The human race has always searched for a way to halt the aging process and extend lives.
From epic searches for the magical Fountain of Youth to special potions claiming to reinvigorate the body, humankind’s search for additional years is boundless.
Now, according to a medical study published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal in oncology, neurology and infectious diseases, most of the babies born in developed countries after the year 2000 will live to see their 100th birthday.
Furthermore, the researchers wrote that the aging process is capable of being modified.
The Centers for Disease Control announced in August that U.S. life expectancy in 2009 is 77.9 years, but this has not always been so. Improvements in diagnosing diseases and advancements in medical treatments have increased it from 62.9 years in 1940.
Although people are living longer in the United States as well as other developed countries, there are places across the world where the average person does not survive past his or her 40th birthday.
Dr. Steven Joyal, director of the Life Extension Foundation, said there have been amazing developments in gerontology, or the study of aging; gene therapy; the preservation of organs through freezing; and the incorporation of nanotechnology.
The methods seem like science fiction, but they are being used widely to find state-of-the-art solutions to battling disease and extending life.
“It raises some questions as a society that are provocative,” he said. “It is not just about living longer, it is about living healthier.”
Finding ways to help newborn babies live 100 years is an exciting proposition, but Joyal stressed that a person’s physical and cognitive functions also need to stay viable once they reach old age.
“Most people assume I am just talking about physical function, but it is also cognitive function,” he said. “We are seeing an epidemic of a cognitive decline. All of us have friends or family who are affected by Alzheimer’s.”
Lee County’s Alvin A. Dubin Alzheimer’s Research Center assists people who develop Alzheimer’s or dementia-related disorders and their caregivers. Dotty St. Amand, executive director of the center, said statistics show that more people are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“The number of diagnosed cases are greater,” she said, adding that better diagnostic tools are one reason there are more identified cases.
Many believe that genetics or family history play a large role in developing Alzheimer’s, but age is the greatest risk factor.
“It is not a normal part of aging to get dementia or Alzheimer’s,” St. Amand said.
Genetics plays a very small part in developing the disease, she said, while lifestyle choices — the consumption of alcohol, the frequency of exercise and following a healthy diet — affect the overall health of the brain.
St. Amand said more cases of dementia should be expected if life expectancy continues to increase. As a result, families and health workers should be prepared.
“The older we get, the more chance we have of getting Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “As a society, we need to be ready for that boom.”
Health workers and family caregivers should expect to care for their loved ones for up to 40 years after retirement, if the age to leave the work force stays at 65.
“We need to prepare for how we are going to care for those people, that means most of us will be affected by Alzheimer’s in some way,” St. Amand said. “Another important way to look at it is how are we training our young people, and get them to consider fields in gerontology.”
Politically, extensive costs are going to be related to caring for such an older population. Projections from some economists state that Medicare, the fund that provides health assistance to senior citizens, will dry up by 2017.
When the idea of Medicare was first discussed in 1945, the average life expectancy was about 63.
With each new generation living longer than the last, legislators will need to find a way to overhaul the Medicare system so there is enough funding for an additional 30 or 40 years of life.
According to Joyal, there are other ways to extend quality of life.
“Calorie restriction, there are things we can do to eat less calories, which includes maintaining stable body weight, physical activity, and there are nutritional supplements that can help,” he said.
Exercise has been known to curb the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and maintaining a healthy blood pressure is one of the easiest ways to prevent major health problems such as heart disease.
Cancer and heart disease were the cause of half of all 2007 deaths in the United States.
“Blood pressure is the single most modifiable risk factor,” Joyal said.
Even with the current advancements in life-extending medicine, there are some things that continue to stall efforts to increase life expectancy. Cancer treatment is a prime example of a medical issue without any major advancements in the last 50 years.
“If you look at cancer treatment, the unfortunate reality is that we haven’t seen much advancement,” he said. “People get excited if they can extend the average life span by two or three months in some kind of cancers. “
Experts in longevity and aging are brainstorming new ways to extend life.
Many of these health officials will meet Nov. 14 to discuss the future of extending life expectancy at a summit called the Manhattan Beach Project. These leaders will discuss a strategy to improve how long humans are living, as well as quality of life.
“Some people think it is controversial, but advancements are made every day,” Joyal said. “Some of the initial ethical concerns raised by some groups, we think, will be ameliorated.”
Southwest Florida has typically hosted an older population due to the amount of retirees moving to the area. Cape Coral’s median age is approximately 40, slightly higher than the nation — mid-30s.
Statewide the amount of people living over the age of 85 has doubled since 1970 and is expected to increase.
According to the CDC, mortality rates in the United States are lower than ever. They have decreased eight years in a row.
Currently, the mortality rate is 760.3 deaths for every 100,000 people. In 1947, the rate was 1,532 deaths for every 100,000 people.