In the late 1500s, the Hungarian countess Erzebet Bathory bathed in human blood in an attempt to maintain her youth. Juan Ponce de Leon spent 30 years looking for the Fountain of Youth. Three thousand years ago, Asian nobility used crushed pearls in an attempt to cheat death. Affluent Americans 100 years ago drank radioactive radium.
While all of these attempts at living forever were unsuccessful, we are now at a point in history that promises enormous improvements in life expectancy.
Life Extension practitioners strive to preserve health, improve quality of life and reduce disease. In addition, we aim to extend our patients' life expectancy beyond a generally accepted upper limit of 120 years. The first goal of health maintenance involves standard medical care and common sense. The second, however, requires a new mindset — by treating aging as a disease instead of an inevitable natural process to be passively accepted. Through various interventions, the goal is to slow the ravages of time and actually reverse the process of senescence. Therapies that are being actively investigated include the repair and replacement of damaged tissues.
In the Life Extension model, we can think of the body as a complex machine. In a car analogy, you can improve performance with better quality tires, lubricants and electrical components. You can replace specific parts that break down, such as a motor or brakes, to allow for a longer usable life.
As Life Extension providers, we aim to extend the life span and to do so while maintaining the best quality of life. Holistically, we must also protect our mental acuity in order to enjoy the extra time on this earth. There is no benefit to living forever if you are not aware.
There are specific therapies that Life Extension providers may use to achieve these goals.
Studies have consistently shown that animals that eat less — known as restricted caloric intake — live longer and with more vitality. The underweight animals can live up to 100 percent longer than their normal-weight litter mates. Food deprivation shows great promise for humans, but it is very hard for people to commit to the process. Food restriction probably activates certain genes that protect us from aging. Studies are underway that look to mimic the action of food restriction without the pangs of hunger.
Free radicals, one of the prime causes of age-related damage, are constantly being produced and bombarding our tissues. These reactive chemicals are generated by exposure to sunlight, pollution or infections. Our bodies are very efficient at fighting these destructive molecules, however, over time, we lose our ability to respond and repair. Aging is the accumulation of such damage.
Various antioxidants can be taken to improve our ability to fight free radical damage and reverse the normal ravages of aging. Green tea contains epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). Pomegranates, blueberries and other fruits contain beneficial polyphenols. Antioxidant supplements are available, including vitamins C and E, acetyl L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid and CoEnzymeQ10, to list just a few.
So what can you do to increase your likelihood of living a longer and healthier life?
The first step is to accept responsibility for your own health. No one is going to do the work for you. Like my patients tell me, "Getting older is not for wimps." Life Extension providers can offer advice, testing, support and therapies, but ultimately you are accountable to yourself.
Keep an optimal bodyweight. I use BMI (body mass index) to measure this, with an optimal range of 20-24. Remember that calorie restriction is the single best way to extend life expectancy in other species. Human studies are ongoing and appear promising.
Reduce harmful free radicals. This can be as easy as wearing sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or more, staying away from tobacco products and eating more vegetable-based foods.
Exercise. The more the better. Not only does it control weight, it also can maintain bone density and muscle mass. It improves balance and flexibility and it acts as an antidepressant.
If you take supplements, buy the ones that are the most likely to work and are of the best quality that you can afford.
Keep your brain active. It's the "use it or lose it" principle here. Go to a concert, learn a new skill, read more books, etc.
Life Extension is getting closer to being an attainable reality. Pretty soon we may be using stem cell injections after heart attacks, implanting disease-fighting nanobots or growing new kidneys to replace diseased ones. We are living in exciting times. Stay healthy while we work to improve your future.
Dr. Daniel Laury, M.D., is a gynecologist and primary care physician for women in Medford.