You can live much longer. here’s why
Phil Mickelson just won the PGA Championship at age 50. Tom Brady won the Super Bowl at 43. Serena Williams is a big tennis star at 39. Joe Biden entered the presidency at 78. Last year, Bob Dylan released a great album at age 79.
Clearly, we are all learning to adjust our concept of age. People live longer, stay healthier longer, and accomplish things late in life that once seemed possible only at a younger age. And it’s not just superstars. The fraction of those over 85 in the United States classified as disabled declined by a third between 1982 and 2005, while the share of institutionalized fell by almost half.
Researchers distinguish between “chronological age” – how old the calendar says you are – and “biological age” – how old your body looks based on measures of organ function and other markers.
It turns out that people vary a lot. In a study of over 1,000 New Zealanders, the slowest participant had only 0.40 biological years for each chronological year, while the fastest had 2.44 biological years per calendar year. This is largely influenced by genetics, environment, and lifestyle.
Aging more slowly
Overall, people seem to age more slowly than before. Eileen M. Crimmins of the University of Southern California and Morgan E. Levine of Yale compared the ages of men aged 60 to 79 from 1988 to 1994 and from 2007 to 2010. T
They found that in recent years, the men studied had a biological age four years younger than men in the early years, in part because of improved lifestyle and medication. This suggests that not only are people living longer, but also staying healthier for longer.
On some level, better health and longevity is an old story. In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was around 47 years and now it is around 78. But we may also be on the cusp of something new.
During the 20th century, we mainly contributed to longevity by fighting diseases. In the first half of the century, vaccines and other innovations prevented people from dying young from communicable diseases. In the second half, lifestyle improvements and other medical breakthroughs kept many people from dying in middle age from heart attacks and cancer.
But while these improvements have made people more likely to live to age 65, after that, aging itself takes an inexorable toll. Even if you beat lung cancer or survive a heart attack, the deterioration of your body will finish you off before too long. The average 80-year-old man suffers from about five illnesses.
That’s why even if we could totally cure cancer, it would add less than three years to the average life expectancy. A full recovery from heart disease would give us two more years at best.
The longevity train
To keep the longevity train rolling, it may not be enough to cure disease. We may also need to address the underlying condition of aging itself, which is, after all, the primary risk factor for decline in late life.
S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helped define aging as “the accumulation of random damage to the building blocks of life – especially DNA. , certain proteins, carbohydrates and lipids (fats) – which starts early in life and eventually exceeds the body’s self-healing capabilities.
The question becomes, this week, Olshansky emailed me, “While there are no documented interventions that have been shown to be safe and effective in slowing aging in humans today, we are on the verge of a breakthrough. “
This is a point of view shared by Andrew Steele, author of “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old”. It describes a series of experimental interventions designed to slow down the biological processes that are part of aging.
For example, as we age, we build more and more “senescent” cells, which secrete inflammatory molecules capable of effectively accelerating aging. In 2011, researchers removed these cells from mice and extended their lifespan. Clinical trials in humans began in 2018.
“Dealing with aging sounds like science fiction until you hear about the latest developments in the biology of aging,” Steele writes. He adds: “The crucial time comes if we can begin to develop and deploy anti aging treatments that mean life expectancy increases by one year per year. That would mean, on average, that our date of death would roll back into the future as fast as we all were looking for. “
An era of slow aging could present real challenges. There are already vast health inequalities. A 25-year-old white male with less than 12 years of schooling has a 61% chance of reaching 65. A 25-year-old white male with 16 years of schooling or more has a 91% chance.
Given who receives quality health care in this country, I wonder if the college class would leap even further.
Yet despite the disparities, it is likely that all Americans could live longer and healthier lives. I imagine an 80-year-old jumping out of bed, biking in the morning and playing softball in the afternoon.
We are all on probation. More time is more life, and more time will be sweet.
David Brooks is a renowned political and cultural commentator