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This site is a special project of the American Geriatrics Society created to focus on the special health care needs of older adults. The site includes a section called Aging in the Know offering information on common diseases and disorders that affect older adults and practical questions and tips that will help you to work with your healthcare provider.
The Alliance is a national, citizen advocacy organization offering free publications including Investing in Older Women's Health, Meeting the Medical Needs of the Senior Boom, Delaying the Diseases of Aging, and other aging-related subjects such as menopause and how to age with ease.
AFAR is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting basic aging research. AFAR funds a wide variety of cutting-edge research on the aging process and age-related diseases. Visit the website for a list of free publications.
ASA is a nonprofit organization providing information about medical and social practice, research, and policy pertinent to the health of older people. Membership and subscriptions to Generations, a quarterly journal, and Aging Today, the Society's bimonthly news magazine, are available to the public. A catalog of books for sale and other educational materials is available on the website.
GSA is a professional organization providing information, advocacy, and support for research into the study of aging. GSA has a database of information on biological and social aspects of aging, links to aging information resources, and referrals to researchers and specialists in gerontology.
NHGRI, part of NIH, coordinates the Human Genome Project, an international research effort to characterize the genomes of human and selected model organisms through complete mapping and sequencing of their DNA.
National Institute on Aging (NIA) is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health. Their mission is to lead broad scientific efforts to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life.
ThirdAge Inc. is an online media and direct marketing company focused exclusively on serving the needs of midlife adults -- generally those in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Topics on the site cover relationships, romance, health, wellness, well-being, spirituality, and personal growth and development.
Episode number: 
311

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Transcript: 
Longevity (transcript)

Are people genetically programmed to live a certain number of years?  Can lifestyle overcome genetics when it comes to longevity?  Is it possible to not only live longer but live better?

As the number of senior citizens in the United Stated rapidly increases, so too does our level of angst over what the future holds. The first of the baby boomers are turning 60 this year and, in true baby boomer fashion, they expect to live longer and be less disabled than previous generations.  Some of those expectations are being shaken, though, as their sense of immortality is assaulted by changes they observe in their friends and in themselves.  Could baby boomers, once credited with creating a "youth revolution," create a "longevity revolution?"

Past increases in life expectancy have come from preventing early death.  Prior to 1950, the strongest statistical effect was caused by reduction in infant mortality with lesser contributions from progress in nutrition and medicine.  Since 1950, improvements to life expectancy have largely been due to saving lives after age sixty-five with interventions aimed at heart and infectious diseases.   

The view that humans have a finite life expectancy is hotly debated.  But, at least for now, most scientists believe that if everybody adopted a healthy lifestyle and medical advances in prevention, early detection and treatment of disease continue at their present pace, we could achieve an average life expectancy of 85 or 90.  They stress that we need to fully understand why we age and why we die before we can determine if there's a limit to the maximum number of years that a human can live and, if so, what that limit might be.  The real question, of course, is if we can extend a healthy, active and independent span of life.  When asked, most people have no desire for extra years that include disability and suffering. 

There's reason to be optimistic.  Scientists are beginning to understand:

  • The mechanisms behind cancer, how to prevent it, and how to cure it
  • The causes of dementia and Alzheimer's disease 
  • How to regenerate blood vessels in heart tissue
  • The underlying processes of aging itself 

Researchers have discovered a number of ways to slow aging in creatures as different as yeast and mice.  Most believe it's possible that there could be major breakthroughs that enable people to live a lot longer – and a lot better – within just a few decades.

 

Quick Facts

  • The oldest confirmed recorded age for any human (Jeanne Calment) is 122 years, though some people are reported to have lived longer.

  • Genetics are critical to long lives, but the best data shows that only about one-third of longevity is due to genes. 

  • There is no test that will predict how long you will live.

  • There is no pill that will increase longevity. 

  • There is no specific diet plan that has been scientifically tested in humans to increase longevity (maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding foods that are bad for you can help prevent certain diseases). 

  • There is no magic procedure that will increase longevity.

  • Obesity contributes to the rise of cancers, heart disease and diabetes, and as it becomes more pervasive in the U.S., some predict that life expectancy may actually decrease by 2 to 5 years. 

  • Cigarette smoking remains the single most preventable cause of death in the United States for both men and women. Quitting can increase life expectancy, lower the risk of heart disease, and improve lung function and blood circulation.

Ask Your Doctor

This list of questions is a good starting point for discussion with your doctor. However, it is not a comprehensive list.

  • What can I do to increase my chances of reaching my longevity potential?

  • How can I stay healthy longer?

  • What kinds of screenings should I undergo?

  • Should I take vitamins or supplements?  What will they do for me?

  • How much physical activity is recommended for an adult my age? Is this right for me?

  • Are there exercises I should avoid doing?

  • How can I be sure that I'm eating a healthy diet?

  • Are there foods to avoid because of the medications that I am taking?

Key Point 1

Better treatments for health care mean more Americans are leading longer lives.  Any individual's prospects for longevity are a combination of genes and lifestyle. 

Life expectancy at birth in the United States in 1901 was 49 years. At the end of the century it was 77 years, a whopping increase of 57%.  There are close to 70,000 centenarians in the U.S. today and a study from the United Nations predicts that number to increase to 1 in 100 of the boomer generation.

How Do We Age?
According to the 2006 edition of the Handbook of the Biology of Aging, aging is defined as the process of a system's deterioration with time.  How and when that happens to a human is individual.  Plus, the aging process for different body systems can occur at very different rates in different people.  Changes occur little by little, but ultimately, the heart becomes less efficient, bones begin to lose density and the number of neurons in the brain decreases (though in some areas of the brain the number of connections between cells actually increase).  Other changes affect vision, hearing, reflexes, metabolism and more. 

