Under weirdly un-scientific-like circumstances, in a New Orleans nursing home, Benjamin is born as an elderly man, who by the looks of it, seemed like someone who is at the very fag end of his life. Not only is he born with a body and health of an old man but with emotions and feelings of one too. As time progresses, it’s revealed that he strangely ages backward. He grows younger and younger, livelier, more youthful, and more vivacious. The classic authored by F. Scott Fitzgerald explored the way our age dictates our identity i.e. who we are to a large extent is also governed by how old we are as of that moment. Despite depicting the concept of the most ‘natural’ (as we like to put it!) form of transformation i.e. aging, in the most unusual manner i.e. aging backward, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, leaves you with several interesting questions to ponder – how does the knowledge of our impending deaths affect the way we lead our lives at the moment? How do we perceive ourselves as we age? How do people around us accept us as we age? What parts of us stay and what parts are lost with age?
Wouldn’t it just be so cool, if only, somewhat like Benjamin Button, we could not age and stay young forever? Or maybe like a superhero either not age or age very slowly? However, we simply shudder at the very thought of old age, or so have we been conditioned to be. “Old age young man, that’s the way it is.”, responded one gentleman in his 70s to me, as I asked him something to do with his health while going down the elevator one fine morning. On the other hand, the most typical of all statements we get to hear from a parent “I won’t be around always.” or my dad's favorite "I have only so many years left" as he doesn't waste an opportunity to crack a joke on this!
Whenever we think of the later years of our life, the best that we fathom revolves around weakness, frailty, illness, sickness, pain, suffering et al. Enter the 60s and the nagging thought of our imminent end works like a ticking time bomb at the back of our heads. Touching 100? and ‘holy shit’ feeling crops up instantly along with images of ventilators, diapers, wheelchairs, walkers, surgery, and hospital bills flooding our minds. You meet people after people who will say that our modern lifestyle has cursed us with reduced lifespan and the probability of crossing the century mark is near zero. But what if the reality is different?
The reality is that decades after decades we have been adding years to our lifespan. At first 40 looked difficult but we crossed that. Then 50 looked tough we crossed that too. Then 60 then 70 then 80 became normal and now it’s not an uncommon sight to see people crossing 100. Just yesterday I saw a 102 yr old on TV waiting in the line for covid vaccination!
What if we didn’t have to see the fag end of our lives as the fag end? What if we could be younger longer? What if the final years didn’t look like the most harrowing phase of one’s life? What if in our 60s we stopped fretting over death? What if at 70 we didn’t have to worry about leaving a legacy but beginning one? These are just some of the questions that are on the brink of being answered by the medical fraternity and the cutting-edge research that scientists are doing is not simply about adding additional years but about prolonging vitality too!
“There is no reason to accept aging as inevitable... If a pill or a vaccine is not developed in the next 30 yrs to fight aging, something must have gone terribly wrong... Aging is going to happen... We are not going to live forever. But can we try to live another 5 or 10 or 20 yrs longer, healthily? Absolutely. There is no law that says we cannot live longer.” - as stated at HT Summit last year by David P. Sinclair, Professor at Department of Genetics in Harvard Medical School, and a co-director at the Paul Glenn Centre for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging, is one of the foremost authorities in the field of genetics and longevity.
TO CUT THE LONG STORY SHORT – what has been going on?
Through the ages, the science dudes have been trying to ratify hypotheses after hypotheses at the cellular and genetic level right from the idea of ‘mutation accumulation in the 1950s to mistakes during the DNA-copying process in the 1960s, ‘free radical theory of aging and the rise of antioxidants through 1970s and 1980s. In fact, scientists are still working on some or the other hypotheses even today to identify the causes of aging. Though there has been tremendous progress made in zeroing in on possible causes of aging however I won’t get into that because it gets mind-numbingly complex at the genetic level. But to cut the story short, we all have within us, what scientists term as the ‘longevity genes’ and they have found ways to trigger these genes in other organisms (on which testing and trials are conducted in labs). The scientists then extrapolate those hypotheses to humans also. They have discovered that ‘longevity genes’ won’t just make our life longer but also make it healthier. These genes form a kind of a network in our body, in which they constantly talk to each other releasing chemicals monitoring and responding to what we eat, how much we exercise, time of the day, calorie intake, etc. This fascinating knowledge of the existence of such genes in our bodies has given the opportunity to scientists/researchers to exploit them to work to our advantage. But what's even cooler is to note that by way of our habits, and wisdom these longevity genes can simply be tuned up and down like the volume control on a TV remote.
“There is a great reason for hope on the not-so-distant horizon but those battling against the ravages of aging right now must do so in a world in which most doctors have never even thought about why we age, let alone how to treat aging.” – David Sinclair
TO EXTEND THE SHORT LIFESPAN LONG – 5 things that you must do?
While referring to some sources of information and reading books, what was interesting to note is that the idea of longevity is a bit counter-intuitive to what the nutritionists have to say. Dan Buettner identified certain ‘Blue Zones’ in the world in the early twenty-first century. These are places researchers refer to as ‘longevity hot-spots’ i.e. places in the world that are centenarian-heavy, places where around thirty to forty percent of the population easily and healthily exceed the age of 90. Some of these are Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, Bama County in southern China. Some even call these “places where people forget to die.” The researcher fraternity has been trying to figure out what makes people in these places live longer to take any cues that they can take for the general population at large. And the good news is that with some minor changes in our perspective, our habits, our thinking we can begin to engage our longevity genes, starting right now.
