Science Can Help Us Live Longer, But How Long Is Too Long?

Will 100 become the new 60? And do we really want that to happen?

old men and bike

How will greater longevity change what we do with our lives? Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paolo Margari

Not many people want to live to be 120.

That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.

Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.

Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?

Live long and prosper

Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?

For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”

As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.

A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.

And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.

None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.

Out with the old

Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:

  • Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
  • Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
  • In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
  • Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
  • This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.

Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.

Video bonus bonus: What old people do for fun. But wait, there’s more.

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