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Guest Commentary

Gill: The basics of longevity science


We have always dreamed of living longer and being immortal. Yet as we age, we may be finding that life’s challenges become more difficult and, for some, insurmountable.

At the same time, there is research that is improving the prospects for many of us to live a healthier and more vital life at advanced ages. We know that our society is aging and that the notion of “retirement” is being redefined. On average, we are working and maintaining our functional abilities at older ages compared to previous generations. Then there is an increasing interest in longevity or life expectancy. Our goals include “a good life, well lived” along with an extended health span.

The study of longevity includes research into why we age, which is represented by several theories. What we do know about aging is that it is desirable to commit to a healthy lifestyle. Seniors must also learn to manage and overcome grief, loss and resentment. It is also essential to have a positive mindset about entering our 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100-plus.

Living longer includes having a healthy set of aging beliefs. It may be helpful to have a perspective about what to expect of ourselves and our peers at this stage of our lives. Reviewing theories about why we age and how to extend our lives may help. For example, there is the observation about successful aging presented by Dan Buettner from National Geographic about “Blue Zones.” These are geographic places around the world where many inhabitants live longer and happier lives than the rest of us. Such places include Okinawa, Sardinia and a locale in Costa Rica. Buettner found that those living in these regions have healthy diets, are physically active, live a relatively stress-free life and have close connections with family and friends. Can we apply these strategies in our own lives? 

Another theory consists of “the Information Theory of Aging,” which is complex and wide-ranging in its approach to understanding the dynamics of aging. This theory of aging is defined as a deterioration in our biological cellular structure representing a decrease in the functionality of cellular repair mechanisms caused by “genomic cell damage.” So, what this theory proposes is that there is a failure to communicate vital “information” between cells that helps to maintain cell health as we get older. 

Another theoretical perspective involves “telomeres,” which are an important part of each of our chromosomes. Our telomeres are often described as being like shoelaces. When the end of our telomeres starts to shrink or fray, the aging process becomes more prominent. The reasons why telomere length becomes shorter and how to keep them healthy is the subject of continuing research.   

What about role models? A French female is 118 years old and is the oldest known living person in the world. My golfing buddy, Jimmie Jackson here in Sun City West, has a distant aged relative living in Iowa. Given my interest in aging, Jimmie suggested I contact the grandson of Grandma Bessie, who turned 115 on Nov. 7. Imagine speaking to a man near 70 proudly talking about his grandmother who is still living.

The data indicates that the chance that a person can become 115 years old is 1 in 1 billion. According to Wikipedia, Grandma Bessie is the fourth oldest person in the world and the oldest American. The chances are good that if we make it to 105, we are very likely going to make it to 110. Such people have simply won “the genetic lottery.” According to aging experts David Sinclair and Becca Levy, only 20% to 25% of our life span is based on genetics and the rest is based on lifestyle factors and choices. 

So, positive lifestyle factors and strategies can lead to a long and healthy life. Sinclair and others argue, for starters that we must “eat less,” be a little hungry at the end of every meal, avoid sugar where possible and reduce or eliminate red meat intake. If appropriate and with a doctor’s approval, consider fasting. Keep moving and reduce or avoid excess weight where possible. Address high stress, depression and sleep quality while maintaining social and family connections. According to Becca Levy’s research, a positive mindset can extend one’s life for up to 7.5 to 14 years. 

Another important principle in longevity research is hormesis, which is a modest adverse condition or mild biological insult that, with exposure, works to stimulate cell repair processes that can lead to cell rejuvenation and overall health benefits. Examples include fasting, exercise and modest exposure to cold temperatures. Other longevity principles include being optimistic and curious about learning and doing new things. Spend time with people of all ages. Appreciate our cognitive strengths and the wisdom of our years. Arthur Brooks, a Harvard professor, said, “give to what you want to get!” For example, if you want connection, start connecting. 

Our task is to acknowledge that age-old dream of living longer and in good health. Can we reverse the aging process? Can aging just simply be a disease process that can be treated and even cured? Yes, these are radical ideas but many researchers on aging believe them! Seniors are now representing a greater percentage of the population. The number of those 65 and older is soon to become greater than those 18 and under. We will forever want to know why we age and how much control we have over our longevity. Will a commitment to lifestyle changes make a difference, especially at this time of our lives?

What is certain is that if we are interested in a longer and higher quality of life, we can develop and nurture a positive perspective on the aging process and value the opportunities we have now that continue to make our lives worth living.

We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.