Ponce de Leon should have searched for a low-T clinic. Gilgamesh was looking to live forever and found writing but should have settled on electricity instead. It turns out, you — you, sitting at home in your underwear, pounding Buffalo wings and cans of Pabst — can probably live longer than both of those historical, significant-to-the-universe figures with little to no effort.
Ponce de Leon should have searched for a low-T clinic. Gilgamesh was looking to live forever and found writing but should have settled on electricity instead.
It turns out, you — you, sitting at home in your underwear, pounding Buffalo wings and cans of Pabst — can probably live longer than both of those historical, significant-to-the-universe figures with little to no effort.
In the last 100 years or so, breakthroughs in medicine and moving to Arizona have allowed humans to live exponentially longer than their predecessors. Only 100 years ago, the average life expectancy for a man and woman in the U.S. was 52 and 56 years old, respectively. Now, it’s nearly 30 years more. In 1900, it was 46 and 48 years old for a man and a woman — and they didn’t consider breakfast taquitos at 7-Eleven to be pillars of their everyday diets. To put it in Neil deGrasse Tyson-style terms: If human history could be expressed in one day, we started working on living forever at 11:59 p.m., and we might be just at the tip of this immortal iceberg.
Bigger minds have pondered lesser thoughts when it comes to immortality, and there’s a rabbit’s hole when it comes to the ethical implications of prolonging a life that is fundamentally mediocre at best. Have you ever had a meal with someone who was going to die, soon? I have, several times. More often than not, the inevitable question of “What will life be like after I’m gone?” came up. That answer is easy: “The same. Except longer.”
Well, biologically speaking, not much. A 2005 study in The Journal of Experimental Biology pointed out that larger organisms live longer. Nothing new. A cursory inspection of life expectancy among animals seems to reinforce that idea: Elephants live 70 years or more, horses can live 50 years or more. A study of people who’ve lived past 110 years old shows cell exhaustion — essentially, cells running out of steam — actually contributed to their demise. Hell, even Aristotle figured out people just plain “wore out” when he said sexually active men and women tended to live shorter, albeit more exciting lives. So around 200 years ago or so, the idea that inactivity, or a well-rested life, could prolong the grim reaper paying you a visit grew popular.
Advertisements for ways to sit around all day, do nothing and maintain “youthful exuberance” were all the rage. Women were discouraged from breaking a sweat. A sign of nobility for men was a big gut and a gluttonous appetite from apparently doing nothing.
Now, prolonged inactivity has been linked to deadly diseases including heart disease, stroke and high cholesterol. Box turtles and some birds reject the idea that to be tiny is to be short-lived as well. That’s great news for the little fellas in the world, for sure. Galapagos turtles can live well past 100 years, and some parrots live 90 years.
Although the more extreme concepts of the “take it slow” idea have gone away, we’re still left with its remnants. If you live fast, you die young. It’s not about the year; it’s about the mileage. Only Keith Richards gets to live like that, and that’s it. Beyond living like there’s nothing or everything to live for, human life expectancy and its current surge could be related to two contributing factors: one you likely know and another, lesser-explored reason.
Consider first, modern medicine. If we use the 24-hour time period for human history, modern antiseptics have only been around for roughly eight minutes.
Sanitation helped defeat the Black Plague. Hygiene vastly improved outcomes after surgery. Modern antibiotics have only been around for seconds in the day-long metaphor in human history. All of that is a given, and all of that we take for granted.
There are definite gains we’ve realized in modern medicine. Nowadays, some cancers have a 92 percent or higher “cure” rate, and polio, smallpox, plague and devastating influenzas are mostly a thing of the past. But when you consider what percentage of populations died during the Middle Ages due to lack of basic sanitation, washing our damned hands has made a serious dent in the mortality rates of nearly everyone.
After sanitation, electricity gave us a rosier outlook on life. Notably refrigeration. Our ancestors kept meat and vegetables consumable through massive amounts of salt, which your fat Uncle Ron can tell you led to his first, second and third heart attacks before he finally got the message.
