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Chasing Longevity

Some pundits opine that with advances in medicine the average life span can be extended to 120 . After all ,wasn’t the average lifespan just 30 or 40 years of age something back in the 1800’s?….we are so far advanced from that time period it should be easy to extend life from 80 to 110 or 120? PM-Longevity-2Well, It turns out that the real life expectancy has not changed much in 2000 years. After all Socrates died at the age of 70…and it wasn’t from natural causes at that. It turns out that the claim that average life expectancy was 35-40 was very much skewed by infant mortality and that the usual span of life hasn’t really changed over time. Sure, we have made strides with public sanitation and infection control but that just means that the average person is living longer not that we have extended maximum life expectancy over time.

Sure there is evidence from manipulating the environment in nematodes , yeast, mice, etc you can increase longevity in these lower species but really..?? Really? Are you serious about comparing human beings to worms and yeast?? I would trust more the research from the primate world….that at least might have some real relevance to our species. Nature magazine published in 2012 a study of 25 years of primate research that involved caloric restriction as a means of living longer. Caloric restriction is one of THE leading concepts in life extension. Eat less and live longer has been shown to extend life in much lower life forms. The Nature article showed no benefit to caloric restriction in extending life duration.

Before we go organ by organ in our search for long life let’s quickly dispense with all the cloning and gene splicing come on’s. We are just as likely to unleash some alpha helix armageddon as we are to cure any real disease or extend life and neither is likely in the lifespan of anyone reading this article despite all the recent headlines so let’s move on to what’s currently plausible.

Alright ….let’s take this one organ at a time…..We can keep your heart going or use a replacement or artificial pump..we have this technology already. We can keep your lung function going indefinitely with the respirator. We already have the tech to replace your kidney function. We can’t replace your liver function yet but we will have artificial pancreas soon and we can control your gastric system very well. Sure your joints will suffer over time but we can design exoskeletons to support us in our dotage. We can replace your blood and most of your joints and there will be artificial skin aplenty. BUT the one thing we can’t seem to make any headway in life extension is mentation. The body functions we can maintain perhaps indefinitely but the brain seems to wear out at a certain point regardless of what we do.

Before I unload the truth as I know it on you let me share the thoughts of some of the leading experts in longevity. Thomas Perls is the Director of the New England Centenarian Study at the New England Medical Center. He believes that Iron is a cellular toxin and that we can extend life by decreasing our iron load. He therefore donates blood every 8 weeks to keep his iron level on the low side. Lower iron levels might be one reason women typically seem to live longer than men.

Perhaps you prefer the advice of Dr. Mark Mattson ,Chief , Laboratory of Neurosciences, National Institute of Aging,National Institute of Health…He advocates intermittent fasting and keeping daily calories to below 2000 calories a day.

Personally I rather like the advice of Felipe Sierra, Molecular Biologist, Director of Aging Biology, National Institute on Aging…”I laught a lot” …Reflecting his scepticism about the current state of life prolongation.
So the experts have weighed in but I would like to add my three cents as to why living longer is not really such a great thing for individuals or for society.

Penny One
Think what this would do to the divorce rate?….People have a hard time in this day and age to stay married for 10-20 years….If you get married at age 20 and are likely to live to120 what is the likelihood that you will still be with the same person? Living longer doesn’t necessarily mean living longer happily together.

Penny Two
Who is paying? You know most people don’t plan for retirement already…if they live twice as long someone is going to have to pay to take care of them …how can this be sustained? Where will these resources come from? The social security lockbox is already busted open…who can afford for you to live longer and almost certainly need more care as you get over the 100 year mark.

Penny Three
What’s the point of sustaining the body when the mind has faded. What do we do if the limiting factor is your mental function. Even those geriatric patients that have been able to avoid dementia at an earlier age eventually have more trouble with memory and cognition. There are a very few people living into their 90’s and beyond with remarkably preserved mental function. Most people hit the memory wall at or before the age of 85 plus or minus 5 years and it’s all downhill from there. Is there a point to living until 120 years of age if the last 10 years are in diapers?PM-Longevity-1

On a more philosophical note I would suggest that most people have a much more limited existence after a certain age….Depending on the person this could be at age 50 or age 75 but sooner or later most people start to really “ turtle up”. They do less and less…don’t go out as much, don’t interact with family as much, don’t travel as much,, do less and less in their social groups, the church, etc ..in short….don’t live as much.. Is it too offensive to say they are slowly shutting down and I think their quality of life dwindles incrementally ?. My sister Marijo, tells me that I am too judgemental….If they are happy to go from bedroom to couch to kitchen with slippers and doing the tea and toast thing and slowly slip away who am I to judge? I just don’t think that’s the best way to spend your golden years. I’m just saying that most people don’t do more, try more, press onward as they reach the last chapters of their life and I am afraid that living to 120 is only going to prolong the most difficult chapters not the most desirable chapters.

I close by exhorting you to carpe diem! Living long is, I am sure, a desirable thing but Living well I think might be a better goal. Until next month….get well …stay well!

Dr. Barry