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WSF report: 90 Is the New 50

eventImage-3.jpgTED’s Matthew Trost reports from the World Science Festival‘s Sunday-evening session “90 Is the New 50: The Science of Longevity“:

Faith Salie moderated this panel of four scientists (and one singer) on the science of longevity and the nature of aging. Gerontology pioneer Robert Butler, embryologist Renee Reijo Pera, Harvard associate professor of biology David Sinclair and professor and dietary restriction specialist Richard Weindruch all contributed.

+ 80-year-old singer Marilyn Maye opened and closed the night with two charming rounds of songs and commentary on loving life and continuing to feel young well into her years. (Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show 76 times — more than any other performer.)

+ Robert Butler says one sure-fire way to extend life is to have a sense of purpose. Studies have shown that having a partner — or another reason to “get up in the morning” — contribute to people living longer and living better. He points to the incredible “Longevity Revolution” that happened in the 20th century. In that single period, the average human lifespan in the developed world gained 30 years. He expects this number to increase in the coming years, with new technology.

+ Richard Weindruch says that caloric restriction shows some of the most profound influence on aging. He defines it as “under-nutrition without malnutrition.” He shows a slide comparing two rhesus monkeys, one of which had been given caloric restriction: the difference is striking. Both monkeys are nearing the end of their natural life span, but one of them looks old — the other looks like a regular young, healthy monkey. Weindruch points out that, unlike studies done on other creatures, these rhesus monkeys aren’t all that different from humans. Everybody on the panel is asked: do you practice caloric restriction? The general answer: “Poorly.”

+ Much of the original research on aging was done on yeasts. The gene that is correlated with how fast yeast cells age is a gene that humans also have. A substance that seems to help control and slow down the metabolic pathway associated with aging can be found in red wine — resveratrol — but to get a medical dose of it, you’d have to drink about 1,000 bottles a day.

+ Cancer is intertwined with the processes in aging, and dietary restriction has been shown to slow down cancer, too. If we could reduce cancer rates by just 10% we could save trillions of dollars in health care costs.

+ Renee Reijo Pera looks to the implications on women. Women already experience nearly 50 years of their lifespan in a post-menopausal state. She considers, firstly, why women have such a long post-reproductive life; she likes the “grandmother hypothesis,” which says that having lots of non-reproductive women around helps human survival. But, she says, anti-aging drugs will need to take this unique-to-women issue into account, as there are many effects to consider, including changes in bone density and body mass.

+ Butler says a 5-year increase in the average lifespan of a country creates an enormous advantage to that country in terms of its GDP in comparison to other countries. Healthy aging, simply put, adds wealth — doesn’t leech from it — it just doesn’t pose the liability it might seem to. But there are lots of political issues surrounding the point. The government’s health care plan will have a huge impact on how longevity science really gets under way.

+ What can people do right now to help extend their lives? There is no pill, as of yet. Diet, exercise and purpose are the three sure ways. But into the future, says Pera, it will be important to “call your senator or state representative.” Without funding, this longevity science which is truly on the verge of a breakthrough will be marooned.