For every study linking healthy lifestyle to longer life, there’s another that contradicts it.
On the one hand studies of ageing show that only 20 to 30 percent of your chances of living to 80 are due to your genes. Twin studies in particular where one twin is healthier and lives longer than the other demonstrate that environmental factors are more important than genes. These environmental factors include diet, exercise but also where you live and what job you did. After 80 however, disease irrespective of lifestyle becomes far more common. It’s true we are living longer – a hundred years ago life expectancy was on average around 50 – but we now spend more time sick towards the end of our lives.
On the other hand, the number of supercentenarians is increasing. What distinguishes supercentenarians from the rest of the population is they generally remain healthy until shortly before death. In a study done on centenarians by Nir Barzilai in 2010 he found that they had no better habits than the rest of us – many smoked, were obese and did no exercise. The finding contradicts twin studies, and it would seem this is because the environmental factor does not apply to super-centenarians. This tiny proportion of the population seems to have exceptional longevity coded into their genes. Researchers believe only 0.002% of the population have these genes.
Several of these genes are associated with a lower risk of insulin resistance and diabetes, such as APOC3, IGF-r, and CETP. People with the rare favourable variant of APOC3 do not get heart attacks and may be protected against diabetes. The IGF receptor mutation affects how the body regulates insulin-like growth factor-1, a hormone that plays an important role in growth and metabolism and that appears to be important for longevity. CETP refers to cholesteryl ester transfer protein. Having the favourable CETP genotype is associated with increased levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and reduced levels of the bad LDL cholesterol. And people with this genotype have reduced rates of diabetes, heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
One thing is however clear : all these genes protect against conditions that we can protect against ourselves by tweaking the body’s environmental conditions. Diabetes and heart disease can be controlled by diet, exercise and stress management. The IGF receptor mutation is thought to be involved in the protective effects produced by calorie restriction. Dementia and Alzheimer’s can be tackled by constant learning and avoiding social isolation. So not having the genes the supercentenarians have does not mean the rest of us will not be supercentenarians. It simply means we have to work at it – and they do not.
Conscious of the fact most people will not have the staying to power to micro-manage their physical, emotional and mental lives in this way, companies are springing up everywhere hoping to produce drugs that mimic the effect of the super-longevity genes. The global anti-ageing industry is already set to grow to $275 billion by 2020 according to the market research firm Global Industry Analyst. Currently products seek mainly to minimise the effects of ageing (creams, Botox) rather than reverse ageing, but life extension research is stepping up to the plate and many – including Aubrey de Grey, chief scientific officer at the SENS Research Foundation – believe anti-ageing medicine will be the biggest industry ever to have been created. Hedge fund manager Joon Yun has launched the Palo Alto Longevity Prize for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%, and the California Life Company’s mission is to reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan through age-defying drugs. Human Longevity Inc. plans to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences including from supercentenarians. Drugs such as Rapamycin (organ transplant drug) extend life in mice by 25%, the greatest achieved so far with a drug, and protects them against diseases of ageing including cancer and neurodegeneration. Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford is researching using blood from the young to rejuvenate Alzheimer’s patients after blood plasma from young mice restored the mental capabilities of old mice.
Targeting individual diseases of ageing is not, scientists recognise, going to extend life span much. Fix the heart – you get diabetes. Fix cancer – you end up with Alzheimer’s. The Holy Grail of this research is to find the single Magic Pill that would reverse ageing in all organs at the same time. The approach is, however, a purely biological one, regarding humans as organic machines that can be kept alive indefinitely with the right maintenance and with regular replacement of worn-out parts. Only one major area of research differs from this approach. Dmitry Itskov, the Russian multi-millionaire internet mogul, has launched his “2045 Initiative”. The idea is to create technologies allowing our personalities to be downloaded to a non-biological body – a more advanced one – extending life to the point of immortality.
Leaving consciousness out of the equation when developing anti-ageing strategies is typical of the compartmentalised approach of modern science. Currently there is no real distinction between mind, brain and consciousness. Materialists believe consciousness is produced entirely by the brain and that mind has no effect on the body. The placebo/nocebo effect is a thorn in the side of those who believe this. Other posts on this site deal amply with the effect thought and perception have on ageing, and yet the current life-extension research ignores consciousness, despite the fact many studies indicate that feelings of hopelessness and a fatalistic approach to life are correlated with cancer and heart disease (see the work of Dr Peter Fenwick, neurophysiologist). In a 1998 Harvard study, watching compassionate acts was shown to upregulate the immune system of a group of students. There is evidence thoughts and emotions exist outside the body from hospital reports on people who have been resuscitated and then described in detail the actions of the CPR team, seen from a point a few metres away from the operating table. The “NDE” has been reported by something like 13 million people from all cultures and religious backgrounds. These incidents are ignored by reductionist materialism since it has no explanation for them.
