Last Tuesday I fixed myself a cup of Sencha, sat down at my computer, and went looking for the Fountain of Youth. I figured that if there is any kind of answer to the age-old question of immortality, surely I could find it on the internet.
I did not find the legendary fountain. I did, however, find an image of a giant-clawed lobster captioned “Biologically immortal . . . Delicious with butter.” It turns out that lobsters, while not precisely immortal, do not age the way humans do. They keep growing all the way until the end of their life, which occurs by predation, disease, or simply running out of energy. Humans, on the other hand, stop growing at a certain point in their lives.
I also found articles detailing the merits of antiwrinkle creams, stories on the rise of the Living Room Botox Party, and ads for assorted pills promising to make you feel noticeably younger in “7 to 10 days” (for $19.99). I came across intriguing titles such as “Scientists Say They’ll Soon Extend Life ‘Well Beyond 120.’ ” I found a whole series of articles about how tech billionaires are donating to the cause of “solving” aging.
Aging By Any Other Name
All of this was interesting, but not what I was after, which was practical and natural ways to live longer. I decided I’d better make sure I was heading down the right path, so I looked up the definition of aging. It’s the “process of becoming older” (not helpful). Then I came across a related scientific term, “senescence,” that had a more useful definition: “The gradual deterioration of function characteristic of most complex life forms . . . that on the level of the organism increases mortality after maturation.”
I decided to switch my search from “aging” to “senescence,” and suddenly I found myself wading through scientific theories on aging. The aging process is still a mystery to even the experts, and the science of aging is a murky jungle overgrown with studies on all kinds of genes, proteins, and reaction pathways implicated in aging in all kinds of organisms. One of the fundamental questions still under investigation is whether aging is programmed, meaning it’s built into our genes, or stochastic, meaning it’s the result of cumulative and potentially preventable environmental damage.
Born to Die
Programmed theories describe how aging might be regulated by biological clocks that operate throughout the life span. These biological clocks might be genetic: Variants of certain genes, such as the FOXO3A gene, are found much more frequently in humans who live longer lives. Or these clocks might be hormonal: A decrease in growth hormone and insulin growth factor-1 signaling is associated with a longer life in many different species. Probably both of these things contribute to aging.
Other potential clocks include the famous telomeres that are found on the ends of chromosomes and that shorten each time a cell divides. Cells either stop dividing or die when they run out of telomeres, and longer telomeres are associated with longer life spans.
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Stochastic, or damage-based, theories suggest that aging, rather than being regulated, is random. Environmental insults cause damage to DNA, tissues, and cells, and over time these accumulated assaults cause aging. The damage is often a byproduct of normal cellular processes: the same metabolic processes we need to function and fight against disease are the same metabolic processes that cause aging. One of the most notorious of the environmental toxins is the group of oxygen radicals that cause oxidative stress. Oxygen radicals are highly reactive substances that can react with and damage molecules in the body. These radicals are an unavoidable byproduct of respiration. They are even generated purposefully by the body to fight infection. The same processes that give us life move us toward death. And so we’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
A Drink From the Fountain
One thing that the scientists do agree on is that aging probably results from more than one process: It’s both programmed and stochastic, regulated and random. There is no one solution to solve the problem of aging, but there are many ways to slow the process of aging. And so the fountain of youth is a lot like the get-rich-quick scheme. Both promise too much in return for too little to actually be true.
However, just as you can invest an appropriate amount of time and discipline to greatly increase your chances of achieving wealth, you can invest an appropriate amount of time and discipline to greatly increase your chances of living longer.
So the secret to a longer life is no secret at all: Drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen, skip the smoking, drink a little but not too much wine, eat your fruits and vegetables, keep your caloric intake in a healthy range, cook with herbs and spices, chew your food slowly, floss your teeth, sip antioxidant tea, get out and exercise, take in enough omega-3s (fish or flax), turn off the TV, use your brain, meditate, and save worrying for another day.
All You Need Is Love
It didn’t take me long in my wanderings to run into progeria, a rare genetic disease that causes premature aging. Children born with progeria look old by the time they are three, and most die as teenagers due to cardiovascular disease. I came across a TEDx talk by a 17-year-old with progeria titled “My Philosophy for a Happy Life,” and the points were these: don’t waste energy feeling bad for yourself, love and appreciate your friends and family, and have hope.
You can enjoy life, no matter how long you have to live. n