
- GA Sacher, Life Table Modification and Life Prolongation, Handbook of the Biology of Aging, 1st edition, ed. CE Finch and L. Hayflick. New York: van Nostrand, 1977
Jay Glaser, MD is board-certified in Internal Medicine.