It isn’t enough that people are already living longer. We want to live better, too
he quest for eternal youth or immortality has been documented down the ages in epic poetry, Greek mythology, literature, art, gothic horror movies, even in Harry Potter. Man has searched for fountains of youth and philosophers stones, drunk magic potions, bathed in sacred water, slept with virginal young women, ingested all manner of questionable substances—all in a vain attempt to forestall the inevitable. Its the curse of being members of the only self-aware species: we spend a third of our lives sleeping, and too many waking hours pondering death and all its implications. “Even when were healthy, we know were going to die,” says Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “And, of course, most of us cope with that with denial.”
It isn’t enough, apparently, that we’re already living longer. 1 hanks to the discovery of antibiotics, an improved infant-mortality rate, cleaner water and better housing, the average life expectancy in North America h;ts climbed to about 77 years in 2001 from less than 50 a century ago. But that hasn’t mollified the masses. During the past decade, the market for supposedly age-defying products such as diets, lotions and drugs has exploded. And why not? Nearly half of all baby boomers have already turned 50, so if there’s a way to help preserve youth and vigour in that most Peter Pan-ish of generations, there’s a pile of money to be made. “Baby boomers have grown up with the idea that science can do anything and that they can do anything they want,” says Dr. Mitchell Harman, director and president of the Kronos Longevity Research Institute in Phoenix, Ariz. “They’ve worked hard and they’re enjoying their lives and they’re in no hurry to shuffle off this mortal coil.”
But it’s not as simple as that. Modern medicine may save us from many once-deadly diseases, but by living longer, we are more susceptible to age-related afflictions, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimers. “Chronic diseases perhaps don’t wipe us out,” says Schafer. “But they cripple our lives with pain, make us dependent on others, make us feel less than fully human.”
So the focus for scientists, doctors and alternative medical practitioners is on learning how to promote healthy longevity. They don’t claim to have a magic cure for aging, but with a slew of self-help books, lifestyle programs and treatments, they do offer the tantalizing possibility of a slower, smoother and healthier trip to the finish line. And they have plenty of enthusiastic subscribers. Toronto author and broadcaster Dini Petty, 56, gives a lot of credit for her good health to a diet and exercise program she has been following for the past two years. “My personal goal is I’m going to peak at 60 and hold it,” says Petty. “And it’s so possible.”
Not everyone is so sure. Certainly, researchers know more than ever about how we age and how that process might be influenced in the future, but they also know that what they’ve discovered is just the beginning. As a result, there are new strains on the already uneasy relationship between doctors and researchers in the traditional sciences and those in the more alternative field known as anti-aging medicine. One side requires proven results and government approvals; the other is already in the marketplace offering products and ser-
unworthy, and he’s disdainful of the ponderous approach of conventional medicine. “They have to see it 20 times and it has to be blessed by the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration and they have to get a note from the Pope saying it’s OK,” says Klatz of the researchers. “To them, anti-aging medicine is not part of the orthodoxy and as such should be shunned.”
Sometimes lost in the backbiting, the question remains: how much impact can we have on aging? Klatz and the approximately 10,000 anti-aging practitioners from 66 countries who are members of A4M focus on early detection and prevention, treatment of age-related diseases and reversal of the aging process. At facilities such as the Beresford in Toronto—the first clinic of its kind in Canada—the staff uses diagnostic tools from various disciplines to determine a patient’s health. Tests are run to assess everything from sun-related skin damage and lean muscle mass to hormone levels, biomarkers for certain diseases and cognitive functions.
The anti-aging team, which includes a medical doctor, a naturopath, a behaviour therapist, a massage therapist and a skin-care specialist, then devises a special program for the client, which could include anything from prescription medicine and nutritional or hormonal supplements to a dietary, exercise and massage regimen.
RESEARCHERS STUDYING AGING SAY THEY ARE CLOSE TO
BREAKTHROUGHS THAT MAY BEGIN TO SHOW BENEFITS BY THE TIME YOUNGER BABY BOOMERS START TO RETIRE
vices that may—or may not—have the desired effects.
