We have more than five million people age 65 or over in Canada, a figure expected to surpass 10 million in the next 25 years. Right now, our country has just as many people over age 40 as it does under 40–a stark contrast to developing nations, where half the populations are under 26. Our life expectancy was 81 in 2011, up from 72 in 1967. All affluent Western countries have, in the past half-century, seen dramatic inclines in life expectancy.
Yes, there are the resulting doom-and-gloom warnings that the aging population is going to cripple our economy with healthcare costs. But here’s another take on it: The fact that people are living longer is also a great success story. Credit for this, says Richard Faragher, chairman of the British Society for Research on Aging, goes to progress in medicine, science, food production and sanitation–side effects of nations’ increasing wealth. Faragher says of the science today: “We are at a time when we’re just beginning to understand the fundamental biology of what controls aging in humans. It’s like being in the cancer field 30 years ago, when we first found pathways that regulated it; or when we discovered the Huntington’s disease gene, which allowed us to understand how that disease worked.”
While, unfortunately, there are no cures yet for the diseases of the elderly–Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and cardiovascular disease being among the big ones–the scientific and pharmacology communities have brought us closer to understanding the processes behind these diseases, and have developed treatment programs that can send cancers into remission and may delay Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Leading biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey explains that age-related scientific research is not aimed at prolonging a person’s life in sickness, as some fear, but rather ensuring that “a very long life comes as a side benefit of a very long, healthylife.”
De Grey co-founded and is now chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View, California. He is doing cutting-edge research on eliminating old-age diseases once they occur–the way one would remove rust on an old car–but also before they manifest. “We are focusing on the sweet spot between prevention and treatment,” says de Grey. “The therapies we seek to create will be useful for people who already have age-related diseases, but ideally they’ll be applied beforehand.” How? By removing the precursors of the diseases, which are not present in the very young but accumulate over time. So, he explains, in one sense it’s treatment but in another it’s prevention.
“We have about 15 different projects underway, from stem cell research to vaccination against the molecular garbage that exists in Alzheimer’s,” says de Grey. “It’s like treating the diseases of old age as side effects of being alive.”
The British Society’s Faragher is also a cell biologist at the University of Brighton. He researches the process of aging with a particular interest in the field of cellular senescence (meaning cells lose the ability to stop dividing). Throughout life, he explains, cells in human tissue are continually lost and replaced by division of the remaining cells. However, they do not have an infinite capacity to divide, which exists as a defence against cancer, he says. Cancer is caused by the accumulation of mutations, which is caused by the process of division. Limiting the number of divisions limits the ability of any given cell to accumulate enough mutations to become cancerous. Also, the senescent cells damage tissue, causing everything from wrinkles to osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease, Faragher adds. “We know aging isn’t very complex. There are just a few processes responsible for the very frail creatures we eventually become.”
In the absence–so far–of a fountain of youth, what can individuals do to boost their lifespan?
Win the lottery of life: Faragher says genetics is thought to be 25 percent responsible for determining life expectancy. Gloria Gutman, founder and former director of Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre and Gerontology Department, agrees. Science has proven that certain aging diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and some cancers have genetic components–but not the way Huntington’s disease does. With that disease, there is just one gene and people who have it will get the disease. “Genes are still the biggest predictor, particularly in centenarians,” says Gutman. “The research also shows us that those who live to these great ages miss the major diseases that hit people in their 80s and 90s.”
Avoid certain vices: Avoidance of smoking, not becoming overweight, and not drinking to excess are choices we can make to increase longevity.
Walk briskly: In January, a study led by Andrew Steptoe of University College London reported that seniors who were happy tended to walk faster and lead healthier lives.
Consider meditating, avoiding meat and doing yoga: A study published in 2013 in The Lancet Oncology by the University of California and the Preventive Medicine Research Institute found that, in a group of men with prostate cancer, those who went on a strict vegetarian diet and did exercise, meditation and yoga had cell rejuvenation where the others did not.
Eat less: Caloric restriction may have also played a small part in the cell rejuvenation of the group of men cited above. That should come as no surprise to those devotees of anti-aging research: One of the world’s best-known ongoing studies on the large number of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan, which began in 1975, found that the trim and vibrant 100-year-olds of the island eat only until they are 80 percent full (a philosophy called hara hachi bu).
Whatever goes into one’s soup to determine longevity, experts agree that an aging population is not doom and gloom. Says Verena Menec, Canada Research Chair in healthy aging and a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, “We have a fabulous generation of grandparents and caregivers, volunteers at underserviced charities and vibrant economic forces, some boasting bigger nest eggs than any preceding generation. They have knowledge, inspiration and courage. They are our role models, who show us it’s an exciting time to be alive.”