Living Longer : In developed nations, the average life expectancy has increased by 30 years over the last century, from about 50 to 80 years old. Antibiotics, improved sanitation, vaccines, and other advancements have made it possible for a large number of people to survive infectious diseases that once killed them as children. (In the United States, however, the COVID pandemic caused the span to decrease by almost three years, demonstrating the ability of infections to shorten life.)
Overall, longer life spans have been beneficial to public health. However, they have also brought about a brand-new, significant gap: healthspans, which are typically measured as the amount of life without a chronic illness or disability, do not always correspond with lifespans. I am well aware of this fact, having cared for a relative with Alzheimer’s for the past twelve years.
According to one estimate, an American who expects to live to 79 years old may first experience serious illness at 63 years old, based on the World Health Organization’s healthy life expectancy indicator. That could equate to fifteen years, or twenty percent of life, spent ill. Aging is, in fact, the primary risk factor for dementia, heart disease, and cancer.
The varying environments bring about natural variations in the majority of these factors. Genes also contribute, making up roughly 25% of the variability and even more in extreme situations. (Smokers who live a very long time most likely hit the genetic lottery.) In summary, some people age biologically more quickly than others, which increases their vulnerability to illness and disability.
How is biological age determined? Chemical alterations to DNA are one type of molecular marker, according to Morgan Levine, a computational biologist at San Diego’s Altos Labs. Do your cells possess chemical markers comparable to those found in individuals in their 20s, 30s, or 40s?”she queries.
This disparity can be partially attributed to the long-standing emphasis on treating specific illnesses in clinical practice and biomedical research, which can prolong life but not necessarily health.
In the last ten years, the field of geroscience—the biology of aging—has led medicine to adopt a new strategy. According to University of Illinois at Chicago longevity expert Jay Olshansky, “we’re saying our focus should be on extending healthy life rather than just length of life, and slowing aging is the tool to do it.” Every tissue and organ in our body has molecular and cellular processes that dictate our lives and health spans. These “pillars of aging” are stress responses, inflammation, aging or senescence of individual cells, and damage to DNA.
According to geroscientists, medication or therapy is not yet slowing down or reversing the foundations of aging. However, there are some prospects that excite them. Senescent cells, for example, are the target of senolytic medications because they are non-dividing cells that remain in the body rather than being eliminated by the immune system. These “zombie cells,” according to research, secrete proteins that harm the health of other cells. Osteoarthritis, cancer, and dementia have all been connected to zombies. Senolytics were used in a 2015 study to eliminate senescent cells from mice, which helped to delay, prevent, or treat a number of disorders. Researchers are cautious because clinical trials are in progress in humans but won’t be finished for years. They also point out the lack of evidence to support popular wellness claims about “prolonging your youth.”
Preventive maintenance is a consistent and predictable approach to prolonging health. As for body fat percentage, lean body mass, and bone density, experts advise getting regular checkups, monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol, and adhering to recommendations like those published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The University of Washington Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute’s founding director and current chief executive officer of the health tech startup Optispan, Matt Kaeberlein, advises, “Know where you are, so if something needs to be tweaked, you can take steps to do that.”
You are also familiar with those steps: the four main components are common sense nutrition, sleep, exercise, and social interaction. According to Kaeberlein, “those things work because they modulate the biology of aging.” Regular, low- to moderate-intensity exercise, for instance, can help prevent type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. How much better can our health get with these steps?