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Getting Old

Time to rethink about the way we age

     A large proportion of my clients are elderly and have many chronic conditions and aches and pains. They constantly complain and usually say that aging is not very good. At which point I always say that the alternative to aging is worse because only death can stop you from aging.

     What if those weren’t the only two options? Sure, death (like taxes) is inevitable, but what if it could be postponed, oh say for another 80 years to make the average lifespan twice as long as it currently is? And, what if, at the same time we didn’t have to endure wrinkles, grey hair or cognitive decline. What if the way we think about aging is all wrong?

     That’s the argument being made by the authors of two recent best-selling books that are proposing we rethink aging. The first is “Lifespan: Whey We Age—And Why We Don’t Have to,” by David A Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. The other is neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin’s “Successful Aging; A Neuroscientists Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.” Both will leave you with new ideas about getting older and the future of aging—albeit from very different perspectives.

     Levitin, a professor emeritus at McGill University In Montreal and author of the influential 2006 book, This is Your Brain on Music, urges us to stop seeing everything, say after 65, as a bleak slow decline. Instead, he says we should start to view those years as a distinct phase of life like adolescence or infancy that poses both challenges and unique opportunities.

     When it comes to cognition, for example, aging is often thought of as a steady period of inevitable decline; that sees people lose their memory, the ability to take in new information, reason and pay attention. In fact, though Levitin explains that neuroscience has established that, although the aging brain may not be as good at some tasks, it’s actually getting better at others.

     And that some of the things we think of as terrifying signs of decline are actually merely the result of the brain shifting priorities. Ever go into a room and forget what you went in there for? Turns out that’s a normal part of the brain shifting gears from focussing on the external world to focussing increasingly, on our internal thoughts.

     Most people lose some short-term memory, but the trade-off is that we get better at things like synthesis and pattern recognition. Levitin say a 75-year old radiologist is often better than one half her age, and not because of the decades of experience—it’s an advantage the aging brain has over the young one. Leaving aside what this might have to say about mandatory retirement-age, the big take-away is that cognitive changes in healthy seniors can be more about trade-offs than decline, which represents a whole new way of thinking about aging.

     His thoughts are very profound and different, although not nearly as radical as David Sinclair’s ‘bold new theory. ‘That aging isn’t inevitable. Sinclair’s research supports the idea that we should start thinking of aging as a disease—and develop treatments for it. What’s more, he says that we’re not far away from that being a reality.

     If that sounds like Dr.Frankenstein talk to you, well, you aren’t the only person skeptical that his “information theory of aging” will unlock the fountain of youth. Personally, I am not that familiar with the mechanics of genetics so as a true scientific person I am very skeptical of his theory in spite of his massive educational credentials.

     A big piece of the puzzle, though, has to do with the proteins that pull double duty—repairing DNA damage and, simultaneously, “controlling genes” and keeping order.

     When they get pulled away too many times to put out the fires of damaged DNA, they lose track of the “paperwork “at the office, which involves telling cells how to behave. Thus leaving our DNA permanently damaged.

     Sinclair and his colleagues tested the theory on mice by breaking their DNA. When the mice aged prematurely, they decided to pursue this research aggressively, reasoning that if they could cause mice to age they could also reverse it.

     There is no cure for aging yet, but Sinclair offers some tips, in the form of diet and lifestyle (which include eating more plants, less food overall and moving around more), as well as daily supplements including Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, Vitamin B Complex, Omega-3 and resveratrol. Levitin takes more of a broad approach when designing the recipe for better aging, in that he factors into account inter-personal relationships, opportunities for creative and professional satisfaction and state of mind as well as a sustainable healthy diet, regular exercise and the ever-important good-night’s sleep.

     Levitin is far more interested in increasing “healthspan” than lifespan, meaning that the number of years of healthy living is more important that the numbers on the tombstone. For Sinclair, these are really the same thing since, if we cured everybody of aging, our bodies would be healthier, which would, as a result, increase our life span, possible as much by a factor of two.

     When I first read about the possibility that science might make it possible for people to live to 150, I thought it’s a bad idea. The planet is already overcrowded and polluted. Imagine the traffic? Do we really need this and what further damage could this cause to our environment. However, Sinclair makes the case, that an army of optimistic people with vitality and wisdom and a talent for recognition is exactly what we need to solve the world’s problems.

       Will extending the lifespan of humans save humanity or doom it to failure? The answer to this question probably depends on how old you are because to most people my age, extending lifespan is still better than the alternative. [print_link]