The feud is getting nasty. Some scientists, including Dr. Jay Olshansky, a research scientist at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, are eager to distance themselves from those involved with anti-aging medicine, particularly, Olshansky notes, the inevitable “charlatans and quacks selling snake oil” who get lumped in with more serious alternative medicine practitioners. To that end, Olshansky and his colleagues plan to submit a piece to both a medical journal and The New York Times this summer detailing exactly what is and is not known about the aging process. The relationship between the groups is so strained that Michael Fossel, who edits a science-based medical journal on aging in Ada, Mich., is lobbying to change the name of his publication. “I’m the editor of the Journal ojAnti-Aging Medicine ,” says Fossel, “and there’s no such thing.”
Then there is Ronald Klatz, president of the Chicagobased American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) and seemingly the prime target of conventional scientists’ scorn. Ffe says the whole contentious issue has everything—“intrigue, romance, science, politics, backstabbing, you name it.” Klatz doesn’t like being lumped in with hucksters any more than the scientists do. He resents the implication that all anti-aging practitioners are
Petty is a client of the Beresford and a self-described “poster girl for longevity.” In fact, Petty says her treatments—which so far have cost $5,500 and which consist, among other things, of nutritional supplements and an exercise plan—have not only improved her mental ability but also her shape. “I look in the mirror and go, ‘That’s amazing,’ ” she adds. Her mother suffered the last few years of her life from the effects of strokes. “I’ve seen older women who are crippled with osteoporosis, hunched over, stroked out, heart attacked, and my decision was I’m not going there,” says Petty, “and there’s no longer a need to go there.” Some of the focus of anti-aging medicine involves restoring
certain hormones such as DHEA, human growth hormone, estrogen and testosterone to more youthful levels. (In Canada, neither DHEA nor human growth hormone is available for these purposes.) In 1990, the New EnglandJournal of Medicine published a study in which growth hormone produced successful results on older men in a veterans’ hospital. Muscle mass increased and fat decreased, vision improved as did mental acuity. The practice spread: actor Nick Nolte and director Oliver Stone reportedly get regular injections of growth hormone in their bids to hold back the night. Another anti-aging strategy is using supplements of antioxidants such as vitamins E and C, alphalipoic acid and CoQl0 to help fight free radicals in the body, which are known to contribute to the aging process and to the development of certain diseases.
Proponents insist the treatments are effective. “One problem with anti-aging medicine is there’s no problem with anti-aging medicine!” exclaims Klatz. “This is a win-win-win-win scenario for everybody except for those few people who are sitting on top of the pyramid. They’re stuck in the old paradigm.” Still, Klatz denounces the “magic spray hucksters who have homeopathic this and that” and insists, instead, that everything he and his colleagues teach and endorse is based on research that has been published in scientific journals. “DHEA, melatonin, human growth hormone, antioxidants, nutrients—none of these are experimental drugs,” he says. And in a dig at traditionalists, he adds: “They claim that all these therapies are dangerous. So where are the bodies?”
But most scientists are cautious. “There appeared to be some initial benefits from injections of growth hormones, but they’re claiming that they will help you live longer, and actually there’s recent experimental evidence from animals to suggest that the use of growth hormone in animals has a life-shortening effect,” says Olshansky. “Surprise, surprise.” In addition, he says, there is no evidence at all that consuming antioxidants will delay aging. “Any time anyone claims you can stop or reverse the aging process, they’re lying to you,” says Olshansky. “There’s no scientific evidence that anything exists today to stop or reverse the aging process.” There are treatments that both sides say are capable of slowing the aging process, but they are radical. One, by slashing calorie intake, has typically extended life expectancy by 30 to 40 per cent in the species on which it has been attempted. At the National Institutes of Aging in Bethesda, Md., rats, mice and monkeys have been fed fortified diets reduced in calories by as much as 50 per cent of the norm. The animals remained active and healthy compared with their free-eating counterparts, and the onset of age-related disease was delayed. But the experiment has never been adequately done in humans and, because of its severe impact on the average diet, isn’t seen as a viable approach. “If people can’t even stop smoking, how do you expect them to control their caloric intake?” says Huber Warner, the NLA’s associate director for the biology of aging program. Still, the studies have provided the real evidence that the aging process is not fixed.
Another promising approach is gene alteration. “Even within single species, there are variations that lead to change in both body size and lifespan,” explains Kronos’s Harman. “Great Danes are creaking along at the age of 7; a Scottish terrier is chipping along at the same age. The idea that genes determine longevity was out there for anybody who wanted to look at it with clear eyes.” If only it were that simple. “Which genes are they?” he adds. “We don’t know that.”