A study in Nagano, Japan, found the adults in that area as recently as the 1980s were consuming nearly three times the amount of salt than the average American and living shorter lives than the rest of Japan — a traditional powerhouse when it came to racking up the geezers. Strokes, heart attacks and brain aneurysms were rampant, according to AARP, before officials started a public campaign telling people to lay off the miso soup and pickled vegetables.
Fresh fish, vegetables and civilization finally started catching up to Nagano in the 1990s, and now the area benefits from one of the longest life expectancies on the planet — not to mention one of the lowest health-care costs of any region in Japan. Preventative care for an adult in Nagano cost nearly $2,500 a year, almost a quarter less than someone in the U.S.
People are finicky, and fads are annoying. One thing is for sure: Physical activity and exercise are here to stay.
A sedentary life isn’t the best idea. A 2011 study conducted in Australia found that for each hour of your life you sit on your ass watching TV, 22 minutes may be shaved from the end of your existence. That may not sound like a lot when taken one hour at a time, but your encyclopedic knowledge of “Saved By The Bell” has shaved at least a week off of your life. Put another way: Each hour of your life spent watching “Golden Girls” on TV Land, one episode of Blanche, Rose, Estelle Getty and the other broad is knocked off of your ticker. What’s time better spent?
Correlation isn’t necessarily causation there, but the message is clear: Motion creates durability. A 2011 Harvard study showed people with only moderate physical activity lived nearly two years longer than people who reported a low level of physical activity. All of that is a given. Get off of your ass. Make something of your life. Make sense of the day. If your father followed his own advice, he’d live until he was 200 years old, but he didn’t. Something else must add to the basic idea that we can live longer, now.
But here’s one idea lurking the longevity pack that you might not expect: Don’t be a dick.
A Stanford study that spanned eight decades showed a pleasant disposition and overall friendly attitude lead to longer lives. That boils down to having lower stress levels and a can-do attitude, but it also leads to indirect actions like having a lower propensity to drink heavily, smoke more or drive too fast. In short, Stanford researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin wanted everyone to understand running on a treadmill is cool, but seriously, relax.
For Buddhists, this is nothing new. Meditation, mindfulness and radical acceptance of the world around them were all a part of raising your right hand during the initiation ceremony or something. Researchers at the University of California-Davis in 2010 studied participants of a meditation retreat and found higher levels of an enzyme, telomerase, than in a normal population. That enzyme in lab rats, Spanish researchers discovered, led to a 50 percent increase in lifespan than in other rats.
Obviously, billions of dollars are spent each year prolonging lives that normally would have ended at some point soon. Medicine, doctors, patients and posers are eager to line up for what’s coming down the road if it means another week, month or year spent shaking their fists at kids on their lawns.
It’s clear, however, the first hurdle in running the race toward immortality is genetic. Our genes are the roadmaps to the rest of our lives, and as we head further down the road of old, the genetic maps that our cells use to replicate themselves play an increasingly important role. There’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to parentage and hereditary longevity, but research around the world shows more often than not that it’s a pretty big damn determinant.
Genetic engineering isn’t only for “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs, it’s quickly becoming for humans too. In 2012, Europe approved for the first time genetic therapies for pancreatic disease. It was approved in 2013, however a typical treatment can cost more than $1.5 million, making it the most expensive medicine around.
Researchers agree we’re just at the infancy in genetic therapies for humans, but tests conducted in the labs have already led to breakthroughs. Parkinson’s, heart disease and diabetes are all examples of diseases that have shown some improvement thanks to genetic tinkering.
Beyond that, a significant number of researchers believe longevity may be a natural human evolution. Survival of the fittest may be at play here, which could explain why Swedes and Italians, both of whom live past 83, look so damn good.
And there are fewer older people living in poverty. Between 1959 and 1998 the number of older Americans living in poverty decreased from 35 percent to 11 percent. Access to healthcare and reliable medicine and food have dramatically increased the likelihood that people can continue on.
Living longer may not be a given, but it’s fair to say that you have a better chance of staying on the planet longer than anyone even 200 years ago could have imagined. Whether that’s a good thing or not is completely up to you.
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