According to the CIA factbook the current average life span of a human in Austria is 80 years of age—77 for men and 83 for women—with the top ranking in the world going to Monaco at 89 years—86 for men and 94 for women. However, distinct clusters within some populations seem to easily overtake the 100 year mark such as the Japanese from Okinawa, Amish from the east coast of the US, Costa Ricans from Nicoya peninsula, Italians from the area of Calabria, highlander Sardinians and those affected by Laron Syndrome.
As always the debates for what make these subpopulations different from the rest of the world swing in the nature versus nurture debate.
From a genetic perspective, some of the longest living individuals do seem to have a specific genetic background that favours lower risk of acquiring diseases associated with old age. Here’s a list of the genes that have been specifically associated with longevity:
• FOXO3A – has been reported to activate mechanisms within the body capable of cell protection and repair and thus lowering the chance of cancer and heart disease.
• APOC-3 – depending on the type, it can dramatically lower fat in the blood or guard against blood pressure and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s.
• GHR – this mutation causes Laron dwarfism but has the ability to completely inhibit diabetes and cancer.
• mTOR – when blocked by the action of rapamycin has been shown to increase life span even in humans, however, it does lead to an inhibition of the immune system so it is used only for organ transplant recipients.
• Daf-2 – although the exact 1:1 equivalent was not been identified in humans, Daf-2 has been named the “grim reaper gene” by Cynthia Kenyon and was found, when in a mutated form, to double life expectancy in nematode worms. Similar effects were found in fruit flies and mice.
Check out Cynthia Kenyon’s talk on this subject.
The way we live also has an impact on longevity and until the genetics and associated treatments do catch up the average person’s quest for longevity should be based on the habits of these cluster populations. Dan Buettner has based his company and book on this premise. Some overlapping factors gathered from all these populations are:
• Physical activity – built into daily life and associated with a pleasant action such as having to climb lots of stairs to see your friends or gardening without electrical appliances
• Having a sense of purpose – the Japanese call it ikigai or reason to get up in the morning
• Slowing down – give yourself time to smell the roses and detach from stress every day
• Eat wisely – most of these populations have plant based diets and never eat to satiation
• Circle of friends – having a close knit group of like minded individuals that share your everyday life with all its successes and disappointments
For more information for this side of the argument, check out Dan Buettner’s talk.
THE WORLD IMPACT
Science and the human quest for the fountain of youth is indeed something that has been a reoccurring theme in the arts, literature and now with the rise of genetic engineering we are getting closer and closer to the Holy Grail.
We have already increased the life expectancy of humans from 40 in the 1900s to over 80 in 2013 (variability based on geographic location), however, the term “global nursing home” has been coined to describe the aging population phenomenon and the associated economic impact.
With more of us living off the limited resources on earth, young and old, should we keep going forward with our goal of immortality?
Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population brought this point into focus, which is now known as a Malthusian catastrophe, where the resources available to a population are no longer large enough to support it, signalling the start of famines and war. Dan Brown’s Inferno, a current fiction best seller, is making this same argument as the backdrop of a kamikaze genius scientist.
It is a dilemma that will continue to haunt all of us who share this planet. Published in 1967, Logan’s Run creates a society where at 21 years of age, people choose to commit suicide to guard against loss of the planet’s resources. Although a work of science fiction, the question can be adapted here to:
Will you be willing to let your grandparents die so that others may have room to be born?
What if we could have kept some of the brilliant minds that roamed this earth a few decades longer?
What if by delaying aging and related illnesses we might have more time to be a healthy, economically supporting member of society?
Queen‘s famous 1986 song asked WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER? …now we have to ask ourselves AND AT WHAT PRICE?