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Beating the biological clock: why are people living longer?

Over the past century, the average global life expectancy has significantly increased. In the past 20 years alone, the life expectancy has risen by almost seven years from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.4 years in 2019.

This profound extension in life expectancy can be contributed to various factors. Advancements in medicine, improvements in public health efforts, lifestyle changes and education, all play a role in increasing survival.

This article aims to explore the scientific explanations behind increased longevity, supported by research findings.

Why are people living longer?

Medical advancements

One of the more obvious reasons for increased life expectancy relates to the immense progress in the medical field over the past century. From 1900 to 1940 alone, the life expectancy rose from 30 to 46 years. From 1940 to 1980, the life expectancy rose again to 61 years. These dramatic changes can be contributed to several scientific breakthroughs.

Vaccines and immunizations have been the cornerstone of preventative medicine, with widespread vaccine administration being critical to avoiding vaccine-preventable diseases and death. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that vaccines prevent roughly 2.5 million deaths a year.

Numerous vaccines are available, protecting against diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio, influenza, and hepatitis. Since the conception of vaccines, many of these diseases have been effectively eradicated or significantly decreased in incidence. Thus, countless lives have been saved, and life expectancy has increased as a result.

Another major medical advancement concerns antibiotic development. Before the 20th century, infectious disease was a major contributor to illness and death. Infectious diseases like smallpox, pneumonia, tuberculosis, syphilis, diphtheria, and typhus ran rampant, blunting life expectancy.

Thankfully, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 marked the start of the antibiotic era. Many new antibiotics emerged between the years of 1950 to 1970 which helped to treat infectious diseases, thus extending life expectancy as a result. Many of these once fatal conditions are now treatable with the support of antibiotics.

Other innovations include advancements in surgical techniques, improved cardiovascular interventions, cancer research and treatment, and chronic disease management, all of which are major contributors to longer survival.

Lifestyle changes

Aside from medical innovation, lifestyle modifications are critical to living longer. Changes to diet, physical activity, and behaviors have been shown to also increase life expectancy.

Diet

A healthier diet has sown to increase one’s life expectancy by as much as 10 years. Research demonstrates that the biggest improvements can be seen when consuming increased, fruits, whole grains, and nuts while eliminating processed meats and sugar-sweetened drinks (5).

Other areas around the world see significantly higher life expectancies, including Japan. For example, life expectancy for men and women in the United States (US) are 79 and 83 years, respectively. On the contrary, the life expectancy for men and women in Japan are 81 and 87 years, respectively.

Why are people living longer in Japan? Well, Japan tends to have lower death rates due to heart disease and cancer. This could be contributed to Japan’s low prevalence of obesity. Additionally, intake of red meat and saturated fatty acids is low in Japan. Japanese diets also involve high intake of plant-based foods (e.g., soybeans), fish, and unsweetened drinks. The typical Japanese diet thus may be associated with longer lives in Japan.

Physical activity

Changes to how we think about exercise have also contributed to longer life expectancies. The benefits of physical activity are widespread.

Exercise can improve the health of your heart. Your heart health is very important, as cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death around the world, accounting for 32 percent of deaths worldwide. Thankfully, working out regularly can help. Research shows that individuals who exercised between 150 to 300 minutes per week had lower mortality rates versus those that did not. Additionally, increasing that time to 300 to 600 minutes weekly decreased one’s risk of death due to cardiovascular disease even more profoundly.

Mindfulness and stress

Imagine your body as a serene garden. Just as weeds can overrun this space, stress can infiltrate our lives, disrupting our inner harmony and accelerating the aging process. Stress is like an unwelcome guest, overstaying its welcome and leaving a trail of damage.

It’s not just a feeling; stress manifests in our genes, with research suggesting that a surplus of inflammatory and stress response genes become more active as we age, contributing to the phenomenon known as ‘inflammageing’.

Meditation and mindfulness are the gardeners that restore order, helping to manage stress and its physiological companions, such as high blood pressure. These practices can lead to better sleep, a sense of balance, and a connection to the present moment.

They may even lower the burden of age-related genes, acting as a buffer against the wear and tear of time. Consider the following steps to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine:

  • Set aside a few minutes each day for meditation
  • Focus on your breath, allowing thoughts to come and go without judgment
  • Gradually increase the time spent in meditation as it becomes a natural part of your life

By adopting these practices, you’re not just calming the mind; you’re engaging in a form of preventative maintenance for your body, potentially extending your healthspan and enriching the quality of your years.

Behavioral changes

Public health efforts have made strides with regards to behavioral changes to increase life expectancy. One such movement involves quitting smoking. Tobacco use was incredibly popular in the 20th century and continues to persist as a public health issue today. Roughly 25 million people smoke daily in the US alone.

However, research indicates that being a smoker increases one’s risk of premature death due to heart disease or stroke by three times. In those that quit smoking before the age of 40, one’s risk of premature death due to cardiovascular disease decreased by 90 percent. Thus, the shift away from regular tobacco use in recent years may contribute to longer life expectancy.

Education and awareness

Although the medical and scientific community have elucidated the reasons why people are living longer, there can be no results without action. In order for individuals to make informed decisions about their health and wellness, they must be educated on the benefits of healthy lifestyles and the risks of unhealthy habits.

Likewise, education is a major contributor to one’s life expectancy. Overall, individuals with less years of education live in poorer health and thus live shorter lives. The life expectancy gap between the least and most educated individuals in the US is 14 years for males and 10 for females.

