February 20, 2009

How to live to be 100

At the risk of sounding something short of prophetic, mankind has been searching for ways to extend our lifespan way beyond what our bodies are capable of. This endeavor goes at least as far back as ancient China when the alchemists of various emperors believed that drinking liquid mercury brought immortality. Boy, were they wrong ... not that anyone since then has made significant progress. Is the answer vitamin C? Noooo. Is it Botox? Certainly not. And so, the search continues.

There's a widely held belief that 120 years is the full lifespan of humans today. To give you a bit of trivia, the longest living person on record is Jeanne Calment who lived to be 122. Most of us don't even come close to that. The current average lifespan in the US is between 77 - 83, with women towards the top of the range. We die sooner due to disease, natural causes, etc. Numerous studies have been devoted to researching the characteristics of those at the top of the bell curve. Some of the studies are simplistic in nature. Imagine 30 scientists, running around in lab coats with pen and notepad in hand, asking centenarians, "Hey, you're really old! How do you do that?" While others have dug a little deeper to find groundbreaking evidence. There is supposedly a special gene present in longer living individuals. It was also found through large scale studies of twins separated at birth and exposed to different environments that genes influence 23% to 33% of a person's life expectancy. That means environmental conditions account for as much as 77% of our lifespan - and that's good news for the rest of us who don't come with a 90 year limited warranty.

So what are these controllable factors? What we DO know - is that eating healthy, exercise, low stress, and limiting exposure to toxins will help us live longer. Things like making sure we take in lots of antioxidants to eliminate free radicals. The French Paradox is a good example of that. How a person can eat that kind of fatty diet and live beyond 60 seems unbelievable. But not entirely, because the red wine they drink is chock-full of powerful antioxidants. The thing that seems to have the most impact on lifespan is what scientists refer to as caloric restriction. I know, doesn't that suck? Limiting your food intake to 700 - 1200 calories depending on body mass can increase your lifespan by as much as 7 years. But what is all this working to do? They help us to attain our genetically pre-programmed maximum lifespan of 120 years. Actually increasing our maximum lifespan is a whole nuther story. The field of cryogenics attempts to answer that, but the technology isn't quite there yet. Basically, you'd be paying lots of money to donate your body to science and become a human popsicle.

Where else has research of longevity taken us? Scientists are of course conducting studies on the ever-present lab rat. It's actually quite interesting to know that elephants live to be about 69 ... swans, 102 ... and the giant tortoise - 152. Or how about a parrot at 80? I sure can't imagine having a pet that outlives me. Although the big question is how does this help us? Is their secret in their eating habits? Is it in their genes or lifestyle? It's not very practical for us to eat bird seed for a lifetime just to find out. Surely I jest, but animal genes have been the subject of extensive research. Yet, it has offered us little insight into our own limitations on longevity. The inherent problem with animal models is, and will always remain, that they're not human. The correlations we can draw from their bodily chemistry only go so far.

Perhaps the most compelling research is that done by Quest Network. They have performed demographic studies to find regions (the so-called "Blue Zones") where people regularly live to be 100 and older. It may come as a surprise to some people that it's not necessarily those in first world countries or with high socioeconomic status that live longer than their parrot. There are 4 behaviors commonly found in Blue Zones: 1) a positive, healthy outlook, 2) moderate physical activity, 3) a healthy diet, and 4) a strong social circle. And the Blue Zone award goes to ...
- The inhabitants of mountain villages in Sardinia, Italy
- The people of Okinawa, Japan
- Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
- The people of Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica receive honorable mention
So what are the characteristics of the top 3 cultures? Their lifestyles - and what they share in common - are best illustrated in the Ven Diagram below.


NEAT: Answer the short quiz at http://www.bluezones.com/vitality-compass to find out your personalized life expectancy.

Now let's dive into the theories behind death. Some cite free radicals as the underlying cause. However, death by free radical is losing support in the scientific community. That theory was sooo 80's. Others support the theory of mitosis, in which there is a limited number of times our cells can divide. I thought about this 1. But if it was true, all of the regular blood donors would be dropping like flies at an early age. Other theories relate to wear & tear, cellular waste blocking pathways, and the pre-programmed DNA clock I alluded to earlier. And there are many other theories (visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aging if you want to read about more). Maybe they're all right to some degree. Although I think the reason there are so many theories is because none of them fully answer the big question.

As far as I'm concerned, death is caused by the failure of 1 of our organ systems which is brought about by the accumulation of multiple health conditions or a single more serious condition including those mentioned in the theories above. In addition there are medications, physical activities, and other things that may be good for 1 organ system and bad for another. And as we age, we end up in this balancing act of trying to improve 1 at the detriment of another. To me this is a little less abstract and allows me to incorporate it somehow into my own personal health goals. But until technology gets better, my best advice is to take care of your body, try to maintain a positive attitude through stressful moments and hardships, and do the things that make life worth living.


  1. COOL pie chart, i see lots of veggies! :)


  2. Why stop at 100 when you can live forever? Seriously, it might be a reality because there is a gene similar to what cancer cells have that allows them to proliferate indefinitely, making them "immortal" cells.

    But obviously, with people living longer, there is going to be a strain in the resources available and there would be increase in competition among people with limited resources. Can you imagine if everybody lived forever and at the same there is an exponential increase in the population? That is truly scary.

    Maybe it's not just adding years to life, but also adding life to years...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.