May you live a long life full of gladness and health! So goes the old Irish blessing. These days as the eternal search for the fountain of youth meets science at the frontiers of genomic research and longevity studies, the blessing is more than just a fanciful thought. However, the message isn’t just about living longer. While science has made great strides in finding ways to increase our lifespan, it’s our “health-span”—how long we live and how well we live that’s driving research and informing the current conversation on aging.
UNLOCKING THE KEY TO LONGEVITY
As we continue to add years and even decades to our lives, researchers and longevity experts are beginning to understand the genetic factors that help us live longer and healthier—lives:
Dr. Nir Barzilai, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City, is collecting the DNA of some 600 New Yorkers, all Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent between the ages of 85 and 116.
In La Jolla, California, Dr. Eric Topol is conducting a “Wellderly” study of 1,400 healthy seniors, ages 89 to 105. “We think people would like to live totally healthy [rather] than [live] longer with chronic illnesses,” says Topol.
Human Longevity Inc., a San Diego-California, for-profit firm, is collecting genomic data on thousands of residents of all ages. They hope to discover genetic mutations that might lead to new drugs to prevent debilitating diseases, such as diabetes, heart attacks and Alzheimer’s.
Even without new medicines, people are living longer. A newly-released report by the Society of Actuaries finds that longevity has significantly increased in the past 15 years: Since 2000, the life expectancy of the average 65-year-old man has risen from 84.6 to 86.6 years of age while that of the average 65-year-old woman has risen from 86.4 to 88.8 years. Then there are the super-centenarians—people 110 and older. According to research published by the Public Library of Science in November 2014, they number 74 worldwide, and 22 of them live in the United States.
LIVING LIFE YOUR OWN WAY
Why—and how—do some people live so long? In many cases scientists don’t really know, though they are working to find out. Emma Morano, 115 and counting, told The New York Times that being single for most of her life was part of the reason. “I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone,” she said. Her other secret: Eating three raw eggs daily.
And consider the case of Irving Kahn, who died earlier this year at age 109 despite—or maybe because of—a somewhat lackadaisical, I’ll-do-it-my-way approach to his health. In November 2011, Kahn, then 106, was featured in a New York Magazine cover story on Barzilai’s study of elderly Ashkenazi Jews in New York City. Kahn, whose eponymous firm, Kahn Brothers, manages nearly $900 million in investments, was the last of five siblings—all centenarians.
Kahn didn’t slow down until shortly before his death. In an interview with Life Reimagined this past February, Kahn’s son Thomas, 72, acknowledged that at 109 his father was finally “aging,” adding, “He’s not what he was at 106.” At the time he hadn’t been to his office in several weeks; Irving Kahn died two days later. Irving’s older sister, Happy, also died a few years ago; she, too, was 109. Like Irving, she smoked, even lighting up when she appeared on television at the age of 100.
We even have some programs looking at newborns. Lots of good work has gone on with people who seem to have longevity genes, but we’re looking at the whole picture.
Heather Kowalski, spokeswoman for Human Longevity Inc.
“In my father and aunt’s case, their genetics seemed to have trumped their smoking,” says Thomas. “My father didn’t have a particularly healthy lifestyle. He really didn’t watch what he ate. He loved hamburgers; he had a very simple, basic American diet. He strived over years to exercise, played a little tennis, swam. But it wasn’t like people today, going to gym five days a week, eating vegetables only. All through his life, he was interested in reading and books, and had a much smaller interest in money,” even though his net worth was in the “eight figures.”
The Kahn siblings were all part of Barzilai’s study, which began in 1998 with the goal of finding the biological and genetic reasons why some people age more slowly than others. One significant finding: The good HDL cholesterol is more prevalent in those living longest. Drug companies are developing medications to replicate this effect.
STAYING HEALTHY LONGER
Research on longevity is being done on mice with the hope that the findings can eventually be applied to humans. Work done by Southern Illinois University’s Aging and Longevity Research Laboratory, under the direction of Andrzej Bartke, has identified a small, mutant mouse that lives longer. These mice have defects in growth hormones, “one of the regulators of aging,” which suggests that being of a more diminutive size may positively affect the aging process, says Bartke. The mice also have low blood levels of insulin and glucose, another factor that promotes healthy aging.
