Locking down a longer life

Written by Stephen Corby for Australian Seniors

When you’re young, getting older generally only twinges once a year on your birthday, but as we age, it can ring alarm bells every time you make those strange, involuntary sounds when getting up out of a chair. 

Increasingly, however, the young and super wealthy, particularly the tech titans of Silicon Valley, are turning their laser focus on doing away with it. Reversing ageing. Making death optional.

If you were a worm, or a mouse, you could pay a scientist to fix ageing for you right now. In the early 1990s, scientists found that a single gene mutation in a tiny nematode worm could extend its life, and eventually managed to do so by a factor of 10 (with mice, similar fiddling doubled their lifespan).

A similar result with the more complex human body would see at least those of us who could afford the gene therapy living to 1,000. Indeed, Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of longevity medical charity the Methuselah Foundation, has confidently declared that the first person to reach that age has already been born.

His foundation’s plan to end ageing is called SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) and focuses on the idea that mitochondrial free radicals are the main driving force behind our bodies deteriorating, and that they can be stopped, or at least slowed. 

This work has drawn a major funding from Silicon Valley, where ageing is seen as just another problem computers can solve. A few years ago, Dr Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a healthcare hedge fund, declared his belief that ageing was encoded. “If something is encoded, you can crack the code,” he said. “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code! Thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end ageing, forever.” 

One of the world’s leading experts on extending life is Australian-born Professor David Sinclair, who is based at the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. “Ageing is a disease that’s treatable; ageing is a loss of information. We actually think we’ve found the backup hard drive, and we can reset the body,” says Professor Sinclair, author of the bestselling book Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To.

“I absolutely refuse to say, ‘Oh well, that’s the way it goes.’ Now we can prevent it and treat it just like every other disease we’ve been fighting, which could have the biggest impact on human health since antibiotics and public sanitation.”

The professor’s research aims to slow, stop and even reverse the ageing process at a molecular level. The key is activating anti-ageing genes called sirtuins, which could be switched on both by lifestyle changes (he’s a fan of intermittent fasting and high-intensity exercise), as well as taking supplements that boost NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide). Plus, he suggests a treatment called resveratrol.

He’s also interested In Turritopsis dohrnii, an ‘immortal jellyfish’ that can effectively de-age itself by hitting a kind of molecular reset button that returns it to a younger stage. Professor Sinclair believes that reset button could be hidden in our bodies as well, we just haven’t found it yet.

While the idea of not dying sounds appealing, extending the human lifespan could have unintended consequences, beyond the obvious issues around overpopulation. Bryan Turner is a professor of sociology and religion in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University, and while he’s 77 and still working full-time, he doesn’t see living forever as anything more than a “fantasy”.

“The majority of people, I suspect, would immediately warm to the prospect of immortality, however, there is an equally important follow-up question that gets ignored: living forever under what conditions?” Professor Turner asks.

“Old age is typically accompanied by a cascade of problems that require medical attention – including incontinence, memory loss, osteoporosis, and so on. As Bette Davis famously put it, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies.’”

Downsides of immortality

There are also compelling arguments against living forever, including loneliness and even boredom – what if you can afford to live longer, but your family and friends can’t? “Then there’s the issue of inequality, because long life will be for the rich, the beautiful and the famous. It is unlikely that a public health service could provide rejuvenative medicine without a massive increase in taxation. Privatised medicine would obviously have to fill the gap,” he says. “And would rejuvenative medicine mean that the extremely old will have to work forever, as they live forever?”

Another expert who dismisses the idea of human immortality is Australia’s physician-turned-journalist, Dr Norman Swan. His new book So You Want to Live Younger Longer? sums up his belief that “felt age”, or how old you seem to be, is more important than chronological age.

“Most of us don’t want to live long at any costs, we want to live long if they’re good years. It’s like buying a car that’s 10 years old, but it’s only been driven to the shops a couple of times a week, so it’s a very young car. Living longer younger is about more than just the number of years you’ve got on the clock,” he says.

On the question of why women live longer than men, Dr Swan says we’re looking at it the wrong way. “It’s not so much that women live longer but that men live shorter lives, because it looks as though testosterone is associated with a slightly shorter lifespan. And that cuts across a lot of different animals, so it’s not just about the fact that testosterone results in risk-taking and aggressive behaviour.”

