It’s no longer just the dream of tech billionaires like Google founder Sergey Brin. The idea of living to 120 is now becoming the ambition of Everyman, and some researchers believe it’s within reach. If this sounds like it’s from the realms of science fiction, two major shifts in longevity and health have recently been announced that suggest the scientists may be on to something.
For one, we’re living longer. The US Census Bureau estimates that the average American can expect to live for 79.5 years by 2020, which is an extraordinary increase from the average life expectancy of just 70.8 years in 1970, a rise of nearly 10 years in the last 50 years alone.
And a major Australian study found that, for the first time in history, more of us are dying from non-communicable diseases (NCD) than from infectious ones. Each year, around 38 million people die from an NCD—like cancer or heart disease—a figure that equates to two-thirds of all deaths around
As many NCDs are caused by poor lifestyle choices, such as a bad diet, smoking or lack of exercise, this suggests that living a long and healthy life is very much in our own hands.
In fact, a study into the causes of cancer supports this view. Researchers from the Stony Brook University Cancer Center in New York found that up to 90 percent of cancers are caused by environmental or lifestyle factors. In other words, cancer is generally not down to bad luck or
having bad genes—it’s down to us, and how we choose to live.
The researchers ran four different computer models and the results were all in the same ballpark, with only 10 to 30 percent of cancers being the result of cell mutations. Nearly 75 percent of colorectal cancers are due to poor diet, 86 percent of skin cancers are from overexposure to the sun, and 75 percent of head and neck cancers are down to smoking or alcohol.2
The US National Institute on Aging (NIA) says: “Disease and disability were once considered an inevitable part of growing older, but that is no longer true.”
The five golden rules
The idea that lifestyle has a lot to do with longevity is supported by the statistics, which show that the biggest clusters of the long-lived are found in countries that have a good diet and close-knit communities. Japan has the world’s highest proportion of centenarians—with 42 per 100,000 people—followed closely by France, which boasts 36 per 100,000. The US has the most centenarians—53,364 were verified in 2010—but this is more a reflection of its large population, as the incidence rate is just 17 per 100,000.
While the number of centenarians accounted for in Japan may be false and inflated by benefit fraud, the true figure is still high—the country’s Shimane Prefecture has double the number and, in Okinawa Prefecture, it’s 92 percent higher.
Intrigued by the Okinawa figures, researchers concluded that five factors influenced longevity in
1) A diet of predominantly grains, fish and vegetables
2) A low-stress lifestyle
3) A close and caring community in which the elderly are not isolated—the Japanese often live with the concept of moai, which translates to ‘meeting for a common purpose’
4) High levels of physical activity, which includes a later retirement age, exercise and hobbies like gardening
5) A sense of purpose, including spiritual beliefs—the Japanese often refer to ikigai, which roughly translates to ‘a life worth living.’3
These five concepts come up again and again in research on longevity, and seem to form the five golden rules for living a long and healthy life. They’ve even been supported by research.
1) A healthy diet
Scores of studies have demonstrated that a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Mediterranean diet, can increase your chances of a long and healthy life. In one study, researchers discovered that those who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet, which also includes fresh fish, nuts and olive oil, were 22 percent less likely to die from any disease, including cancer and heart problems.4
In another study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore discovered the positive impact that a good diet can have when they studied the lifestyle of the Yi, an indigenous people in southwestern China. The Yi are interesting for several reasons: they almost never develop high blood pressure (hypertension), and some have migrated to cities where they’ve given up their traditional ways, providing a perfect comparison for assessing the effects of their lifestyle.
The traditional Yi diet is rice, a bit of meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables. They also eat grains like oats and buckwheat. This diet helps keep blood pressure under control, the researchers concluded, after measuring the blood pressure of those still living in a rural environment and those Yi people who had moved to a city, and comparing both against blood pressure readings of Han people living in another part of China. Yi farmers had the lowest blood pressure, while Han blood pressure increased as they got older—but that of the Yi people who had moved to a city and adopted a different lifestyle was “dramatically higher,” the researchers found. Drinking alcohol had a devastating effect on the Yi city dwellers, with daily alcohol consumption alone contributing to a 33 percent rise in blood pressure.5
2) Avoiding stress
Raised levels of stress over long periods contribute to a range of diseases we usually associate with aging, such as heart disease, cancer, dementia and stroke. A lifetime of work-related stress—for instance, having a difficult boss, or feeling trapped or disempowered—can accelerate the progress of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart failure.6 Higher levels of cortisol, a hormone released when the body is under stress, are often seen in heart-attack patients, and stress can also increase blood pressure, create harmful free radicals and raise levels of homocysteine, which can damage the inner linings (endothelium) of arterial walls.
