Anti-aging addresses how to prevent, slow, or reverse the effects of aging and help people live longer, healthier, happier lives. It includes scientific research and applications in genetic engineering, tissue engineering, and other medical advances, e.g., finding treatments and cures for Alzheimer’s disease. It includes anti-aging psychology, e.g., coping skills for resiliently handling change, stress, and aging.
Skin is the most visible reflection of our age. Sun damage, wrinkles, skin growths and discolorations can appear on our skin with aging. Over the past decades numerous advances have been made in the science of dermatology to eliminate skin signs of aging and to create a younger looking skin. Anti-aging remedies are not necessarily only for the middle aged or the elderly. Good skin habits even during teenage years can significantly impact the appearance of skin in later years.
The anti-aging marketplace includes nutrition, physical fitness, skin care, hormone replacements, vitamins, supplements, and herbs. Alternative medicine and holistic approaches have often been an incubator for approaches initially shunned by traditional medicine. Life extension is arguably the most scientifically rigorous part of anti-aging, being a research program focused on slowing down, repairing or reversing the underlying processes of biological senescence in order to deliver improved health and quality of life. (Despite the name, increasing mean or maximum lifespan is not necessarily the main goal).
Leading sources of anti-aging information include the Life Extension Foundation (focusing on research and supplements), the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (focusing on anti-aging physicians and cutting edge treatments), Andrew Weil (focusing on alternative medicine, holistic health, and herbal supplements), the Chopra Center for Wellbeing (focusing on mind-body medicine and integrating Eastern and Western medicine), and the Ageless Lifestyles Institute (focusing on anti-aging psychology). In India, some anti-aging activities are studied by Center for Longevity combining western medical appraoches with Siddha Vaidya nd Ayurveda.
Anti-aging pursuits date back at least to ancient Egypt. While the religion and pyramids focused on the afterlife, a lot of attention was given to herbs and remedies such as olive leaf to promote beauty and longevity. Over the centuries scientists and alchemists tried to find cures and potions. These included drinking, eating, or injecting substances such as gold, testicles, and transplanting monkey gonads. Many cultures such as India and China developed long traditions of herbs, foods, diets, and health practices to foster anti-aging.
There are many legends of magic places that give life, e.g., Ponce de Le?n’s search for the “Fountain of Youth.” In 1933 British novelist James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon described Shangri-la – an ageless paradise somewhere in the Himalayan mountains near the Tibet-China border. Despite Shangri-la being a fictional place, expeditions have tried to find it.
Gerontologists have tended to paint a bleak picture of aging being all downhill with increasing loss of skills, functions, and quality of life. Women’s movements leaders, e.g., Betty Friedan’s book The Fountain of Youth and books like Gail Sheehy’s Passages helped paint a more positive, generative template for aging.
Around 2000 research started identifying strengths that go with aging. Daniel Mroczek, Ph.D., found that older people report being happier than younger people. At ages 18-27 only 28% reported being very happy. The percentage goes up with each age bracket with the bracket 68-77 at 38%. The rating dips a little at ages 78-89 to 34%. Other researcher found that seniors tend to be better story tellers and become more agreeable and conscientious with age. Laura Carstensen, Ph.D reports that as we age, we are tend to be more positive and in better control of our emotions.
One way to find what helps people live long healthy lives is to study those who have succeeded. Centenarians have written best selling books, excelled in sports, piloted airplanes, practiced medicine, danced, sculpted, taught in universities, graduated from universities, run for Congress, and even fathered children.
The current documented record holder for longevity was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived 122 years and died in 1997. There are reports of older people in some remote villages but there is no documentation to verify the claims (and they live in cultures that give great status to the oldest). Centenarians have become so common, the newest category is “Super Centenarians,” those 110+ years old.
The most definitive research on centenarians is Thomas Perls, MD and Margery’s Living to 100 study of New England centenarians. Interviews with centenarians include Lynn Adler’s Centenarians: The Bonus Years and photographer Liane Enkelis’ incredible photographs and stories in On Being 100. There are quite a few autobiographies and biographies including Jeanne Calment: From Van Gough’s Time to Ours.
Research suggests that centenarians have little in common physically. They are physically active people, most don’t smoke, and they typically maintained about the same body weight through their adult life.
The role of genetics in longevity is complex. A genetic vulnerability to a life threatening disease, e.g., malaria, reduces life expectancy. If a vaccine or cure is developed, the same genes no longer present a problem. With Alzheimer’s disease, for example, those with the certain apo-E gene patterns have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. When scientists develop a cure, Alzheimer’s will no longer compromise the quality and length of life for those who are at risk.
There appear to be genes that foster living longer. Researchers have extended the life of fruit flies by 30% by giving them an extra copy of a gene. Other researchers extended the life of nematodes (microscopic worms) by 500% by removing a gene. It isn’t clear yet why the genetic engineering is extending the lives, but the results are promising.
Danish researchers compared identical and fraternal twins and extrapolated that only 30% of longevity is genetic. That means that 70% is lifestyle and the choices people make. George Valliant, Ph.D., and subsequent researchers have followed Harvard freshman in the classes from 1939-1949 periodically to the present. One especially notable finding was that men who had traits such as optimism and humor as freshmen were less likely to develop chronic illness or die by age 45. The difference was even more pronounced at age 60.
American life expectancy has increased from 47 in 1900 to 77 in 2007. It is important to remember that this number is an overall average, which includes every person born, no matter how short their life might be. In 1900, average life expectancy appeared disproportionately short because of very high infant mortality, numerous serious childhood diseases, and also because of the high numbers of women who died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. Reducing infant mortality, reducing the incidence of childhood diseases and reducing the number of women who die bearing children have been three of the most significant factors in changing the overall life expectancy. General factors include: