It’s time to start embracing longevity

Dr. Judith Campisi, professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, often begins her seminars by showing two stick figures: one of a young girl, the other of an old woman. Surrounding them are words like arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, cancer. “Do you want to live long?” she asks the audience. “Because this is what you have to look forward to.” Dr. Campisi brings home a point: old age comes with complications.

At the same time, life expectancy is at a record high, and rates for nearly all the leading causes of death are falling. In his TedxOxford talk, “Regenerative Medicine Against Aging,” Aubrey de Grey, chief scientist at the SENS foundation, says we are within striking distance to extend human life for a potentially unlimited number of years. So the question begs: Is living to a ripe old age an appealing notion?

The Big Tradeoff: Thriving vs Surviving

For most people, the desire is not just to live a long life, but a fulfilling one. Confronted with the biological realities of aging, millennial Mona Lisa Ondevilla, a success coach based in San Diego, says she defines what growing old means for herself.

“Leading women's health doctor, Dr. Christiane Northrup, has a beautiful book called Goddesses Never Age, whose defining premise is that we are told by society how to think of age, and that informs our bodies on how to age,” Mona Lisa says. “For example, if someone says ‘you look good for being 40,’ that assumes that if you're 40, you should look a certain way. It's these messages that we need to re-frame and be conscious of.”

Mona Lisa believes that constantly being shown illness leads to the mentality of always looking for what’s wrong and believing those things will happen to us. Her focus, instead, is on wellness, a vision of old age where she is strong, mentally clear, and at the best energy levels that she’s ever been.

“I have already noticed a shift toward being healthier and being more conscious in general toward ourselves and our outlook in life,” Mona Lisa says. “Just look at the rise of yoga, green smoothies, clean eating, meditation, and holistic healing methods that have exploded in the past few years.”

The Newest Research on Aging

Research around the traditional medical model of aging is changing too. AgingToday explains how science has always regarded the aging process: “Underlying most of what goes wrong with our bodies as we grow older are basic biological processes of aging that advance regardless of the diseases commonly expressed throughout life. Even if deaths from most major killers today are reduced dramatically, the biological processes of aging march on.”

But what if they didn’t have to? The same AgingToday article states that delayed-aging intervention is now plausible and would yield dramatic improvements in health for current and future generations.

Dr. Campisi and her colleagues have already stumbled on a few drugs that could interfere with the aging process. For example, metformin, which has been used for many years to treat diabetes, has shown hints of lowering other age-related diseases. “Diabetes could be causing the other age-related diseases, so treating the diabetes lowers their incidence, or metformin could be oppressing the other age-related diseases along with diabetes.”

Statins are another classic drug that seem to show the potential to treat more than one specific disease. “Women who are or have been on statins for a period of time to control blood cholesterol levels have lower rates of breast cancer. It’s still unclear if there’s a link between cholesterol and breast cancer, or whether the drugs have beneficial side effects.”

While Dr. Campisi describes all of this as very new, exciting (and somewhat controversial) it’s research that will advance dramatically in our lifetimes. “We may not be able to postpone death,” she says, “but we may be able to preserve health until such time that you die catastrophically.” Death, in this case, would not be due to cumulative health damage, but something unforeseen.

De Grey’s team is on a related track to forestall aging. At SENS, the focus is to periodically repair damage in the body so that it doesn’t become pathogenic. As de Gray describes, much of the diseases of aging today are caused by extra “junk” inside and outside of cells, having too few or too many cells, or mutations that take place to chromosomes and mitchondria.

Perceptions About Aging

Today’s revolutionary science doesn’t come without its critics. “People come up with ridiculous reasons why this shouldn’t be done,” says de Grey. He calls it rational denial – people think aging is inevitable and worry about repercussions of living too long, such as how to fund their pensions. However, de Grey considers illness and death the bigger problem, citing the 100,000 people who die of aging worldwide per day.

In reflecting on longevity, Liz Mangual, a baby boomer and literacy advocate based in New Mexico, feels inspired by the many people she knows who have lived past ninety. “I’ve been fortunate to have known and been touched by some wonderful and inspiring elders... their imagination, humor, curiosity, creativity, compassion, dignity, wisdom, and their seeming desire to stay engaged with the world.” As the science moves forward, Liz reminds us not just to aspire to old age, but to value our elderly community and the knowledge they can pass down to us.

“I currently volunteer at a senior resident community once a month.” she says. “We meet for a storytelling circle that I co-facilitate. There, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many more fascinating elders, many who possess the attributes that I’ve already spoken to above, and that inspire me. Most of these folk are educated, have traveled widely, and as everyone, have known struggle and hardship, love and joy. All have a common thread—a deep desire to continue to be engaged and make a contribution.”

Liz, too, hopes to stay engaged with the world by continuing to learn and surrounding herself with people, young and old, who inspire her.

“I hope also that at the right time, I’ll have enough knowing to be able to sense when it’s my time to ‘let go’, and make way for others to thrive and to grow.  But hopefully that won’t be until I’m well into my crone years!” The definition of “crone years” may very well change dramatically during our lifetimes.