A long-term, large-scale study in Japan found that women who said they were highly stressed were more than twice as likely to have a fatal stroke compared with those who said they weren’t stressed, and were nearly twice as likely to have a fatal heart attack.
Japanese men fared only slightly better, with those reporting high stress levels being around 1.5 times more likely to die of a heart attack.7
A similar picture has been found for cancer. Studies have identified an association between chronic stress and psychosocial factors and the development or progression of several cancers, including prostate cancer, and angiogenesis, the new blood-vessel growth crucial for tumors to spread.8 The evidence is even stronger for breast cancer. Women with advanced cancer have higher daytime levels of cortisol and are likely to die one year sooner than those with normal cortisol levels.9
One of the most compelling examples of the effects of isolation has become known as the ‘Roseto effect.’ Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, is unremarkable in many ways except one: in the 1960s, its inhabitants had far less heart disease than the US national average.
In 1966, when researchers started to take an interest in the town, cases of heart disease among Roseto men aged 55 to 64—the prime years for the disease—were virtually zero at a time when it was already the biggest killer in the West.
The phenomenon made no sense. Most of the men were working in a slate quarry, and their diets were appalling, with sausages and meatballs cooked in lard as a staple of their daily meals. Not surprisingly, their cholesterol levels were high, but it wasn’t triggering heart disease.
The secret of Roseto became apparent only when the town became wealthier and its residents began moving to bigger houses on the edge of town or out of town entirely. Before then, three generations lived under the same roof, with the elderly venerated and well looked after. The townspeople also did everything together—from evening walks to social clubs and church festivals. There was also considerable conformity, with no outward displays of wealth.
But once the Rosetons moved to bigger homes and started to live the American nuclear-family lifestyle, rates of heart disease quickly jumped and the healthy phenomenon disappeared.10
Keeping active can help prolong your life and keep you healthy. And fortunately, it doesn’t take much: one study found that walking or cycling for more than 30 minutes a day reduces your chances of dying prematurely by 40 percent. These findings were based on a survey of nearly 15,000 men born between 1923 and 1932, whose health and physical activity levels were first recorded in 1972–1973, then repeated in 2000 before tracking the men for a further 12 years.11 Another study found that those at a healthy weight who stay regularly active live, on average, seven years longer than sedentary people.12
An early pioneer of exercise research and its impact on longevity was Dr Ralph Paffenbarger, who began his investigations in the 1960s. At the time, the prevailing view was that strenuous exercise was bad for the elderly, but his initial research, which involved almost 17,000 people, concluded that death rates fell as the number of calories burned every week increased.13
5) A sense of purpose/spiritual beliefs
One study has found that people with a strong sense of purpose are 23 percent less likely to die prematurely of any disease and have a 19 percent reduced chance of a heart attack or stroke. The researchers defined a sense of purpose as having “meaning and direction, and a feeling that life is worthwhile”. The converse is also true: those with a low sense of purpose or who view life as meaningless are more likely to die prematurely, or suffer a stroke or heart attack.14
Similarly, having a positive outlook has a profound influence on your health and longevity. Positive thoughts create more telomerase, an enzyme that helps maintain the long-term health of our body’s cells. Cells die when levels of this enzyme are too low. If you find a positive outlook hard to come by, meditation is one way to restore a good mood and increase telomerase activity, say researchers from the University of California at Davis. They based their conclusion on a study of 30 meditators whose health was later compared to a similar number of non-meditators.15
Money can buy me life
The latest investment craze among high-tech billionaires is for exploring ways to extend the human lifespan, not least for themselves.
•Peter Thiel, PayPal’s co-founder, has invested $6 million in the SENS Research Foundation, which is exploring ways to extend life expectancy. He has set his own personal ambition to live to 120, and is taking human growth hormones, adheres to the Paleo diet, doesn’t eat sugar, drinks only red wine and runs most days.
•Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, is investing in the new biotech company Calico, which is tackling the problems of aging. Brin and others have invested up to $1.5 biilion in a research facility for Calico. He has a special interest in aging: he carries a genetic mutation that raises his risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
•Larry Ellison, co-founder of computer company Oracle, created the Ellison Medical Foundation to support aging research, investing $335 million. Now age 70, Ellison says he has stopped investing.
•J. Craig Venter, tech billionaire and investor, created the new company Human Longevity, Inc., in 2014 to promote healthy aging through advances in genomics and stem-cell treatments.
•Dmitry Itskov, a Russian internet mogul, is investing in a bold vision: to make a digital copy of a person’s brain as part of a life-like avatar that doesn’t age. He has set up a company—2045 Initiative—to highlight the year he thinks he will have achieved this unlikely feat.
Living long on supplements
The US National Institute on Aging has identified three therapies it believes to have the greatest potential for extending life. It will research them over the next five years and publish the findings in 2020.
Two of the three are drugs—aspirin and rapamycin, developed to help the body accept new organs after transplantation—and the third is MitoQ, an antioxidant formula. They will be tested for “their significant potential to delay or decelerate the aging process and improve general health,” says principal researcher Randy Strong at the Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
MitoQ is a molecule developed more than 15 years ago by Dr Mike Murphy and Rob Smith at Otago University in New Zealand. It’s supposed to optimize mitochondria—often described as the powerhouses that drive our cells—by flooding them with antioxidants, especially coenzyme Q10. As Greg Macpherson, managing director of MitoQ Ltd in New Zealand, said: “Mitochondria are intricately linked to the aging process. If we can improve the way they function and slow free-radical leakage, we may slow down the aging process, and keep all of our organs and body healthier and younger for longer.”
It has been tested in hundreds of animal and laboratory studies, and two human trials are currently underway. In one study of mice with autoimmune encephalomyelitis (an experimental model of multiple sclerosis), the antioxidant improved neurological disabilities caused by the disease and also reduced inflammatory markers.1
Fasting to a long life
A mini-fast once in a while—such as skipping a meal or cutting down on your food intake—could help you live longer. Occasional fasting raises the number of SIRT3 genes, which promote longevity and protect cells, say researchers from the University of Florida.
The mini-fast—thought to have the same benefits as a full-blown fast—triggers small stress responses, which build protective pathways and bolster the immune system. It also lowers levels of insulin, a hormone the pancreas produces to burn carbohydrates (as glucose) and also to store it for future use, keeping blood sugar levels in check, so having an antidiabetic effect as well.
The benefits of the mini-fast were discovered when researchers recruited 24 adults who alternated, for three weeks, between eating just 25 percent of their usual daily caloric intakes and having 75 percent more than their usual daily intakes. This translated into just 650 calories during fasting days and 4,550 during feast days.1
The DHEA controversy
DHEA (dehydroepian-drosterone) is made from cholesterol by our adrenal glands, and converted into the ‘sex’ hormones testosterone and estrogen. DHEA production in the body peaks in our 20s, then gradually declines over the years.
Some believe this decline is directly responsible for the aging process and can be countered by taking DHEA supplements. For them, it’s the supplement of eternal youth, but critics say it’s nothing more than quackery.
A two-year study concluded that the supplements had no “physiologically relevant beneficial effects on body
Who wants to live to 1,000?
Others think all this is too simplistic, and that the answer lies in the human genome and manipulation of our DNA. Google has launched a new company, Calico (California Life Company), to explore ways to reverse-engineer the biology that controls our lifespan. It’s being tight-lipped about how it plans to do this, but its partnership with a biotech company suggests the solution will be drug-based.
Other players in the field include Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation, or SENS for short, which is headed by eccentric—some say visionary—Aubrey de Grey. He maintains that the world is in a “pro-aging trance,” assuming that aging is inevitable when, in fact, it’s just another medical problem. He claims that the first person who will live to age 1,000 is already living.
Unlikely as that sounds, we now have the knowledge to extend our lifespan to 90 and perhaps 100, while remaining in good health. And it starts—and probably ends—with the five golden rules of longevity.