Understanding Longevity and Health

In the developed countries of the past century, the average life expectancy saw an increase of 30 years, pushing the age from 50 to 80 years. Advances in vaccines, sanitation, antibiotics, and other innovations spared many from deadly childhood diseases. However, this period also witnessed a decrease of about three years in life expectancy due to infectious diseases like influenza, underscoring the power of infections in curtailing life.

The Quest for Prolonged Healthy Living

While long life has historically been equated with a successful life, a new and crucial distinction has emerged: the span of healthy living. It’s not just about living longer; it’s about living free from chronic illness or disability, a concept not always synonymous with extended life. I know this well from my 12 years of caregiving for a relative battling Alzheimer’s disease, a period where the quality of life did not mirror its length.

Facing Risks in the Journey to 100

Facing Risks in the Journey to 100

According to the World Health Organization’s indicators of healthy life expectancy, an American expecting to live until 79 might face serious illness for the first time at 63. This means spending 15 years (20% of life) dealing with diseases. In fact, the biggest threat to increasing age comes from cancer, heart disease, and dementia.

Balancing Medical Advances and Health

Over the past decade, a different perspective on aging has emerged based on the foundations of the field of geroscience. Dr. Jay Olshansky, an expert in longevity at the University of Illinois in Chicago, emphasizes that “we’re now saying that our focus should be on improving healthy life, not just extending lifespan, and slowing down aging is the way to do it.” Our bodies are composed of healthy cells and cellular processes that define both longevity and health throughout life. Included in these “pillars of aging” are damage, cellular aging, senescence, inflammation, and responses to stress.

Nature vs. Nurture in Longevity

These factors are largely the result of natural variations exacerbated by environmental differences. Genes also play a role, contributing to approximately 25% of the variables, especially in extreme cases. (Some lifelong smokers may have hit the genetic lottery.) It’s a fact that some individuals age faster than others, and with aging comes the possibility of diseases and disabilities.

Assessing Biological Age

Morgan Levine, a computational biologist at ALTOS Labs in San Diego, suggests that biomarkers like chemical tags in DNA, known as epigenetic markers, are one way to assess biological age. “Is there a chemical tag pattern in your cells that looks like that of someone who is 20 30 or 40?” she asks.

Exploring Potential Interventions

Scientists have not yet provided a definitive pill or treatment that can slow down or reverse the pillars of aging. However, they are enthusiastic about the possibilities. For instance, senolytic drugs target senescent cells, which are immune to the body’s defense mechanisms and instead interfere with the health of other cells. Senolytics have been linked to osteoarthritis, cancer, and dementia.

In a 2015 study, researchers cleared senescent cells in mice, resulting in delays, prevention, or reversal of multiple disorders. Clinical trials are ongoing but are years away from completion, making researchers cautious. They also note that some well-publicized claims about “rejuvenating” youth are based on shaky evidence.

Emphasizing Preventive Measures

For now, an astonishing approach to increasing health span lies in the revival of preventive measures. Experts recommend regular check-ups, maintaining cholesterol levels and blood pressure, adhering to guidelines from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition regarding body fat percentage, avoiding obesity, and increasing bone density. Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, founder of the Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute at the University of Washington, suggests, “Wherever you are, you can take action if you need to.”

The Role of Lifestyle in Prolonged Health

These actions include familiar aspects: balanced nutrition, sleep, exercise, and social connections are the four key factors. “The reason these things work is that they alter the biology of aging,” says Kaeberlein.

For example, moderate or moderately intense cardiovascular activity helps prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These interventions can potentially give us extra years of health. Kaeberlein emphasizes that “ten years might be a conservative estimate.”

The Doctor of Longevity

In the pursuit of a long life, it’s not about being wealthy in the end. It’s about choices that enhance your health and provide you with the best opportunity for a fulfilling and healthy life in your senior years.

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