What Does It Mean to Live Forever?
By Isabelle Lee and Josefina Salomon
If 100 is already the new 80, what about living till you’re 150 years old? Growing up, my dad, a doctor obsessed with the idea of immortality, would tell how his grandparents back in Lebanon had lived well past the 100-year mark. How? They simply ate well, he used to say, as if their secret was no mystery at all. But back in the mid-19th century, they were the exception to the rule: People generally died much, much earlier.
Today, as humans continue to lust after any number of material and immaterial objects, scientists are researching radical life extension technology like never before. Amazing, right? Let’s see. Read on to learn about the great, the weird and the downright costly behind our quest for eternal existence.
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DON’T STOP ME NOW
Is 150 the New 100?
Probably. Think about it: 200 years ago, there was no such thing as an active 90-year-old. Fast forward 20 decades, and photos of people breaching the 100-year barrier have become almost routine. Vaccines, antibiotics and a better understanding of what is good for our bodies and minds have taken us far. By 2050, the U.N. estimates there will be 3.7 million centenarians around the world, a major bump from the nearly 600,000 today. How can we push our biological clocks even more, keeping our minds sharp and bodies healthy for longer? One departure is to treat aging as an illness. That’s right. A tribe of scientists, including Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama, says the key to drastically longer life lies in altering the processes that prevent our very molecules from growing old.
Magic in the Lab
Scientific progress looks promising. Experts have already successfully applied an antifungal used during organ transplants to extend the lives of mice. Just think what that might mean for a human. That’s not all. A string of revolutionary health treatments on the horizon is poised to change how our bodies deal with aging. Heard of a pill that mimics the benefits of exercise? Or drugs that trick our internal clock into thinking it’s younger? How about nano-robots that find and destroy disease inside our bodies and cell reprogramming? The future of anti-aging medicine is mind-blowing. But don’t rush to your doctor’s office just yet. Despite such theoretical advances, some experts believe our bodies have a built-in expiration date. Not to mention there’s a host of issues preventing humans from living longer that must be tackled, starting with poverty, violence, pollution, climate change and traffic accidents.
New Life Trajectory
Can you imagine what you would do if you could live your peak years — your 20s and 30s, say — over and over? “Maybe we use the [extra] years to reimagine the trajectory of life, just like we did 100 years ago, when we invented childhood and retirement,” Austad said in a TED Talk. John Davis, a philosophy professor at California State University, Fullerton, brings a similarly philosophical lens to the question. “I think people get wiser as they get older,” he tells OZY. “Given time and life experience, people become more patient, more aware of what a wise choice and a foolish choice looks like, and less violent. So we might find that a society that lives longer is a better society.”
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
Now for the bad news. Increased pressure on already overstretched global health care systems and an inadequate supply of jobs, food and housing are just some of the challenges we face if we were to live for as long as we’d like. Longer, healthier lives translate to expanding populations worldwide, a change the planet might not be able to withstand. “We are already facing the consequences of overpopulation,” Davis says. “It’s called climate change.” The solution there remains controversial and might require something more radical than eternal life.
FOREVER YOUNG, OR OLD?
So, When Do We Start?
Outside the lab, futurologists have been putting forth their own takes on life extension. But be warned: you would need deep pockets to access them. Ray Kurzweil, a resident futurist at Google — a company currently investing in the study of aging — claims that by 2029, medical advances could start adding an additional year, every year, to people’s life expectancy, at least to those who can afford it. Researcher Aubrey de Grey posits that by 2036, many people with access to the right therapies (e.g., working to make our molecules younger) could avoid aging-related diseases or maladies entirely. Is there a catch? Unfortunately, yes. To reach the 150-year-old mark, you might need to live in an environment free of stressors — and a wad of cash to cover what will be costly treatments. Tempted by what’s being offered by Libella Gene Therapeutics, which claims to reverse aging by up to 20 years? Be prepared to fork over a whopping $1 million.