We do not just need a healthy diet and exercise programme, we need healthy relationships – with ourselves and others. We need a healthy mind. Those who attend religious services live up to 14 years longer. Overwork counts too – those who fail to take a holiday are a third more likely to get heart disease. Optimists are also 77% less likely to get heart disease. If you have a negative thought (loneliness, the stress of abusive relationships)…stress hormones are activated, the fight or flight mode is triggered and if this continues over time…illness occurs. Self-repair mechanisms only kick in when the relaxation response is switched on.
In the great chain of explanation where physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology and biology explains parts of psychology, consciousness doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yet it is consciousness that creates the thoughts that turn on the stress response – and of course the relaxation response.
Increasingly some thinkers, even scientists, are seeing consciousness as fundamental to how the universe works. Only when we come to grips with consciousness and its effect on the way our body ages will we find the key to life extension, and perhaps even immortality.
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Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc
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There’s an old joke : How do you know if you’re codependent? When you die someone else’s life flashes before you.
Codependency is no joke nonetheless. When Nancy Sykes sang As long as he needs me in the musical Oliver! shortly before being murdered by her partner, she spoke for the millions of codependent people around the world who are in abusive relationships but cannot break free.
Codependency is an important issue for staying ageless because of the emotional stress it causes.
Codependent adults usually had an emotionally deprived childhood. A child who does not have his/her emotional needs met and who was surrounded by significant adults saying things such as, “Who do you think you are?” if the child asks for something is likely to develop codependency. A traumatic event before the age of six months is thought to cause the worst form of this crippling condition, programming the child’s subconscious to associate love and pain. A normal loving relationship between respectful adults doesn’t feel right to codependents (it is often discounted as boring, and the partner fails to command respect in the codependent).
The codependent is frequently exposed to angry outbursts from their partner. They react by dissociating – switching off emotionally – something they learnt to do as children when physical escape was impossible. Healthy people know when someone is angry it is the angry person that has to deal with their emotions. Codependents find anger terrifying, since they assume the anger is their fault – a message they picked up from their parents, who may have actually stated this was the case on numerous occasions when the real reason was work or marriage-related stress. But codependents are, none the less, addicted to expressions of distress and anger in others.
The codependent therefore believes everything is their fault and that they are responsible for the emotions of their significant others. This leads to toxic shame, the default setting for codependent adults.
Toxic shame causes someone to second-guess everything they feel and believe. Disagreements with others will lead to panic and severe feelings of guilt. They seek out people with problems because they do not believe they deserve healthy people, and through helping someone they find identity and self-worth. Compliments are shrugged off and rapidly discounted, and they apologise all the time. Many codependents are driven, high achievers – doing well in school was the only way to gain their parents’ approval when they were young. Their emotional lives are therefore often chaotic. They have problems setting boundaries, since their parents failed to respect the child’s boundaries. The parents of adult codependents may continue to do this throughout their lives –for example, entering a bedroom or bathroom without knocking, going through their things, telling them they are self-obsessed if they express feelings and so on.
Self-care is a big problem with codependent people, who feel it is self-indulgent. They will have been given the message when young that they did not deserve time out. Codependents feel an urge to spend any free time getting chores or odd jobs done.
Sam is a typical case. He booked a holiday for him, his two children and his new partner, a volatile young woman called Alicia. The children wanted to camp but Sam felt it would be better to book the hexagonal building on the camp site known as the folie, away from the other families. He told himself this was for more comfort. During the holiday, on cue, Alicia turned on Sam and began to abuse him in front of his children when she saw he had forgotten to pack her cigarettes. Idiot, asshole, can’t trust you to do anything, you make me want to vomit….her screaming went on for hours.
The cigarettes were an excuse of course: Alicia was repeating a pattern of severe holiday rows she had experienced in her childhood. Her mother had ruined all the family holidays. Alicia developed borderline personality disorder as a result and proceeded to do the same to her own loved-ones.
Sam’s background was being raised by narcissistic parents. Sam developed codependency. As Alicia screamed at him, he realised he had booked the folie because he knew Alicia would have several violent outbursts during the holiday and wanted to avoid the shame of being right next to other campers who would have overheard everything.
Alicia finally took the car and drove off at speed, leaving Sam with his two frightened children and no transport. In doing this she was reproducing the behaviour of her father who would regularly storm out of the house and drive off dangerously, disappearing for days. Her father had once abandoned the entire family without transport in the middle of the countryside leaving them to find their way home – ten hours away – by taxi and train with all the luggage.
Sam simply waited for Alicia to return, feeling a crushing sense of grief, rage, embarrassment she had humiliated him in front of his children, and shame. These negative emotions are also highly addictive. That night she returned. The screaming fit had ended, and she veered once again to idolising him, as borderlines always do. He apologised to her even though he wasn’t sure what for. This seemed to satisfy Alicia, and she complained of chronic stomach pain, a complaint which had plagued her for their entire relationship. He showed empathy, and cared for her. Sam’s codependency told him to just forget about the abuse and rage, for the sake of peace and Alicia’s health.
What should Sam do in such a relationship?
• Separate his feelings from Alicia’s.
• Stop giving her support at such personal cost.
• Stop modelling victimhood to his children.
