In ancient Rome, life expectancy was 23 years. Today, world-renowned biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey claims that the first person to live to 150 is already among us.
Aubrey is on a scientific quest to find a roadmap to ‘cure’ ageing as if it were a chronic disease, rejecting the notion that it is an inevitable part of getting older. He says the human body is like a motor vehicle – an equally maintainable machine.
“It’s bizarre that people don’t see that the exact same thing is true of the machine we call the human body, just that that machine is a lot more complicated so the development of sufficiently comprehensive preventative maintenance is a lot more challenging,” he told Forbes magazine.
Little wonder that tech billionaires are bankrolling his research, not only to extend the years in which to enjoy their wealth, but also to help him unlock the ‘disruptive technologies’ that may get the mystical fountain of youth flowing.
Even the fruits of failure have been used in the fight against premature death. Aviator Charles Lindbergh’s attempts to invent mechanical replacements for human organs ultimately failed, but one of his contraptions developed into the heart-lung machine, which remains crucial in open-heart surgery today.
Many wealthy benefactors – and not just in the technology industry – have been financing research into the biology of ageing, not only to increase life expectancy but also to extend ‘health span’, the number of years we might be free from frailty and disease.
PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first investor, Peter Thiel, 47, contributed $6 million to Aubrey’s research, and is a passionate proponent of lifestyle for longevity. He recently told Bloomberg Television he takes human growth hormone and follows a strict Paleo diet, paired with regular runs and red wine, as part of his regime to reach 120 years of age.
“You can accept it, you can deny it, or you can fight it,” Peter says of the ageing process. “I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance. I prefer to fight.”
The longevity boom
Australians are now officially among the four longest living peoples on the planet.
“We’re now among a very rare group of countries – the others being Switzerland, Japan and Iceland – where both men and women can expect to live beyond 80 years,” says Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) director of demography Denise Carlton. “Australian women pushed past the 80-year mark back in 1990, so it’s taken men nearly a quarter-century to catch up.”
And yet, while many of us can look forward to living longer lives, the ABS figures are more confronting when reflection turns to the most frequent – and in many cases, preventable – causes of death relating to chronic disease in Australia.
James Eynstone-Hinkins, director of the Health and Vitals Statistics Unit at the ABS, says heart disease is the leading cause of death for Australian men and women, accounting for 15 per cent (21,513) of all deaths.
“There were 9864 deaths caused by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, comprising seven per cent of all deaths,” he says. “Lung cancer made up six per cent of all deaths, and 19 per cent of all deaths from cancer, making it the fourth leading cause of death for Australians in 2011.”
He says prostate cancer is the fifth most common cause of death for men, and breast cancer is the sixth most common cause of death for women.
Dr Jenny Brockis, Perth brain fitness specialist and author of Brain Fit!, Brain Smart and the forthcoming Future Brain, says relying on research into chronic disease management isn’t enough, and that prevention programs are imperative.
“Societal expectation is that we can enjoy longer, healthier lives through utilising our new technologies and treatments,” she says. “While we can continue to improve how we manage chronic health morbidity and disability, unless we adopt a disease prevention/ health promotion approach, the reality of achieving the former is remote.”
Dr Brockis believes the existing healthcare system is unsustainable in its current form. “We have four people of working age to support every one person over the age of 65, and this is expected to fall to two people by 2050. Who is going to pay the bills?”
She hopes to see a paradigm change whereby preventative, personalised medicine will become the cultural norm. “The upside is enormous – greater awareness, understanding and knowledge of what we as individuals can do to stay fit and well is empowering and builds the foundation for a partnership between the client and practitioners,” she says. “The aim will be to promote health and wellbeing through health education, wellness programs and an integrated approach to extend our ‘health span’ free from disease and disability.
“Moving towards a healthier, happier and more productive society has to be a win-win for everyone,” she says. “By tackling health at the source, staying well becomes the expectation.”
A newly established Perth clinic is applying that very concept. Ionic Health is a bespoke prevention screening service that checks for potential health issues and designs a highly personalised plan – depending on age, gender and risk factors – with an aim to promote health and longevity. It was established last year by Azure Capital co-founders John Poynton and Geoff Rasmussen, West Coast Eagles player Beau Waters, and Nedlands-based urologist Tom Shannon and his wife Dr Mei Lon Ng.
Tests include risk profiling, biometric assessment, exercise testing, body composition analysis, a full medical, health screen and psychological review.
“Medicine has traditionally been based on a diagnose-and-treat model, which works well for curable illnesses such as infections, but not so well for chronic disease,” says Dr Ng. “Our focus is on the diseases most responsible for death and disability in Australia – common cancers, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, vascular disease, dementia, sleep apnoea and mental health – which represent 95 per cent of the causes of Australian deaths.”
Prevention and minimised risk are possible for most of the conditions the clinic screens for, like diabetes and heart disease, through simple and strategic lifestyle changes.
“It is estimated that up to 85 per cent of cardiovascular disease and at least one third of cancer can be prevented, so the potential impact here is huge,” says Dr Ng. “This clinic concept is long overdue.”
Is ignorance bliss?
Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie raised awareness for predictive screening when she chose to have her ovaries, fallopian tubes and breasts removed to reduce her risk of cancer. Tests revealed she had inherited a mutation in the BRCA1 gene from her mother, who died from breast cancer in 2007.
“It is not easy to make these decisions,” Jolie wrote in her op-ed in The New York Times. “But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue.”
While conditions such as Alzheimer’s and MS are currently incurable, Dr Ng says they shouldn’t be viewed as a death sentence. A recent study published in medical journal The Lancet showed that Alzheimer’s risk increased by 60 per cent in obese patients, 61 per cent in those with high blood pressure, 82 per cent in the physically inactive, 59 per cent in smokers and 60 per cent in people with depression.
“The aim of screening is to find disease early and intervene to prevent or minimise its impact,” Dr Ng says. “When you consider that despite our current medical efforts, one in two men and one in three women will develop cancer, and that one in three people will die of cardiovascular disease, you can argue that we can all benefit from knowing our disease risk,” she says.
“In the past there has been a fatalistic view of the inevitability of some diseases. We are just starting to understand that whilst some diseases may not be curable at present, they may be preventable.”
Live long and prosper
Dr Mei Lon Ng says weight loss is the first step towards a longer, healthier life.
“Men need to get their abdominal circumference below 95cm (38 inches) and women 80cm (32 inches) to lower their ‘toxic fat’,” she says. “There are benefits from any activity, but the best results will come from exercising at moderate levels for 30 to 60 minutes a day and lifting weights twice a week.
“Whilst it is never too late to start, we know that children who are sedentary, with poor diets, develop changes in their blood vessels that lead to heart disease, so start early,” she says.
Dr Ng advises avoiding alcohol where possible, eating more vegetables than meat, and never smoking. “If you want to stay well, the answer is not in a pill.”
The sum of your parts
Skin in both genders starts to change from the 20s, with more significant changes seen in the 40s and 50s. Among women, this is especially the case during menopause, with skin strength and elasticity reduced, the superficial blood vessels under the skin becoming more fragile, and the sebaceous glands producing
less oil, leading to dry and itchy skin.
Osteoporosis Females should be screened from their 40s, men from their 50s. Bones become more brittle and there may be an overall loss in height due to vertebrae becoming compressed, with increased rate of fractures from minimal trauma from the 60s onwards.
MEN Bladder capacity decreases and bladder muscles weaken during the 50s leading to increased urinary frequency. Enlarging prostate in men can cause reduced flow and dribbling.
WOMEN Bladder capacity decreases and bladder muscles weaken leading to increased urinary frequency during the 40s.
MEN Male sexual function peaks in the 20s and begins to decline in the late 40s, with erectile dysfunction often starting in the 50s. Male fertility starts to decline in the 40s, with lower sperm quality and a lower chance of conception, along with reduced libido. Men should self check for testicular cancer from the 20s, and ask their GP for a prostate cancer test from age 40.
WOMEN Female infertility starts from the mid 40s, but more typically around the age of 50, when the ovaries stop making estrogen and progesterone, no eggs are released, and the periods cease.
MEN Lean muscle mass starts to reduce in the 20s.
WOMEN Lean muscle mass starts to reduce in the late 30s. Muscle is replaced with fat. Physical strength reduces.
Increasing joint stiffness, pain and reduced range of motion tends to occur from the 40s onwards.
Leading causes of death by gender
1. Ischaemic heart diseases
2. Trachea, bronchus and lung cancer
3. Cerebrovascular diseases
4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
5. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
6. Prostate cancer
7. Colon, sigmoid, rectum and anus cancer
8. Blood and lymph cancer (including leukaemia)
10. Intentional self-harm
1. Ischaemic heart diseases
2. Cerebrovascular diseases
3. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
4. Trachea, bronchus and lung cancer
5. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
6. Breast cancer
8. Heart failure
9. Colon, sigmoid, rectum and anus cancer
10. Diseases of the urinary system
Stretch your timeline
Dr Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, created the RealAge Test using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Center for Health Statistics in the US. He says certain habits can add years to your life.
Lower your stress levels
Stress raises blood pressure, heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increasing risk of stroke, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Don’t forget to floss
A healthy smile is not just for show: numerous studies indicate links between periodontal and cardiovascular diseases.
Find 30 (minutes of exercise a day)
It keeps your weight steady and lowers your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Have more sex
Dr Roizen says women in a healthy, monogamous relationship are significantly healthier than those who are either unhappy or sexually inactive.
Use of weights or resistance bands builds muscle, boosts metabolism, strengthens bones and protects against diabetes and heart disease.
Just 20 minutes after you stop smoking, your heart rate and blood pressure drop; after two years, heart disease and lung cancer risk is cut in half.
An extra 15 minutes of shut-eye
An extra 7.5 hours of sleep a month will give organs and systems in your body the chance to repair, restore and reset.
A diet rich in good fats, fish, fibre-rich whole grains and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily offers you disease-fighting nutrients.
From lunch breaks to ad breaks, get off your butt – research shows
that sedentary people have an increased risk of heart disease and premature death.