Why Do We Age? 
The short answer to why we age is that no one really knows for sure.  While there is no consensus over what causes aging, there are multiple theories.  At its most simplistic, two common categories of aging theory are:  

  • Programmed theories.  Aging is predetermined and follows a genetically regulated biological timetable. 
  • Damage theories.  Aging is predominantly a result of interactions with the environment and results from a continuous process of damage accumulation. The damage is a by-product of normal cellular processes or a consequence of inefficient repair systems.

What Determines Longevity?
While scientists continue to explore and debate the theories of how we age, they agree that aging and a predisposition to get or not get certain diseases have a strong genetic component.  For example, genetic controls can protect your cells from becoming cancerous.  However, the best data we have today suggests that only about one-third of longevity is due to genes.  Additionally, the importance of genetic inheritance matters less as we age.  By the age of 80, behavioral choices account almost entirely for overall health and longevity.   So, the aging process depends on a combination of both genetic and environmental factors.  One way to think about it is that genetics defines the potential for a long life and environmental factors determine your likelihood of reaching that potential.

Environmental factors that influence longevity are predominantly due to lifestyle behaviors – eating too much or too many foods that are bad for you, smoking, inappropriate use of alcohol and drugs, how you deal with stress, and whether you have strong social connections to family or friends.  Obesity contributes to the rise of cancers, heart disease and diabetes, and as it becomes more pervasive in the U.S., some predict that life expectancy may actually decrease by 2 to 5 years.  Cigarette smoking remains the single most preventable cause of death in the United States.  Other factors include what you do for a living, the quality of healthcare you receive, diseases you may have had early in life and many more. 

    

Key Point 2

Important steps you can take in terms of your own aging are the old stand-bys:  sensible diet, regular exercise, and learning to manage stress. 

Most people die of disease or accident before they reach their theoretical biologic limit.  Many people aged 65 and older die from heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease, diabetes and kidney disease, all of which have strong causal relationships to lifestyle.

Suppose your goal was to live to a hundred?  Could you do it?  The short answer is probably not, unless you're a big winner in the "genetic lottery."  However, if you think about genetics as the factor that defines your potential for a long life and lifestyle as the factor that will determine your likelihood of reaching that potential, there's a lot you can do to maximize your life expectancy as well as your quality of life. 

First, though, consider all the things you shouldn't do.  Longevity has become big business in the U.S. and a lot of what's being sold is worthless and a waste of money at best and dangerous at worst.  Here are some facts: 

  • There is no test that will predict how long you will live.
  • There is no pill that will increase longevity. 
  • There is no specific diet plan that has been scientifically tested in humans to increase longevity (maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding foods that are bad for you can help prevent certain diseases). 
  • There is no magic procedure that will increase longevity.

What are the things you should do?  Begin by setting a goal – but not one based on years alone.  Far too many people who live to an advanced age can't enjoy those extra years because of disease and pain.  The objective should be to extend healthy life as long as possible, not just add years to our lives. That means focusing on "successful aging." 

Researchers have identified seven factors that appear to predict successful aging:

  • Maintaining an appropriate weight
  • Not smoking
  • Moderate alcohol use
  • Regular exercise
  • Positive coping mechanisms
  • A stable marriage
  • No depressive illness

Common traits of centenarians are:

  • Few are obese
  • They have a history of being physically active
  • They're very adaptable and handle stress well
  • They tend to be very sociable people
  • They have something that gives meaning to their lives
  • They exercise their minds as well as their bodies

If you worry it's too late to make a difference, think again. Researchers say it's never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

    

Key Point 3

Successful aging is more than longevity.  Staying engaged – physically, emotionally and intellectually – benefits the individual and society.  

Mick Jagger is still touring at 62.  John Glenn participated in a space mission at age 77.  Older Americans run in marathons, fly planes, and travel the world.  The perception of what's old is changing.  Not too long ago, a New Yorker cartoon proclaimed "70 is the new 50."   Still, there are great variations in health and functioning among the elderly and too many find themselves disabled and even bedridden.      
 
With the U.S. population of the older-than-65 expected to double in size in the next quarter-century to 72 million, we're left with this question.  Will increasing numbers of older people with longer lives contribute to society or be a burden upon it? 

There's both good and bad news.  In recent decades we've actually experienced a decline in the disability rate and have pushed certain diseases to an older age.  However, all that may reverse as upcoming generations become more obese and more sedentary and begin or continue to smoke. 

Health promotion and prevention may be the most important new model for health care in our time. A proactive health program can increase your ability to live to your potential, to continue to do what you want and to be mentally alert.  The steps you can take include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Exercising every day
  • Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • Adhering to a schedule of disease screenings recommended for your age
  • Establishing a regular schedule of well visits with your doctor as well as seeking prompt medical health when you have a problem

A decade ago the MacArther Foundation identified three components to successful aging.  They are:

  • Good medical care
  • Continuing physical and mental activity
  • People who remain engaged in society

There are many challenges facing society in sustaining and caring for an ever larger population of the elderly.  However, if we increase the proportion of healthy people living to an older age, there is also much to be gained.  Older people can continue to be extremely productive, especially in the early stages of old age – the 60s and 70s.   Successful aging means seniors can continue to work and pass on the vast benefit of their experience and accumulated wisdom with a resulting economic benefit to society of profound proportions.

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