• Stop playing the role of enabler. His compassionate attitude ensured Alicia would repeat the behaviour over and over on every holiday they would have from then on. Instead, he should have found a way of ensuring her bad behaviour had severe consequences.
• Realise that when Alicia stated she adored him, this actually meant that she needed him. Someone who loves us does not plunge us into mental and emotional turmoil and does not seek to humiliate us.
• See the humour in the repeated drama they are both playing out, and extract himself from the relationship immediately. This is helping Alicia change her behaviour which is ruining her health.
• Rehearse over and over how he will react next time he finds himself being drawn back into the same scenario – with her, or with someone else.
Sam eventually left Alicia a few months later, when she betrayed a secret he had entrusted her with. This action by Alicia was an act of revenge – common BPD behaviour – after an argument when she had accused him of being with another woman (he was in fact at a social event at work at which he had volunteered to provide drinks). Four months separation followed. Alicia had intensive therapy, and sent a mutual friend around to beg for another chance, saying she could not live without Sam.
Sam had not found anyone else with whom he had experienced such a bond. In fact he had not found anyone else at all in those four months. He agreed to see her, but not to live with her, and said if there is one more abusive incident when we are on holiday, our relationship will be over for good. Sam felt good about himself for saying this. For four further months Sam and Alicia were ecstatically happy. Alicia was a very funny, intelligent and attentive girlfriend, not to mention beautiful. She utterly captivated him. He was delighted he had agreed to give her another chance. He called this compassion, and understanding for her abusive background. He took her to Paris for a romantic weekend to celebrate their reunion.
On the second day, when he expressed exasperation over a work issue, she flew into a rage at him for ruining their weekend away with his ‘stupid problems’. To Sam’s astonishment, the exact same scenario ensued as on the camping holiday. He felt his bloodstream fill with adrenaline and toxic stress hormones. She left the hotel in a fury, and this time he did not wait for her to return. He paid the hotel bill and travelled home alone. Six months silence ensued, and Sam began to read books about codependency and setting personal boundaries.
This Christmas Sam’s children are going to their mother’s. He has not found another partner. Alicia will send him gifts, and then call him. The old loneliness from Sam’s childhood will return, and he will take her call.
Codependency is an addiction every bit as powerful as heroine. It is ruinous to our health, to the length of our telomeres, and therefore to our lifespan.
In September 2013 one of the most empowering research outcomes ever was published in The Lancet Oncology. It concerned telomeres, the strands at the end of our chromosomes. The research, according to lead author Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, concluded that genes are not necessarily our fate. The study focused on a group of men with early-stage prostate cancer. Half of the group were instructed to continue as normal; the other half made lifestyle changes. These changes involved a low-fat, plant-based diet, low in refined carbs, moderate exercise (walking for half an hour a day), yoga or meditation for an hour a day (to combat stress) and spending more time with friends and loved ones.
At the end of the five year study their telomeres were measured, and it was found that in the group which had changed their lifestyle, their telomeres had lengthened by ten percent. Men in the other group had a 3 percent shortening of telomeres over this period.
Why is this amazing news?
Scientists have been fascinated by telomeres since they were discovered to hold the key to our biological age. It was found that the older we get, the shorter our telomeres are, and the shorter our telomeres, the shorter our lives. It had been conceded that the shortening of telomeres was, however, not entirely dependent on genes, but that hardship and stress accelerated the rate at which they shrank. Factors contributing to early telomere shortening were thought to be smoking, radiation exposure, taking care of relatives with Alzheimer’s or autistic children as well as regular exposure to emotional stress such as a bad marriage or high pressure at work. The study measured telomeres in white blood cells, not in the prostate, making it relevant to the entire population. Although this was only a small pilot study it is significant; most research begins with small studies such as this one. It showed that the more lifestyle changes were made, the longer the telomeres got.
It appears our cells are listening to our suffering (see video page, “Telomeres and aging”). Until now the possibility of lengthening telomeres was seen as something only possible in science fiction, akin to actual rejuvenation, an attitude very much in line with the widespread belief ageing is inevitable, still so prevalent today.
Telomeres then are not age-dependent, in fact it has been found that centenarians have longer telomeres than most 85-year-olds, and it is thought that it is not the telomeres that have given them long life, but that their long lives are attributable to better health, which was reflected in the telomeres. Clearly changes in lifestyle affect cellular ageing.
Cancer cells also have longer telomeres, and this is one of the main reasons attempts to produce an elixir of life based on telomerase for example face so many difficulties. Cancer cells produce telomerase. Aubrey de Grey of the SENS foundation which studies rejuvenation said, “The cancer problem is a really, really big problem.”
This study however indicates that high tech drugs are probably not the answer. Instead low-tech non-medical intervention seems to be extremely effective. Our bodies have a remarkable capacity to heal themselves. Being a victim of abuse, suffering emotionally, allowing negative emotions to dictate our lives and enduring hardship are not irreversible blows to the body. If we make the changes now, using techniques such as kinesiology to clear cellular memory, recognising and combatting stress whenever it appears and practising calorie restriction to reduce oxidative damage, then we can take back control of the ageing process and – as the telomere study seems to suggest – reverse it.