Some salient points leading researchers swear by and for us to ponder on, when it comes to aging, are as follows -
1. Aging is just another disease: The medical fraternity and scientists around the world have increasingly begun to perceive age not as a 'natural phenomenon’ but instead as a ‘disease’. Aging is being viewed now as the most common killer of people and as a disease that should be aggressively treated. Instead of accepting the ideology that ‘age is just the way it is.’ and fighting for youth, we actually fight against death and have conceded ourselves to the power of aging by directing our fight for better health in other directions. That thinking needs to shift.
2. Eating Less: Restricting the intake of calories or calorie-restriction has known to extend the life of test subjects like mice. What these studies tell us is beyond the age of 40 molecularly the condition inside us begins to go downhill so it’s best to start to focus from that moment on. Obviously, the ‘not-needed calorie restriction in our diets will not only prevent cardiac issues, diabetes, stroke, cancer, etc but also benefit in longevity. So avoiding junk calories is an important step towards a longer and healthier life.
The calorie-restriction concept can also be extended to incorporating ‘periodic’ fasting – a condition in which you are not hungry all the time but using hunger some of the time to engage our longevity genes. Some studies have shown that restricting the calorie intake of a set of participants, resulted in lower levels of a hormone called Insulin Growth Factor or IGF-1. Levels of IGF-1 have shown to be linked to longevity. I try to fast once a week!
3. Go easy on proteins: I know my bodybuilding friends might go up in arms, but studies indicate that restricting the intake of amino or putting the body in a state of wanting more amino engages our longevity genes. This doesn’t mean eliminating protein from the diet altogether because that won’t help either. The point is to limit the intake of amino. There is no doubt that the popular ‘bad’ sources of protein like sausage, ham, bacon, red meat, hot dogs, etc have known to be carcinogenic for the body, however, studies reveal that from a longevity perspective even the ‘good’ sources of protein like chicken, fish, and eggs should be consumed in moderation. We can’t live without the essential amino acids, but we can do a great job at restricting their intake. Plant-based proteins have been given a thumbs-up for this, as they contain all nine essential amino acids but on a weight-to-weight comparison with animal protein, they contain low levels of them, enough to keep our longevity genes engaged. Even if you are on those protein shakes, you may want to give monthly breaks off-and-on, to begin with!
4. Don’t forget your workout: In order to exploit the full potential of the longevity genes inside us, intentional application of stress by way of some form of exercise on a daily basis is a must. Apart from adding stress on the body, it activates the survival network, turns up energy production, forces muscles to grow extra oxygen-carrying capillaries, engages and keeps the longevity genes triggered in the right direction irrespective of calorie intake improving overall health.
One study indicated that people who ran for four to five miles a week – for most this is running for 15 min a day – reduced the chances of death from a heart attack by 40 percent and all-cause mortality by 45 percent. Another study examined the medical records of 55,000 people and cross-referenced them with the death certificates issued over fifteen years. Among the 3500 deaths, researchers weren’t surprised to see that those who had told their doctors they were runners were far less likely to die of heart diseases. Even when researchers adjusted this for obesity and smoking, the runners were less likely to have died during this study. The real insight was that health benefits were remarkably similar irrespective of how much running people had done. Even about ten minutes a day added years to their lives!
5. Don't break the DNA: Firstly, amongst all the 'bad' habits that we have, smoking is by far the worst on a genetic level and that's precisely the reason why smokers indeed age faster than non-smokers. The instability caused by this to the DNA results in accelerated aging. No wonder the adage that 'Smoking one cigarette reduces your life by one day.' exists. However, even passive smoking results in a high proportion of damage in comparison to active.
Secondly, another DNA-damaging activity is in the use of plastics, including plastic bottles and take-out containers in our daily lives. So, try avoiding even microwaving the microwaveable plastics at home (that is only a marketing gimmick!)
Thirdly, avoiding any natural or human-inflicted form of radiation such as UV-light, X-rays, gamma rays can result in additional DNA damage. However, rightly so, there are some forms of radiation it is just not possible to avoid, like radiations radon particles and cosmic rays. Sadly, in our modern lifestyle, trying even to follow the most 'natural' way of living makes it inevitable for DNA damage.
Though there are a host of intricate things apart from the few basic ones, as highlighted above, that we can do in order to start acting towards longevity and prolonged vitality but with the advancements in the curious science of aging the path forward also leaves us deliberating on some questions like – What would happen if we had a few more decades added to our lives? How would we wish to spend the 60 years that we would get post the current retirement age? Will we still follow the path that will lead to our doom or focus our efforts to create a beautiful world? Would we still try to give back to society in those added years? What if a pill gives the billions of people those extra years only to cause even greater damage to our planet?
With that thought, I’ll conclude this long one by quoting Sinclair from his book Lifespan
“This fight against aging is not about fighting or cheating death but about prolonging healthy life and giving more people the chance to meet death on far better terms – indeed on their own terms, quickly and painlessly, when they are ready.”
Footnotes: I highly recommend you to read the book Lifespan by David Sinclair, at the earliest.