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Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.
Ira Rosofsky Ph.D.

Do You Want To Live Forever?

Is longevity worth the effort?

In the midst of the battle of Belleau Wood, June 6, 1918, Sergeant Major Dan Daly admonished his cowering troops, "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?"

All of them, whether they survived the battle or not, are dead today. Daly one of only two marines to win two Medals of Honor lived until 1937. Of the 65 million combatants who fought in World War I, there are only seven certified living veterans. The only surviving American among our 4.7 million doughboys is Frank Woodruff Buckles, age 107, who still lives on his Virginia farm. Asked, how did you live so long? "Hope."

Despite whatever hope I may have, it was sobering the day I first realized that everyone who was my age on the day I was born is now gone--a mark I passed some five or six years ago.

The words of Macbeth have come to have personal meaning, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."

These cheery thoughts are occasioned by a 60 Minutes episode this past Sunday, "Fountain of Youth in a Wine Rx?" Building upon observations of the health benefits from red wine, scientists have isolated an ingredient, resveratrol, that may turn on a survival gene, surtuin, and will ameliorate or prevent disease and extend life. Doses of resveratrol given to mice made even fat ones live 20 percent longer and run faster and farther on a treadmill. Postmortems revealed healthy, young looking internal organs.

Although resveratrol trials for humans have just begun, for those who can't wait, there is also evidence that severe calorie restrictions may have the same effect. There's even a Calorie Restriction Society ( members of which were trotted out on the 60 Minutes episode to laud the benefits of eating far less, although nobody in that group has yet lived long enough to be the proof of no pudding.

How much less eating? Consider that the average U.S. woman is between 5'4" and 5'5". The recommended (insurance actuarial chart) weight for this height is about 123 lbs. To maintain this ideal weight, the ideal woman--who is moderately active--would need to ingest 2029 calories each day. The calorie restriction advocates recommend a diet 20 to 25 percent the maintenance diet for your ideal weight, so the ideal woman would be restricted to 1500 to 1600 calories per day.

In other words, if you can live your life always feeling hungry you're a good candidate for the calorie restriction path to longevity.

Me? I'll just hope I live long enough to be around for the resveratrol pill or drink more wine.

Is it worth living longer?

Returning to my uncheery thoughts, I like to joke, "What's the point of an extra twenty years? It's still finite. Whenever you're dead, you're dead forever."

All this reminds me of Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun in which we enter Solaria, a society where humans live for centuries. But they are so paranoically self-protective they are all recluses surrounded only by subservient robots. The idea of "seeing" someone in the flesh rather than simply "viewing" them on a video screen fills them with dread. They are quite unable to survive contact with others outside of their protective cocoons.

Asimov's fictional portrayal of longevity from 1957 is mirrored in some of the research ( not discussed in the cheery 60 Minutes report. Aging brings defects. Until recently, relatively few humans lived long enough to experience the devastation of dementia. Scientifically manipulated longevity has uncovered new problems. Roundworms genetically modified for longevity have reduced fertility and a reduced ability to enter an important--for them--dormant state. Mutant dwarf mice are sedentary and inactive. Calorie restricted rodents are thin, cold, and stunted-reminding me of the just released from the concentration camp look of the 60 Minutes calorie restricted humans. And reminding me of the Solarians, aging researchers believe animals that live to old age in the lab have little chance for survival in the world outside.

"The longest-lived mice are dwarf mice that live 75 percent longer when given a calorie-restricted diet in a controlled environment. If you put those same mice out in the fields around my building, they wouldn't last a day. In laboratory conditions, they live longer, but in the real world, they wouldn't stand a chance," says aging researcher, Steven Austad. "All the life extending genes investigated in detail have turned out to manifest side effects. As we move toward the development of interventions in the aging process in the not-too-distant future, we must not forget this."

Only you can decide whether longer life is worth it--whether, for example, you are willing to live craving a cheeseburger every day of the rest of your newly centenarian life--but in future postings I will look at the science and practical implications of the most prominent theories of aging.

About the Author
Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.

Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Connecticut who works in eldercare facilities and the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare.

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