Extending Healthy Lifespan

April 21, 2019 Joe Brady

Throughout history mankind has held three great dreams, to put a man on the moon, to turn lead into gold and to extend healthy lifespan with some elixir of life. We have already achieved the first two dreams. The United States put the first man on the moon on July 20th 1969. Recently scientists have succeeded in evolving one element into another by knocking off electrons from their outer orbits, creating many new elements and even turning lead into gold. Unfortunately this process is much more expensive than the gold is worth, but they can do it.  Lastly, the dream of extending healthy lifespan is very quietly sneaking up on us. The discovery over the past fifty years that lifespan, aging and the quality of life are in large part determined by the quality of the way we live our lives on a daily basis.

This knowledge promises to change our world more profoundly than anything else in history. For a little background lets go back a few years. From the age of Neanderthal man to the census takers of ancient Rome, average life expectancies ranged from just 20- 40 years of age. As of the latest census figures , average life expectancies have risen to 84.23 years.  These numbers are for Japan and Hong Kong not for the United States.  Currently the U.S. is 31st in the world with a life expectancy of 79.3 years.  Spending more money than any other country on health care, you have to wonder how it is possible that others enjoy more of the benefits of longer, healthier lives more than we do?

Claude Bernard versus Louis Pasteur

At the end of the last century an fundamental shift in medical biology set the course for the predicament we are in today. In the 1860’s. French physiologist  Claude Bernard theorized that health was determined partly by the internal strength of an individual to respond to the challenges in the environment. Forsaking that idea, for more than a century modern medicine followed Louis Pasteur’s germ theory that disease could be traced to a single bacterium, virus or biochemical defect. This choice allowed great advances in medicine’s ability to poison and kill germs, cut out or replace defective parts unfortunately at enormous economic expense.  

By emphasizing technology and neglecting lifestyle we have driven health care costs to the point of absurdity. United states health care expenditures topped $3.5 trillion dollars in 2017. The barbarians are at the gate in health care and if we wish to avoid the fate of our Roman predecessors it is time to reevaluate.  Louis Pasteur on his deathbed even admitted that Bernard was right. That the health of an individual depended upon the strength, fitness and nourishment of  a healthy body. A strong mind and body are capable of fending off the onslaught of most (but not all) of the germs, viruses and other threats from the environment. Even when infected with the same cold virus only 18 out of every hundred people will actually get sick.  

Increasing longevity has resulted in a increase in the need for well developed, products, services, community, hospital and university based programs to keep older adults healthy and independant. Funding for such programs is scarce and the need exists for providers to combine their efforts. 

Slowing Down the Clock

We all age at different rates. Aging is not defined by the calendar. There are many examples of people that were old by the time they were thirty and others that there are many physiological and functional tests that have been used to measure the rate of aging.  The tests include cardiovascular fitness, endurance, flexible we take and measure every biological, psychological and functional aspect of the body and assume that at thirty years of age we are at our peak then normal aging is defined as declining at a rate of 2%/year after the age of thirty.  We could measure aging from time of birth. But for most of our life till age thirty we are growing presumably stronger and wiser until the age of thirty. From that time on for the vast majority of people, we begin a state of measurable decline. The candle begins to burn down. The rate at which we burn down the candle, however, is highly variable and with a little effort can be slowed. The result of literally thousands of studies into this phenomenon has identified other key biomarkers of aging that can be prevented and reversed using proper exercise.  Normally associated with aging is a loss of lean body mass, strength, basal metabolic rate, body fat percentage, aerobic capacity, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, HDL ratio, bone density, and body temperature regulation.  All of these biomarkers have been shown to be reversible with properly administered exercise, mainly by the increase in muscle tissue.   (Evans and Rosenberg 1991 A valuable biomarkers of aging, VO2 Max. declines at a predictable 1% per year after the age of 30.  The minimum level of VO2 Max. needed for independence is estimated at 12-14ml/kg/min. 

Maintaining Health = Independance

The typical sedentary person can expect to spend the last 10 years of their lives dependent and the last year completely dependent.  For sedentary older adults, walking can improve VO2 Max. by 10-30%. setting back the date of dependency by 10-20 years. Even small changes in VO2 Max can result in substantial improvements in activities of daily life in formerly sedentary individuals.  This applies to 92%of older adults in the U.S.  Moderate exercise has also been shown to increase average life expectancy by 2 years even if begThe test involves walking, first only a quarter mile then later up to one mile on a marked course. Keeping track of your time and your pulse rate. Basically, you need to balance your time and your heart rate together to score well. The faster your time and the lower your heart rate the better your VO2 MAX, and the more functionally younger you will test. The trick is to walk quickly but relaxed so that it is easy on your heart.

Studies have shown that Tai Chi not only improved the aerobic fitness of subjects but had also slowed the rate of aging in the heart, lungs, circulatory system and musculature of older adults who practiced it.  Although traditional forms of vigorous exercise have shown that people reach higher levels of fitness, they also age at a faster rate.  The T’ai Chi seems to slow the rate of aging decline beyond even that of other forms of physical activity.

Successful Aging

Successful aging is defined as aging at only half that rate or 1%/year. This makes a difference of 10-30 years in the onset of the age of disability, depending on whose research you wish to look at. We have control of much of the rate of aging because about 50% of normal aging is not truly aging but the result of sedentary lives.

Increases in healthy life expectancy for subjects has been shown in a number of studies and was summarized in The 1996 Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health.  The Surgeon General’s Report stated that moderate exercise showed a 23% decrease in mortality.

Preventing and reversing many of the aging-related changes that cause disability, frailty, and disease in older ages is now well within everyone’s grasp. The decision of whether to pursue high tech expensive remedies or take back control of our own health is in our own hands. Research into the effects of lifestyle factors and their effect on healthy genetic expression gives us more control of our own health on a personal level.  The way we live our lives on a daily basis alters gene expression for good or for ill.  Learning the effects of diet, exercise and other factors offer new possibilities. With something as complex as the issues involved in aging, the most appropriate and cost-effective intervention is to allow people to learn to take control of their own health. 

Whether we like it or not we are evolving into a longer living species. The only question remaining is whether the elderly become what Harry Moody of Hunter College calls the illderly or grow into the wellderly.