If you had asked me a week ago how I felt about getting older, I would have told you it was, “just one of those things”. I’m certainly grateful to be here, but, like mammograms and the magnified makeup mirror I’m forced to use, it sometimes feels like cruel and unusual punishment.
Today, a longevity scientist named David A. Sinclair, Ph.D. has me convinced that aging may be a disease, not an inevitability, and scientists in his field are on the scent of some promising treatments.
I have always tried to live healthfully, with as few neuroses as possible. I eat well (mostly); I exercise on several (some) days of the week; I (often) stop at one glass of wine with dinner; I take vitamins, and read the Health section of the New York Times. What more can a girl do?
My goal was to make it to eighty with my mind and body relatively intact. However, I have a morbid fear of becoming morbid; a long lifespan would be ideal, but the moment it gets ugly, I will want to check out.
So, I was fascinated listening to Peter Attia interview David A. Sinclair, Ph.D., and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, on his podcast, The Drive. Sinclair was named Time magazine’s, “one of the 100 most influential people in the world” in 2014. (Be warned; the episode contains a lot of science-speak. Attia and Sinclair toss around chemistry symbols and TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) to the point one can start to feel intellectually compromised.)
David Sinclair has recently written a book called, Lifespan: Why We Age–And Why We Don’t Have To (2019), and I can say without any sarcasm that, for anyone over the age of thirty, it will be a page-turner.
It turns out there is no biological law that says we must age. We’ve been duped into believing that looking and feeling older is inevitable (plus, we start to look and feel older, so there is some evidence for this). David Sinclair views aging as a disease that should be “aggressively treated.” I was so excited by this youth elixir bait, my menopausal psyche received a welcome hit of serotonin, and already I feel ten years younger.
Lifespan outlines something called “The Information Theory of Aging.” It is the idea that our bodies are continually undergoing assault (some more than others, depending upon our lifestyle, environment, etc.). This internal ravaging results in a loss of cellular genetic information. It’s like a CD that, over the years, accumulates scratch upon scratch until the disc can no longer be read.
Research by Sinclair’s lab at Harvard, along with an increasing number of labs around the globe studying longevity, is finding promising mechanisms for “treating” aging; means by which to recover the lost information (remove the scratches), and restore health and vitality.
The study of epigenetics is where all this goes down. Changes to the epigenome occur as we get older, and they directly impact our lifespans. Diet, lifestyle choices, and our environments cause these changes. But science is now showing us that epigenetic information is reversible; offering promising treatments for aging and age-related diseases, like cancer.
It turns out that humans (and many other organisms) have protective genes that, when switched on, allow us to live longer. These genes can be activated by our behavior — exercise and limiting our calorie intake, for example — and by specific molecules. There is growing research (mostly not yet in humans) indicating that molecules such as Resveratrol and NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide) activate “longevity” genes and strengthen the effects of our good behavior––potential, after all, for some good deeds to go unpunished.
“Once you recognize that there are universal regulators of aging in everything from yeast to roundworms to mice to humans …
… and once you understand that those regulators can be changed with a molecule such as NMN or a few hours of vigorous exercise or a few less meals …
… and once you realize that it’s all just one disease …
… it all becomes clear:
Aging is going to be remarkably easy to tackle.
Easier than cancer.
I know how that sounds. It sounds crazy.” (p. 147–148)
Lifespan outlines several practical steps we can take to (quite possibly) gain extra healthy years: intermittent fasting; interval training; exposing your body to temperatures that are hotter or colder than is comfortable. These things might seem daunting, but it appears that even a small amount of effort with any of these lifestyle factors will pay dividends.
The book also addresses the ethical, economic, political, and environmental concerns around extending the lifespan of the global population. Curing aging will prevent many chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease. A more experienced, active, and healthy older population can work and contribute longer. Sinclair lays out a convincing case for why extending healthy lifespans will solve more problems than it will create, while still acknowledging that demographic changes have consequences.
Lifespan is not a self-help book, and the author is not a medical doctor; he is a scientist with nothing to sell but the words on the page. I finished the book feeling reassured that it’s not all downhill from here. There is near-term hope for an aging reversal. There are practical things we can do today while waiting for more research to come online tomorrow.
Some of the changes I have made are:
- Most days of the week, I do some form of exercise that stresses my muscles or cardiovascular system.
- I skip breakfast and have my first meal of the day around noon.
- I try to eat less overall, in particular, less animal protein.
- I take some of the molecules mentioned in the book — Resveratrol, NMN. I will take metformin if my doctor prescribes it.
- I take occasional cold showers and jog in hot(ish) weather.
- I avoid x-rays and scans as much as possible — an agent at Ottawa International airport recently delivered a professionally efficient patdown when I opted to avoid the scanner.
- I am embracing the concept that I might be healthy, active, and mentally vibrant through my eighties and beyond. I no longer feel as though I have aged-out of significant career changes and the time left to learn big new things.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one curious about all this; Jennifer Aniston and her posse are also in on this Lifespan action. I know this because I read it in the New York Times.
Aging is the ultimate fight to the finish. It’s reassuring to learn we get to sharpen our weapons halfway through the battle. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more on this topic.