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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One of the major arguments against life extension is that our planet could not cope with a massive increase in the number of people, placing huge pressure on resources. However, much of the evidence to support this claim is quite easy to debunk. The World Health Organisation estimates that the world’s population is going to double in the next fifty years. But this is based on current birth rates, and in the developed world these rates are already at an all-time low. The low number of children per woman (currently under 2 in the US and UK) may extend to poorer countries as planned parenthood becomes more widespread and education levels among women rise. The greatest impact on population as a result of life extension is going to be in countries that have low fertility rates anyway, so the population change would not be as great as one might fear. The same fears of the dangers of overpopulation were expressed in the 1970s because of a population boom; the catastrophe never materialised however because the predictions failed to factor in technological and agricultural progress. In fact, although there are six times as many people on the planet now than there were in 1800, we have better quality of life than ever before. Social structures have been developed to deal with a lifespan where people retire at 65 and die at 80. As lifespan lengthens society will evolve with it, so that we may become used to not just two or three, but perhaps four or five generations around the table at a family reunion. Career structures would change, as people might choose to have a number of professions in their lifetime rather than one – this is already happening. Pension funds would make more long-term investments as people begin to draw a pension later in life, or continue to work and draw a reduced pension. The wisdom and experience of having more older individuals alive who are also likely to be healthier due to cutting edge research into what causes the body to age would benefit the work place, politics, education and psychology. Younger people would no longer feel under such pressure to juggle family and work, since there would be no sudden vertical drop in income level at 65. Living longer would mean people would be more keen to protect the environment since they would have to live in it longer, perhaps two centuries. Medical costs would plummet as the battle against age-related disease is won, since most governments spend the largest proportion of their health expenditure on cancer, strokes and heart disease.
Fears of overpopulation are not a sufficiently strong argument to reject life extension. It is possible that within 30 years science will have identified the major longevity genes and will have sound proof of what lifestyle patterns prolong life. Some experts calculate that some people alive today will be still alive 150 years from now. Will we be among them?