TREND FORECAST: Everyone knows they are going to die. But in the prescription-drug-addicted Western world, with a pill for every ill, there is a subconscious denial of death; “everyone” means everybody but me.
Of all the trends we forecast, aging with grace is a megatrend in the making that still lurks under the mainstream radar. Trends are born, they grow, mature, reach old age and die …a natural organic process. How to stay healthy, live longer — and most importantly, live with grace and dignity — is a trend still in its infancy. From entrepreneurs to big business, the field is wide open for new products, procedures and facilities for keeping the young at heart vibrant throughout old age. Whole health healers will be in demand. Strenuous workouts and diet fads will increasingly be replaced by holistic health approaches. Whole health healers will deliver all natural modalities, products and services as a foundation for enhanced longevity.
As this trend matures, demand will grow for longevity centers: body, mind and spirit centers where abused health is restored and the in-shape get in better shape. Ranging from family-size operations staffed by a few specialists to resort-size clinics, longevity centers will become a multi-billion dollar industry.
More of us are living longer than ever before. However, while we’re adding years to our lives, we’re not necessarily adding health to those years.
Too many of us live out those extra days tethered to oxygen tanks and dialysis machines, or counting the hours between pills. How do we ensure that the added time science gives us is worth sticking around for?
The first step in answering that question is to understand why we’re surviving longer than our ancestors.
A study published in The Lancet medical journal in December 2014 was conducted by a consortium of more than 700 researchers in more than 100 countries. The study contends that, if current trends persist, the average life span for men worldwide by 2030 will be 78.1 years and 85.3 for women.
The reasons for this luxury of extra time are legion, from reducing diarrheal diseases in Africa to controlling tuberculosis worldwide. There are exceptions: Young men in Russia are, in the aggregate, dying earlier due to what’s been called “a national sport of spectacular drunkenness.” Smoking is increasing around the world and, with it, lung cancer. Life spans in Iraq and Syria are falling due to mass slaughter. And in Africa, poverty and civil war are also cutting live spans.
The first longevity revolution
Our new gift of time is due to what could be called the first longevity revolution: Sanitation and food handling improvements, along with the arrival of antibiotics and other fruits of science and technology.
A century ago, diphtheria, cholera and other contagious diseases regularly ravaged the human race. The 1918-1919 worldwide flu pandemic infected as much as a third of the world’s population and killed as many as 50 million. In 1918, because of the flu, the average life expectancy in the US plunged by a dozen years. According to a 2012 New England Journal of Medicine report, infectious diseases accounted for 580 deaths per 100,000 in 1900; by 2010, the number was less than 17.
In “Confronting the Bounds of Human Longevity,” a January 1998 paper in The American Scientist, a research group led by University of Illinois School of Public Health sociologist S. Jay Olshansky drew a parallel between this longevity revolution and the Indianapolis 500 car race.
Indy cars are finely crafted to last the 500 miles of the race, the team pointed out; then the cars are torn down and rebuilt for another 500-mile trek. No one has systematically tried to find out how the cars would behave if left to run indefinitely. No doubt some would fail immediately; others would run for 100,000 miles or more; and most would gradually putter to a stop somewhere in between.
Similarly, for most of humanity’s time on Earth, people lived long enough to reproduce and see their young established independently. The parents died soon after; if they weren’t killed in a farm accident or factory mishap, pneumonia or typhus would claim them. Now that wonder drugs, surgery and other high-tech treatments have increased longevity, we can see how long it takes the typical human body to putter to a stop.
The second longevity revolution
This brings us to the second longevity revolution, which puts us face to face with the dilemma of modern longevity — why we’re living longer but not healthier.
The reason: While science gives us crutches to lean on as we follow the trail to a longer life, we’ve largely left our health in the hands of those who have tools to mute our symptoms but not end key diseases we inflict on ourselves.
Compared to our forebears, we lead lives of sloth. Relatively few of us have walked long distances to school or work; fewer still walk to stores to shop. Leisure time is spent immobilized in front of various screens.
That much sitting will kill you, according to a January 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers analyzed results from 47 separate investigations into the physiological effects of sitting. They found that the more people sit, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and cancer — and die prematurely. (One study reported that sitting for 11 hours a day has the same effect on a person’s cardiovascular system as smoking two packs of cigarettes every day.) Even worse, regular exercise doesn’t negate the ill effects of spending your life folded at the waist.
That alarm has sounded a few decades late for people now approaching old age. As today’s middle-agers entered their 50s and their bodies began to show signs of decay, the medical profession was waiting with an ever-expanding catalogue of pharmaceutical miracles, high-tech procedures and plastic replacement parts. Those who didn’t act on the need to take the initiative to break a lifetime of habits of immobility and convenience foods assumed medical science would keep them alive and healthy.
Now, people entering old age are paying the price for passivity. Even today’s most powerful drugs can’t continue to mask or neutralize symptoms of progressive decay or creeping illness; complex procedures are only stopgaps along the path of chronic disease. So, while science has eradicated external causes of early death, it hasn’t eliminated the fatal damage inflicted upon ourselves.
That’s why the second longevity revolution is one of self-responsibility and whole-health healing. The reason isn’t just that health care costs are relentlessly rising while incomes decline as the population steadily ages, or that the numbers of physicians who specialize in treating the elderly are falling. (There’s far more money, and glory, in other specialties.)
Calls to action, not lulls to passivity, fill the ears of people over 50: Exercise regularly, interact socially and eat wh
ole, not processed, foods. Forced by falling profits, McDonald’s is reducing the number of antibiotics fed to the chickens it buys, and Kraft Foods is replacing many synthetic components in its iconic macaroni and cheese with natural ingredients like paprika. But these are only micro steps toward addressing a much larger problem.
Because these habits of health need to take root early in life, it may be too late for today’s oldsters. “It’s like brushing your teeth,” says one gerontologist. “You can’t ignore it all week and then make up for that by brushing for an hour on Sunday.”
But there are signs that this second longevity revolution might have established a permanent beachhead. An August 2013 report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited data indicating that the rate of increase in low-income children’s obesity had begun to slow among 19 of 43 cities studied. The trend was confirmed by another study published in January 2015 by researchers at Kings College London in Archives of Disease in Childhood.
The next longevity revolution
The third longevity revolution is nascent but, once again, promotes the promise of rescuing slackers from their own indolence. The emerging science of biogerontology is uncovering new chemistries to vanquish decrepitude.
A drug called deprenyl was fashioned as an antidepressant, but has been shown in several studies to lengthen rats’ average life span by as much as 35 percent, improve their mental acuity and sharpen long-term memory in elderly hamsters.
Metformin, a drug that controls blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, seems to dramatically reduce bodily shrinkage, wrinkling and lethargy — all signs of old age — in roundworms.
Anti-aging scientists also are avidly studying naked mole rats, the hairless rodents that live underground in tribes and, until now, have been best known for eating their own feces. They can live active lives past the age of 30 and spawn young when in their mid-20s. (In contrast, a house mouse tends to die of old age after four years.) Researchers have linked the rats’ extra years to a protein known as HSP25; it ushers damaged or defective proteins from the rats’ cells before malformations can replicate or do damage.
Still, the biogerontology revolution is a promise for the future. To the litany of personal actions we can take now to improve the quality of later life, researchers add another: Resilience, the ability to see every glass as half full. “It’s making the best of every day you have that matters,” says a long-time nurse practitioner who’s made a career of caring for elders, “no matter what limitations you face.”
There’s no better way to pass the extra time we’ve been given while we wait for the next longevity revolution.