Oddly enough, the topic of healthy aging first became an interest of mine in 1981, at the “tender” age of 19, mostly because my best friend at the time was 60 and I wanted to help him stay vital and robust and stave off the inevitable decay of the aging process. I therefore took it upon myself to read and digest a voluminous treatise on this subject, first published that year, “Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach” by researchers Dirk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. My good friend did eventually survive mostly intact to the impressive age of 94 (he passed 3 years ago), so I would like to think that my efforts to assist him in preserving his health were at least partially successful. However, in the 37 years since the publication of that groundbreaking book, I have learned that much of the information contained therein was either scientifically presumptive or completely erroneous, based upon fresh data gleaned from thousands of new studies.
All these years later, as I myself creep up on the Big 60, I have discovered that age-related research itself is subject to what I like to call intellectual senescence, hence it is with a skeptical but open mind that I approach fresh scientific conclusions on the mechanistic nuances of the aging process in mammalian physiology. Most importantly, I think that it is crucial to exercise critical thinking if one’s intention is to differentiate between ‘normal aging’ (cellular senescence and extreme age-related organ failure), as opposed to avoidable chronic conditions that compromise quality of life and longevity caused by decades of accumulated cellular/DNA damage resulting from the ravages of a harmful diet and self-destructive lifestyle factors, i.e. the “exposome“, as opposed to the genome. I get a bit tired of people complaining to me about their various chronic conditions and ailments that they are dealing with as they grow older, blaming it all on their age, instead of on their own accountability and lifelong neglect of their health, namely every alcoholic beverage and cigarette they smoked, every cheeseburger and slice of pizza they shoveled down their gullet, every opportunity to exercise that they traded for couch time binge watching their favorite TV show, every night they went to bed late and woke up sleep-deprived, etc. Age is “only a number” for folks who made the effort to care for and respect their bodies as the birthdays piled on, instead of indulging every opportunity for hollow fleeting pleasures that damaged their health and shortened their lives. Indeed, having worked as a Clinical Nutritionist treating elderly people who had trashed their bodies through neglect, it took a concerted effort on my part to demonstrate compassion for them, often having to remind myself that I too had not always taken good care of myself and was once 80 pounds overweight!
Aside from the aforementioned lifestyle choices which influence our longevity, there are 3 particular focal points that I find remarkable about recent findings in gerontology, all of which revolve around the compression of morbidity principle, e.g. the surprising fact that middle-aged mothers live longer and the genetic variants that appear to play a role in longevity:
- ‘Compression of morbidity’ is just another way of defining that superior quality of life preceding one entering the super-elite centenarian club is, metaphorically speaking, a “bridge” that a person must cross in order to survive to their 100th birthday and is the most notable reason why some individuals make it to the age of 100 (aside from, obviously, favorable genetics), because they incurred the least amount of cellular/DNA damage in the first 80-90 years of their lives, i.e. epigenetic influences on longevity.
- Genetic variants (alleles) are a good starting point for investigations, but one must keep in mind that genes are only a blueprint. It is good to have a great blueprint before you begin to build a house, but if the construction workers are lazy and neglectful as the house is being built, it will be in a state of disrepair long before a house that was well-built and well-maintained over the years.
- I have a theory about the middle-aged mothers as well, from an evolutionary biology perspective. I would posit that once a woman (or even a man) passes the customary age of reproduction, dispassionate Mother Nature has no further use for us, since our primary genetic purpose is to reproduce and pass on our DNA. Nature cares little about the individual. Propagation of the species is everything! Some of my friends who are around my age sometimes joke that the reason they think I have aged slower than them is because I never had kids. They may indeed be right, but that too is an oversimplification.
In the final analysis, I would guesstimate that living to 100 is 80% lifestyle, 20% genetics. Lifestyle defined as diet, exercise, sleep, stress resilience, hormonal health, social connections, life purpose, and even how much we laugh. Genetics defined by a panoply of known alleles, most of which can be turned “on” or “off” by the previously mentioned lifestyle factors. You are what you eat, what you do, how much you love, and your attitude toward life, and ultimately those are the factors that can gently nudge you toward a happy healthy 80-100+ years on Earth. Live long and prosper!