“The question of how this applies to humans is obviously of interest to us as well,” says Bartke, whose laboratory has no immediate plans for similar studies with humans. “We’re exchanging information with groups working on human aging and interacting quite closely with several,” he says. “Hopefully, we can lower the risk of chronic disease.”
Bartke and others prefer to talk about our health-span, rather than our lifespan. By that they mean the length of time during which one is healthy, as opposed to our biological age. “There are indications, somewhat controversial, that by slowing down the rate of aging you can [diminish the most debilitating years]—disease, whatever problems are associated with aging, that this period may actually be shortened,” says Bartke. “I don’t think it can be entirely avoided, but it certainly can be postponed and hopefully made shorter.”
The 75-year-old Bartke says, “Thank you, I am fine for someone who spends too much time sitting and watching his computer.” He watches his diet (veggies, fruit and fish), though not obsessively. He and his wife enjoy the outdoors. He hikes and swims. “I work and hope to continue,” he says.
The question of how our work with mice applies to humans is obviously of interest to us as well. Hopefully we can lower the risk of chronic disease.
Andrzej Bartke, Southern Illinois University’s Aging and Longevity Research Laboratory
However, for some folks, living happy and healthy may have its limits. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, 57, chairs the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. When he turns 75 he says that he will have lived long enough. Last October, his essay for The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” stirred up notable controversy. “Doubtless, death is a loss,” he wrote. “But … living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining … .” Critics questioned the article’s premise and found it unduly negative. Emanuel, who frequently appears on television and in the op-ed pages of TheNew York Times, makes no apologies. “You don’t expand your prime,” he says.
MAKING YOUR FUTURE YEARS COUNT
As medical advances work to increase longevity has 60 become the new 30? While many of us hope to live active lifestyles longer than previous generations, Emanuel cautions that this new conventional wisdom creates expectations that may not always square with reality. “That’s the Kool-Aid,” he says. “It’s not like you get to relive 40 or 45. … People think ‘I’m going to live the life I have now,’ but that’s not what happens. I get five more years and they may be healthy, but it’s not healthy like I’m 40 — and that’s the fallacy. Yes, I may find it satisfying, but I think we need to be a little more careful in what we’re actually selling.”
Indeed, selling is a big part of the story. An entire industry exists around so-called anti-aging products, which reputable doctors and scientists largely dismiss as fool’s gold. Globally, the market for anti-aging products and services was estimated at $261.9 billion in 2013, compared to $161 billion just five years before.
I’m not against people who have a very rich life living a long time. I just don’t think the goal in life is to live as long as possible. The goal is to have a meaningful, fulfilling life.
Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania
Even the study of longevity itself has become a growth industry, with companies touting lucrative agreements. Human Longevity Inc. has contracts with pharmaceutical corporations and big academic centers as it generates, aggregates, collates and culls biological data on humans. “The hope is that big insurers will be interested in our database so we can intervene sooner—or better—if and when disease develops,” says spokeswoman Heather Kowalski. “We’re not just looking at older people. We even have some programs looking at newborns. Lots of good work has gone on with people [who seem to have] longevity genes, but we’re looking at the whole picture.”
All of which raises important questions. “Here’s the thing,” says Emanuel. “I’m not against people who have a very rich life living a long time. I just don’t think the goal in life is to live as long as possible. The goal is to have a meaningful, fulfilling life.”
Point well taken. Johnny Adams is the executive director of the California-based Gerontology Research Group, and he asks, “How long do you want to remain alive and healthy and doing good work on this planet? I don’t have the answer.” Instead—and for now—he extends a poignant invitation: “Join me at my big birthday party planned in 2049,” when, on December 17, he turns 100. “I’d like you and anyone else to join me in interesting conversation, dancing and to have a good time,” he says. “And after that, we’ll see how it goes.”