The science behind our expanding lifespans

Imagine your DNA as a vast library, where each book represents a chapter of your life’s story. Just as a librarian might use a catalog to organize and track the books, scientists are now decoding the genetic blueprint that influences how we age. Longevity and disease-free survival are influenced by a combination of genetics and lifestyle. This intricate dance between our genes and how we live our lives is at the heart of understanding the aging process.

Recent advances in genome sequencing have allowed us to peek into the molecular landscape of our bodies as we age. Studies have shown that certain patterns of DNA methylation, a chemical modification of DNA, can be indicative of biological age – often referred to as ‘BioAge.’ This BioAge can differ from our chronological age, suggesting that aging is not just about the number of candles on your birthday cake, but also about the molecular changes occurring within.

The discovery of epigenetic clocks has been a breakthrough in aging research. These clocks are able to predict an individual’s BioAge with surprising accuracy, providing insights into their lifespan and healthspan.

However, the reliability of these clocks is still under scrutiny, as aging is a complex process influenced by numerous factors. The table below summarizes key research findings on the relationship between DNA methylation and aging:

StudyYearFindings
Hannum et al.2013Genome-wide methylation profiles reveal quantitative views of human aging rates.
Horvath2013DNA methylation age of human tissues and cell types.
Levine et al.2018An epigenetic biomarker of aging for lifespan and healthspan.

As we continue to unravel the DNA of age, we are learning that the potential to influence our longevity may be encoded within us. By understanding the genetic correlates of biological aging, we can better navigate the path to a 100-year life.

The future of aging

Imagine if we could fine-tune our body’s internal mechanisms like a master clockmaker adjusts a vintage timepiece. This is the vision behind the latest innovations in senescence, the process of biological aging. Scientists are exploring ways to slow down, and even reverse, the ticking of our cellular clocks. One promising approach is gene therapy, where researchers have successfully extended the lifespan of mice by partially reprogramming their cells to a more youthful state.

In the realm of cellular biology, the concept of ‘aging clocks’ has gained traction. By understanding and potentially resetting these clocks, we might unlock the secret to longer, healthier lives. For instance, a study on T cells demonstrated that these immune cells could be reprogrammed to not only slow down aging but also reverse some age-related changes.

The quest for longevity is also seeing the development of drugs that target specific aging pathways. A dual MTOR/NAD+ acting gerotherapy is one such example, aiming to rejuvenate cells by simultaneously inhibiting the MTOR pathway and boosting NAD+ levels, a coenzyme essential for metabolic processes.

As we continue to unravel the mysteries of aging, these scientific breakthroughs offer a glimpse into a future where living a century could become the norm, with a quality of life previously unimaginable.

Living beyond the norm: stories of centenarians and supercentenarians

Lessons from the Blue Zones

Imagine living in a world where reaching a ripe old age of 100 is not the exception, but the norm. This is the reality for inhabitants of the so-called Blue Zones, regions where people live exceptionally long lives. The secrets to their longevity are not locked away in a mythical fountain of youth, but are woven into the fabric of their daily routines and environment.

These areas, including Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, and Loma Linda in California, share common lifestyle habits that contribute to their remarkable longevity. Here are some of the key habits:

  • Plant-based diets rich in legumes, whole grains, and vegetables
  • Eating until they are 80% full, a practice known as the 80% rule
  • Regular, natural physical activity, such as gardening or walking
  • Strong social connections and community engagement
  • Stress reduction tactics, like taking time to unwind and remember ancestors

These practices are not expensive or seasonally bound; they are simple, sustainable, and accessible to many. By integrating these habits into our own lives, we can take proactive steps towards a longer, healthier existence. It’s not just about adding years to life, but also life to those years, ensuring that we can enjoy our time with vitality and joy.

The centenarian mindset: finding joy and purpose at 100+

Centenarians, those remarkable individuals who have danced through a century of life, often share a common thread in their tapestry of years: a mindset focused on joy, purpose, and connection. This mindset isn’t just about living longer; it’s about living better. It’s about seeing every day as a gift and every challenge as an opportunity to grow.

Adopting this centenarian mindset involves more than just a hopeful outlook; it requires actionable steps that anyone, at any age, can take. Here are a few key elements:

  • Valuing health: recognizing the importance of physical and mental well-being
  • Finding purpose: engaging in activities that bring meaning to life
  • Fostering connections: building and maintaining strong relationships with family, friends, and community

These elements are not just abstract ideas but are supported by research indicating that they are essential for a long and fulfilling life.

The next frontier: can we push the boundaries to 1,000?

The quest for longevity has always been a part of human aspiration, and now, it seems, we are on the cusp of turning what was once science fiction into a tangible reality. Imagine a world where living to 1,000 years old is not just possible, but commonplace.

While this may sound like a fantasy, advancements in biotechnology and an understanding of the aging process suggest that significantly extending human lifespan could be within our reach.

The concept of living to 1,000 might hinge on breakthroughs that are as much about quality as they are about quantity. The ‘million-molecule challenge’ is one such moonshot project, aiming to screen a vast array of substances for their potential to extend life in model organisms like C. elegans, a nematode worm often used in aging research.

To push the boundaries of longevity, we must look beyond current canonical ideas. Here are some avenues that scientists are exploring:

  • Novel Therapeutics: accelerating research into drugs that can extend healthy lifespan
  • Epigenetic Clocks: using biomarkers to measure and potentially reverse biological age
  • AI and Computational Models: employing artificial intelligence to unravel the complex interactions within our biology

As we venture into this new frontier, ethical considerations must also be at the forefront. The implications of a 120-year life, let alone a 1,000-year one, are profound, affecting everything from social structures to personal identity. The journey to a millennium-long life is not just a scientific endeavor but a deeply human one, challenging us to redefine the essence of life itself.

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