Mind the Gap
The price tag may be shocking, and it points to another disturbing truth: Longevity is set to become the new standard-bearer of inequality. And it’s not strictly a rich-country-versus-poor-country distinction, or even race, which is a major determinant of life expectancy in the U.S. A study by Northwestern University in Illinois found that Americans with a higher net worth at midlife live longer than their poorer counterparts. Even among brothers and sisters, those with greater wealth tend to outlive their siblings. That’s even taking into account identical genetic profiles, meaning the only factor that separates them is money.
Get in the Zone
Unless, that is, you happen to live in one of the world’s blue zones: a select group of countries in which people have been living longer for reasons unrelated to their bank account. Take Nicoya, for example. Centenarians in this lush Costa Rican peninsula say their secret to a long life is robust social networks and strong family ties. On the other side of the world, Japan’s super-senior citizens claim that healthy diets and exercise have paved the way to a lengthy and happy existence. Even if Kane Tanaka, the world’s oldest person at 118, admits she loves chocolate and soda. Money, however, can play a role. Just look at Monaco, the uber-wealthy principality where residents live on average to nearly 90 years old.
Don’t live in any of those places? Don’t despair. Someday there may be another option for those who want to live a lot, lot longer: Upload your consciousness, Black Mirror style. While we are still far from transferring our minds onto a chip, Artificial Intelligence advances could make this sci-fi-sounding proposition a reality. Some people have already signed on to a program to freeze their brains and bodies in liquid nitrogen coffins to preserve the essential parts of their personalities. Cryonics preserves the body until science has progressed to a point where a person could be reanimated and cured of whatever diseases they suffered from. In 2016, a 14-year-old girl with a rare form of cancer won the right to be cryogenically frozen after she died, in the hopes she’ll be brought back to life once a cure for her disease is discovered.
THE SECRET SAUCE
Ditch the Red Meat
Yeah, we all know this one. Harvard researchers have found that increasing the amount of red meat you consume may, in some cases, raise the risk of early death. Participants in the experiment who increased their meat consumption by just half a serving per day (around 1.7 ounces) over eight years had a 10% higher risk of dying over the subsequent eight-year period. The study’s authors also claim a significant benefit to replacing a portion of your weekly meals with non-meat options. It’s not just good for you, it’s good for the planet. But Jeralean Talley, who lived to 116, might prove the authors wrong. This American super senior told Time in 2013 that one of the secrets to her longevity is a pork-rich diet, especially pigs’ ears and feet.
Every Step Counts
Walking an extra 1,000 steps a day could increase your chances of living a long life, according to the American Heart Association. The benefits of incorporating walking into your daily routine were consistent across people who took one long stroll and those who opted for shorter bursts throughout the day. That included going shopping or walking to your car. Heading out for a walk should be a priority for everyone, especially now that remote work is forcing many to park their butts for long stretches. Each increase of 1,000 steps was linked to a 28% decrease in the risk of early death.
Fruits and Veggies Are Your Friends
When American Loreen Dinwiddie died in 2012 at age 109, she was the world’s oldest vegan. She credited her diet for helping her reach that milestone and for giving her a pep in her step. It’s well-known that eating greens keeps you healthy day to day, but it also helps you live longer. Consuming five servings of fruits and veg every day translates to a 13% lower risk of early death. But don’t despair, some fun is also allowed. Misao Okawa, the oldest person on the planet before she passed away in 2015 at age 117, said the secret to her long life was simple: “eating delicious things” including sushi and noodles.
Are Kids the Holy Grail?
“You keep me young” isn’t just a sweet phrase. A study by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine in 2014 found that late motherhood can lead to a longer life for women who delivered their last child after 33. In fact, they are twice as likely to live to 95 than those who had their last kid by 29. Furthermore, the New England Centenarian Study, published in 2014, concluded that women who bore children after turning 40 were four times more likely than younger mothers to reach 100 years old. There’s a caveat, though: Just delaying pregnancy won’t make you live longer; growing old depends on your genes too. Read more here.