From the ancient Taoist alchemists to modern molecular biology the science of gerontology has sought after mankind’s oldest dream, to live to a ripe old age with the health and vigor of youth. Closer now than ever before, many scientists believe we are on the cusp of dramatically altering the way we age, and many like former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop believe we already have the knowledge to empty half the hospitals and half the nursing homes in the country.
From the genetics of aging to exercise physiology and combating sarcopenia and maintaining the functional ability to the extension of lifespan by nutrient density and diet, much can be done now to ensure a healthy longevity and improve the quality of life.
Throughout history mankind has held three great dreams, to put a man on the moon, to turn lead into gold and to eliminate the ravages of aging with the elixir of life.
The United States put the first man on the moon on July 20th, 1969. Since then we’ve discovered that it may be more expensive than it is worth so we haven’t been back in a long time. Scientists have also 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 also much more expensive than the gold is worth, but they can do it. Lastly, one of the greatest advances in scientific history is very quietly sneaking up on us. The discovery over the past fifty years that lifespan, aging and the quality of life are not predetermined but flexible. Intervention in the aging process is not only possible but it is happening. We are all aging very differently than our parents did and radically different than any generation in history. Whether we like it or not we are evolving into a longer living species. This fact promises to change our world more profoundly than anything else in history. The only question remaining is whether the elderly become what Harry Moody of Hunter College calls the illderly or grow into the wellderly.
For a little background, let’s 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. Early skeletons from caveman day’s show that on average they died at the tender age of sixteen. By the Roman Empire life expectancies were only about 22 years old and by 1900 it was 40 years old. Currently, life expectancy in the U.S. is 79.3 and falling. This year will be the third year in a row that life expectancy in the US has fallen. We tend to think of ourselves as enjoying longer lives than the rest of the world but currently, the US is only 31st. in the world for life expectancy. You can expect to live longer and healthier in Costa Rica, Taiwan, Chile, Slovenia, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, France, Singapore, and Japan among others.
Implications for Healthcare in an aging population
The population of the United States is rapidly aging. This can either be seen as a blessing or a curse. If we continue to age with the current rates of disability and disease. the increases in healthcare costs will skyrocket and bankrupt us. People fall into two camps on health care issues. Those who think they have good health and insurance seem to bury their heads in the sand are ready to shoot any messenger with bad news. When I talk to those that have been burned recently or those who work in healthcare, they fear the train wreck that is coming if we don’t soon find another track.
Many other countries are passing us in life expectancy because they don’t have costly health care systems to support. Countries like Japan, Hong Kong, Costa Rica and even Cuba have greater life expectancies than we do and their people can even smile and have sex without Viagra and Prozac. By doing our part and emphasizing diet, exercise, and prevention, we too could enjoy longer, healthier lives.
Intervention in the aging process is the wave of the future. 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 up to us.
Empowerment oriented interventions are key
Dr. Robert Butler, former head of The National Institute of Aging, said that “personal
power” (having control over one’s life) is one of the least talked about factors in living long. As we get older, we need to gain a sense of mastery over our lives. For life to make sense, we have to synthesize what we have learned through a lifetime of experiences. Knowledge is power, but only if we act upon that knowledge do we claim the power of what we know, as our own. To achieve a healthy longevity, we need to use our knowledge to enhance control of our own lives not to become slaves to our own technology. Our actions will set the example for generations to come. The most valuable legacy we can leave future generations is to guide technology to serve people, not to let technology rule our lives.
Research into the effects of lifestyle factors and their effect on healthy genetic expression give 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 for empowering individuals to take control of their own health.