Researchers have, however, used genetic intervention to ex-
BY 2021, ABOUT 20 PER CENT OF ALL CANADIANS WILL BE OVER 65UP FROM 12 PER CENT IN 1998
tend the lifespan of fruit flies, but whether these discoveries will have any impact on humans is unknown. “What we’re doing has the potential to have a tremendously positive impact on public health,” says Olshansky. “Even a minor slowdown in the aging rate for humans would have a huge impact on delaying many of the fatal and nonfatal illnesses of aging. That’s what we’re trying to do—improve quality of life as a primary goal.
And if we get extension of life as a benefit, even better.” But what if that actually happens? Will the consumers who can’t stomach the idea of genetically modified foods be willing to subject themselves to similar manipulations for a chance to live a little longer? And who will benefit? If a longer, healthier life becomes something that is available only to the rich, as Harman notes, “there’s going to be hell to pay.” Then there’s the question of retirement age, of what all the healthy older people are going to do and about who’s going to support them when they become unable to support themselves. And what if life expectancy increases but the birth rate remains the same? Simple. “The planet,” says Harman, “will become standing room only.”
Just because science hasn’t found any easy answers yet doesn’t mean people shouldn’t begin debating the issues. Harman believes researchers are so close to breakthroughs that there will be benefits even for younger baby boomers. Fossel agrees that the understanding of the aging process will grow dramatically in the next few years, but is more cautious about predicting when people will begin to feel the benefits. “When did we cure polio? Most people would say 1954 because that’s when the commercial vaccine hit the streets,” says Fossel. “If we go forward 100 years and we poll people on the streets and we ask, ‘When did we cure aging?’ I think they’ll give us a number some time in the next decade.”
In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the people who live on the 161 islands that make up Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan. The population of 1.3 million includes more than 400 centenarians. That means that 34 of every 100,000 citizens have reached or exceeded the age of 100, compared with the five to 10 per 100,000 Americans who manage to do so. The average life expectancy of Okinawans is 81.2, compared with 79 in Canada. Cause of death, more often than not, is old age; coronary heart disease,
breast cancer and prostate cancer are rare.
Researchers spent 25 years studying the Okinawan way of life. Last month, three of those investigators released a book, The Okinawa Program, which details how Okinawans eat low-calorie diets lull of vegetables, complex carbohydrates, soy foods and fish; how they get regular exercise; how they have strong spiritual lives; and how they benefit from excellent social and community support systems. Younger Okinawans who have adopted more modern Japanese or North American lifestyles, say the authors, are showing a general decline in health.
The lesson is not to wait for science. “Everyone wants a herbal combination, a vitamin combination or a pharmaceutical combination that takes away pain and death,” says Victoria-based nutritional researcher Sam Graci. “But we have to go back and look at our lifestyles.” Graci, 56, has a personal regimen for “optimum health” not unlike the Okinawans. Like Graci, Victoria sports nutritionist Brad King, author of Bio-Age, a book about how to maximize healthy life, advo! cates eating the right kind of proteins and fats, I using antioxidant and vitamin supplements, I drinking lots of water, sleeping soundly, getI ting the right kind of exercise regularly, man| aging stress and enjoying life. “Live with 1 health and vitality, and don’t spend the last t third of your life in a nursing home,” says King, “because it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Gitte Wilson agrees. Since 1998, the 43-year-old mother of four in Victoria has cut sugar, refined carbohydrates and wheat out of her diet while adding in more water, fruit, grains, vegetables, vitamins and antioxidant supplements. With newfound vitality, Wilson took up competitive rowing and has won numerous medals in double sculls at masters regattas throughout North America. “I have been able to accomplish much more than I ever would have dreamed,” she says. “I can perform on a new and much higher level. There are 80-year-old women who are still rowing, and I’m going to be one of them someday.” That ambition isn’t so farfetched. Science may or may not hand us another 30 or 40 years to play with, but the important fact is that we already have the information we need to live long, healthier lives. Like Wilson, we just have to choose to use it.
Given the choice, would you rather extend your life with no guarantee of good health, or live the average lifespan in good health?