In the previous parts of this article, we identified that the incredible increase in human lifespan over the past couple of centuries has not been matched by improved health as we age. Yet, we have also highlighted that this apparent inevitable age related heath decline is not mirrored in nature. In this instalment, we highlight the experiences of super-agers, which suggest that living and long and a healthy life may be more about lifestyle choices than genetic predisposition.
Healthy Aging in People is Rare, but Possible
People like Holocaust survivor Yisrael Kristal, and some 450,000 centenarians worldwide provide living proof that extreme longevity is possible. Supercentenarian Jeanne Louise Calment, the longest living person in documented history, lived 122 years and 167 days, setting a health span world record that has yet to be broken, Calment picked up fencing at 85, still rode her bicycle at 100, and walked unassisted (not even a cane) until she was 114. She showed impressive mental acuity and high spirits throughout her long life. At her 110th birthday she famously said: “I’ve only ever had one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it”. During her final pubic appearance, the day of her 122nd birthday, though almost blind and deaf, she was in surprisingly good health.
We know that super-agers suffer less frequently from chronic diseases than other older age groups. We also know that when they do suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, it’s markedly delayed compared to the general population.
Scientists have been working on identifying the genetic determinants of healthy longevity for decades. With the motivation that insights from animal models may someday be applicable to humans, hundreds of research projects are in process, and fascinating discoveries have been made. For example, in the worm model C. elegans, over 70 genes have been found to influence lifespan.
In 2016, researchers made progress in recognizing the gene variants that lead to longevity in humans. Does this take us any further in making it possible for the rest of us to age more healthily? Not quite yet. We have had success tweaking genes for healthy longevity in animal models but the road to longevity gene editing in humans may be a long one. That said, with the recent advances in gene editing in humans for therapeutic purposes, there’s hope for practical applications from research on super-agers.
Science is Changing Longevity from Roulette to Poker
Most of us are not lucky enough to have won the super-centenarian genetic lottery. But aging healthier is now more a game of skill than a game of chance. Better lifestyle choices, science tells us, can add years of health to life.
The link between food choices and health is long known. But, so far ancient wisdom like “let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food” hasn’t been very actionable. Now, grants given to leading universities and research centers to determine what we should be eating for healthy longevity make diet recommendations scientific.
Valter Longo, a gerontology research professor just received $10M from the National Institute of Aging for his research on how diet can influence aging. The goal of his grant is to extend the success of a preliminary clinical trial showing that cycles of a five-day fasting-mimicking diet can reduce risk factors for many age-related illness.
There’s compelling research linking calorie restriction to longevity, but after we find a formula to calculate an “optimal” caloric consumption, is there a scientifically-backed optimal diet for extending our life?
The Impact of Personalized Food Choices
A study conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science found that the answer varies greatly from one person to another. One factor includes microbial ecosystem in your gut (bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi and mold). Last year DayTwo, an Israeli startup applying insights of the Weizman microbiome study, raised $12 million from investors including Johnson & Johnson Innovation and the Mayo Clinic to deliver personalized food choice recommendations to consumers. The demand for DayTwo in Israel has now exceeded the capacity of the company. Customers who realize the health potential are willing to wait months for their personalized diet.
We are advancing at a rapid pace in turning food recommendations from trial and error into an exact science. Nutrigenomics startup Viome takes this science to the new level. Viome, will give you personalized recommendations of what foods to eat and what foods to minimize based not just on the presence of gut organisms but on their actual expressions and effectiveness in producing nutrients and reducing inflammation. Their goal is to make chronic illness truly a matter of choice and not a matter of bad luck.
Israeli startup Lumen, promises specific recommendations based on your body’s ability to produce energy from available carbs and fat during rest and workout time. In the past year they have been helping hundreds of beta testers to lose weight and live healthier lives according to their metabolism.
It’s About More Than What You Eat
Food choices matter. However, a healthy diet, as personalized as it may be, is not enough to keep you healthy as you age. A study of Blue Zones—rare longevity hotspots around the world – reveals that healthy longevity is multifactorial. How physically active you are, your level of social engagement, spirituality, living a life of meaning, alcohol consumption, and other factors come together when it comes to extending healthspan.
But can insights from a study of traditional communities be made actionable on a larger scale and as part of a modern lifestyle? In 2009 the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota started a project to achieve just that, applying a holistic program inspired by the 9 common longevity factors discovered in the Blue Zones. They have so far collectively reduced health care claims by 49% and increased life expectancy by 3 years.
Optimizing all the aspects that contribute to healthy longevity may not leave much time to, well, live. Here, too, science can help people make more informed choices and priorities. The many tests now available to determine your genetic predisposition for age-related health conditions, including diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular disease, can help personalize your effort. It may also give you the important nudge to hedge your health risks with early detection tests if you have an increased likelihood of developing a particular disease based on your genetic makeup.
The personalized and predictive technology available to us today is a game changer. With AI insights on health data, applying longevity studies to modern lifestyle, plus taking advantage of genomic biotech, may add up to a preventive effect worth years of health.
In the final part of this series, we focus in on regenerative medicine and how an emphasis on healthspan rather than lifespan can add health to our years.