And what about the theory that you’re only going to live to a ripe old age if your parents or grandparents did so? “Genes matter far less than you think in terms of living longer younger – it’s not 100% or even 80% of it. Environment plays a big role. Getting to your late 90s is more about how you’ve lived, not about genes or things out of your control.” Promisingly, people are living longer in general, and that’s thanks to some surprising factors. Dr Swan draws a distinction between life expectancy, a statistic that has increased over the past century because fewer people die as children, or in childbirth, and life span. 

“Better obstetric care pushed up life expectancy in the 19th century, but that’s an average. What didn’t change was life expectancy at 50. In 1890, if you were 50, your chances of making it to 70 did not change between then and 1950,” he says.

“That’s what’s changed now, we’ve improved life span beyond 50, and now what’s expanding is life span beyond 70, and 80. An 80-year-old today, their chances of dying in the next 12 months are about the same as someone who was 60, back 50 years ago.”

Educate your way to longer life

While medical science takes some of the credit, Dr Swan is intrigued by the role of education. “Since World War II, more people have completed high school, more people go on to further education, and the figures show that the more you’re educated, the longer you live,” he says.

“You live a healthier life for longer, you get dementia later, you suffer less from heart disease and cancer and you’re younger physically, and that’s because you’re more in control of your life, you have more money and you understand the world better.”

“People underestimate the influence of your brain on the physical aspects of your body. If you feel out of control of your life, you’ve got a lousy job and no money, you’re under stress. That affects your brain, it takes in that information and it physically gives those messages to the rest of the body – chemical messages, hormones.”

“It sounds like soft science, but it’s not. Your psychological frame of mind affects your physical state, and there’s hard science behind that.”

Research into centenarians has also shown that people who live beyond 100 share a certain mental approach, Dr Swan says. “People tend to think, ‘Oh, they must have had an easy life,’ but many of them don’t, they have adversity, but what they have in common is that they get over stuff, they don’t fester, they don’t stay angry and bitter, and that seems to be one of the features of people who age well.” He also points out that living a long life is “orchestral”, a matter of many factors – diet, exercise, sleep – all working together. Which is why it has taken him a whole book to sum up all the various, science-based advice he’s found for living longer.

So what age does Dr Swan, who is 69, want to live to? If he doesn’t believe 1,000 is possible, would 100 do? “I’ll take what I can get. I want to be around for as long as I can, because I’m just very curious – I want to be here to see what happens next, I don’t want to miss anything.”  

Case Study

Sydneysider Ruth Zionzee, 91, a Distinguished Life Fellow of the Australian College of Nursing, on how to live a long, fulfilling life. 

I’m currently in Lightning Ridge. There’s an opal gem festival every year and as a member of the Historical Society, I’ve been coming here for many years to show support and help at the stall they run.

I like to stay active – every Monday I play tennis, every Friday Zumba and I volunteer with Anglicare every second Wednesday.

I just enjoy life, I’m happy. Every day is a great day, and I always tell a joke a day. (Here’s one: what did the canary say when its new cage split apart? “Cheap cheap”)

I’m a silver medallist for general nursing [awarded at her graduation ceremony in 1954]. The award has never been given before or since.

Some people tell me I’m a silver medallist for telling rotten jokes!

I’ve never smoked or drunk alcohol – I don’t know if that’s contributed to my wellbeing. To keep well, I think you’ve got to keep an eye on your weight, not eat rubbish, and stay positive.

My only real health issue is my vocal cord muscles have collapsed, so it’s difficult to speak. I get injections every 12 weeks to help. They use Botox – I always tell my doctor that if there’s any spare left in the syringe, he can just splash the rest around! 

Seven top tips for living longer by Dr Norman Swan

  1. Do the basics, don’t die of an avoidable cause. Know your blood pressure, your cholesterol and your waist circumference and keep them under control. 
  2. Don’t smoke burnt plants of any kind, and that includes vaping – smoking hugely speeds up ageing. 
  3. Create a calorie gap in your life, either by intermittently eating frugally – eating a little bit less than you need to – or by exercising more. Use exercise and diet together to create a calorie gap. 
  4. Maintain friendships and social contact, and take an interest in the world. Be mentally active, because increasing your cognitive capacity tells your body to stay young. 
  5. Get high-quality sleep. It’s not about duration – we’ve been misled into thinking that if you get six hours or less a night it’s bad for you, but it turns out it’s more about sleep quality than quantity. 
  6. Keep your body clock in sync. Bad eating habits – eating late at night in front of the TV – are not good. Eat at regular times. 
  7. Maintain diversity in your diet, as your microbiome helps run a youthful body. As you age, the tendency is to eat a simpler diet, and that gives you a less- complex, pro-ageing microbiome.

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