“If I saw a doctor, he would just find something wrong with me.” Those are words my stepmother Ann told to me last Friday. I was fortunate to be able to spend a good amount of time with her and Terry, Ann’s son and my half-brother, in the course of a visit to New York last week. Ann lives independently in her own apartment in the upper West side of the City and, at age 92, it appears that there is nothing wrong with her. She gets around easily walking in the city, does her own shopping, is mentally lucid and curious, loves to talk about things going on in the world, goes to movies, theatre and opera, and often sees Terry who lives only a few blocks away. She had no trouble navigating the massive hallways and stairways of the Museum of Natural History for several hours with us and did not seem to get a bit tired.
Except for a minor cold now or then, Ann never gets sick. She has a very positive attitude towards life and seems never to experience stress. Ann was born in a small mining town in Iowa and spent her youth there. She Moved to Des Moines at about 19, and then later to Detroit, to a 90-acre farm in Yale Michigan, and then to New York. Ann tells me that when she was about 11 she came across copies of a now long-defunct Macfadden health magazine which strongly influenced her to have healthy eating habits. She mostly avoids junk food. Ann takes no medicines. She started taking a multivitamin pill and fish oil only this year. Other than that she has taken no supplements.
So, speaking as somebody who has seen many doctors and takes many supplements, I do infer a few things about longevity from the example of Ann.
1. Ann must be a winner in the longevity genetic luck-of-the-draw. Her mother lived to 96 and her maternal grandmother to 92. On the other hand all seven of her siblings have passed away, and all were younger than Ann. Her genome must contain a good pro-longevity combination of genes. I think I could convince Ann to let her genome be sequenced if I could find a reputable longevity-oriented genetics researcher interested in finding out what is keeping her going.
2. Ann is aging significantly more slowly than many of us. The rate of aging is not the same for everybody. Many people are run-down, sick and old at 50 or 60. Ann is in good physical and mental shape and at 92 probably has a number of years still to go in good health. Of course, I personally want and would love that.
3. Ann’s longevity and health has nothing to do with medical progress or getting good medical advice or taking the latest drugs. She has steered clear of those things all her life.
4. Longevity implies not getting the diseases of old age, not managing them, not curing them once you get them. The same genetic activation pathways that lead to long lives keep us healthy. This appears to be a lesson learned by researchers at the Kenyon Lab at the University of California, the people who did some of the original research on extending the lifespan of nematodes. “Our work has now led to the discovery that mammalian aging is also regulated hormonally by insulin and IGF-1 endocrine system and has catalyzed a fundamental shift in the way scientists view the aging process, from one that is inevitable and intractable to one that is plastic and subject to regulation. Our findings have important disease implications, since these long-lived mutants have been found to be resistant to many age-related diseases. This raises the possibility of a new therapeutic strategy based on the ability to postpone the onset of age-related disease by slowing the aging process itself(ref).”
5. Successful aging might mean a lot fewer encounters with the medical establishment because a lot fewer sickness will come up. Successful anti-aging strategies might make us like Ann. Instead of senior citizens requiring 3-5 medical appointments a week, a yearly checkup might do. Most medical practice is repair-shop in nature, dealing with managing or curing sicknesses that have emerged. If sicknesses emerge a lot less, the need for doctors or hospitals recedes in importance. So, some people on a successful anti-aging track may develop the same attitude as Ann. “Who needs a Doctor?”
6. The annual health-care cost for Ann is zero. Her medicare cost is zero. If we could all extend our healthy lifespans by ten years it would be worth about ten trillion dollars in decreased health care costs and perhaps twice that much more in productivity gains. (Current US health care costs are something like 3 trillion dollars representing over 17% of gross domestic product(ref), and a disproportionally large slice of the cost is for people in the last 10 years of their lives.)
Longevity is by far the best area of investment for economic development. With an increase of 10 years in our average healthy lifespan, we could quickly wipe out both the national budget deficit and the national debt.