One Step Closer to Beating Old Age

Thanks to medical innovations and research breakthroughs, living past your 100th birthday will one day not be such a big deal

How close are we to living to 150 years old?
How close are we to living to 150 years old? Image courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon

Now that Jimmy Stewart will be reminding us again that it’s a wonderful life—although I’m still waiting for my neighbors to show up with a basket of cash—allow me to pose a question:

If it’s so wonderful, how long do you want it to last? Until you’re 90?  100?  150?

I’m serious about living to 150. Recent research is making scientists increasingly bullish about slowing the aging process. I’m not referring to some little pill that will make you stop craving the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s or thinking that jogging your memory qualifies as exercise. I’m talking about a treatment that could actually stop your body’s tissue from aging.

What has longevity experts excited is a study released by the Mayo Clinic last month, one that focused on so-called “senescent cells” in our bodies. These are cells that can no longer divide, and they tend to be embedded in tissues showing signs of aging, such as arthritic knees or plaque in our arteries. But scientists didn’t know if the inflammation in these tissues was a result of  aging or if something else caused the inflammation, which spurred aging.

The Mayo scientists seem to have solved the riddle. When they were able to remove senescent cells from mice, the little rodents were revitalized. They could run on treadmills longer and had larger fat deposits. That may sound unhealthy, but the reason our skin wrinkles as we age is that it loses fat.

This is clearly a breakthrough, but don’t going tearing up your will just yet. A lot more testing needs to be done before a senescence purge can be tried in humans. That said, scientists may be able to find a chemical that can search and destroy the youth-sapping cells.

Several drug companies are said to be “very enthusiastic.” I feel younger already.

Staying alive

Even minus an anti-aging drug, medical advances have made it more likely we’ll experience what aging experts call a “compression of morbidity,” meaning most people won’t spend years seriously ill in a nursing home until they die. Instead, a lot of us will live longer in reasonably good health before things go south quickly.  Back in 1950, there were 2,300 people in the U.S. older that 100; by 2050, according to some estimates, that number could hit 600,000.

Whoa, that’s a lot of really old people. No doubt, it would ratchet up our expectations of how productive an 80-year-old should be. Some scientists, such as Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, feel the push toward doubling our life expectancy reflects a “deep selfishness.” Wolpe thinks there’s a “natural wisdom” in death because it makes way for a new generation of innovators.

On the flip side is science writer Sonia Arrison, who thinks that once we’re routinely hitting 125 or so, we’ll start reaching our true potential as a society. In her book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith, she contends that the combination of deep experience and still vital minds and bodies will make what we now call the elderly a “tremendous resource.”

As she put in an interview with The Futurist: “Think of all of the older people you know who are super smart and have tons of experience, but then they die and it’s lost, and the next generation has to rebuild. If we didn’t have to lose all that experience as quickly, we wouldn’t have to keep rebuilding.”

The world that Arrison imagines would be a very different place, where siblings could be 60 years apart in age and 80-year-old women could have babies. Strap on your seat belts.

Everything old is new again

Here are a few of the latest advances that could bring us longer, healthier lives:

Video Bonus: If you think it’s not such a bad thing to die of old age, spend a little time with Aubrey de Grey.

The Question: Would you want to live to 150?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.