Life Span vs. Life Expectancy
It’s true that the average life expectancy has increased around the globe. In Ancient Greece and Rome, scientists estimate that the average life expectancy was just 20 to 35 years. Thanks to modern medicine and improved hygiene, these numbers have more than doubled, with Americans living about 78.6 years on average. So, can we expect to live to 157 in the future?
When we talk about longevity, there are two terms to keep in mind: life span and life expectancy. Life expectancy is the average age people within a particular society reach. Life span is the maximum age a human can reach.
Life expectancy has jumped, mainly because infant survival rates are much higher than they once were. Poor hygiene and nutrition, less advanced medicine and more communicable diseases meant that newborns in Ancient Greece and Rome had a much lower chance of surviving their first few years. In fact, historians estimate that one-third of newborns passed away before age one, and one-half of children died before age 10.
But when it comes to life span, things haven’t changed much. For example, even in Ancient Greece and Rome, Socrates lived to be about 70 (and eventually died of poisoning by Hemlock). Meanwhile, Plato lived to be about 80 and died of natural causes. These are just the most well-documented cases from that time period, though not the oldest.
All this to say, while most people are living longer, we haven’t made any huge leaps in how long we can live. Some scientists believe that the human life span isn’t increasing because it simply isn’t designed to. That is, they believe nature has a limit on how old humans can live. In a recent study, Dutch researchers proposed that the “age ceiling” for humans is about 115 years old.
Why do people age, anyway? What stops our bodies from living forever? The answer lies in our DNA.
Inside each of our cells is a long strand of DNA. When cells divide, they use those DNA strands to create newer, healthier cells. At the end of these DNA strands are telomeres. Think of them like the plastic piece on the end of a shoestring. Telomeres are there to protect our DNA strands, so having long, healthy telomeres is essential to human life.
But here’s the catch: every time a cell divides, the telomere gets shorter. When telomeres are too short, the cell can no longer divide, and eventually dies. Recent studies show that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer, while people with shorter telomeres may be more likely to die from heart disease or an infectious disease.
Researchers have recently discovered a possible way to lengthen human telomeres, which is good news. But telomeres aren’t the end-all be-all of aging. Scientists aren’t exactly sure if short telomeres are merely a symptom of aging, like gray hair, or the cause of it. There are other aging factors as well, like oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress happens when oxidants damage our body’s DNA, proteins and lipids (fats). Oxidants are highly reactive substances that contain oxygen. Unfortunately, our body naturally creates oxidants when we breathe or experience inflammation, and there’s not much we can do about that. But our bodies also create oxidants when we smoke or drink — and that we can avoid.
The Elixir of Life
If the Elixir of Life exists, it would probably treat DNA damage. In fact, a recent scientific trial on aging may do just that.
Harvard Scientist David Sinclair is an expert in genetics. His research has focused on calorie restricting as a way to slow down the body’s clock. “When we’re calorie restricting, what we’re really doing is telling the body that now is not the time to go forth and multiply,” says Sinclair. “It’s time to conserve your resources, repair things better, fight free radicals [oxidants], and repair broken DNA.”
But Sinclair wanted to find out how to mimic the effects of calorie restricting — without the starvation. That’s how he discovered the effects of NAD, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. NAD is a compound found in all living cells. When tested on lab mice, it was found to have the same effects of calorie restriction. The mice were leaner, more energetic and could run longer on a treadmill.
Is NAD the aging breakthrough humans have been searching for for thousands of years? We’ll find out. Sinclair is testing the effects of NAD in humans to see if it has the same anti-aging effects.
Taking Care of Our DNA
Until we find that mythical cure for aging, how can we stay healthy and hopefully lengthen our lives? Taking care of our cells and DNA plays a significant role.
Telomere length is still a bit of a mystery, but we do know that there are ways to fight oxidative stress. Eating fruits and vegetables every day is one of the best ways to prevent and reduce oxidative stress. Why? Because they’re full of antioxidants! Foods like berries, citrus fruits, broccoli and dark, leafy greens are just a few of the fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants.
You can also fight oxidative stress by exercising regularly, wearing sunscreen, quitting smoking and decreasing your alcohol intake.
The Fountain of Youth sounds great and all, but at Brookdale, we’re all about celebrating life, no matter what chapter you’re in. If you’re interested in our senior living communities, we’d love to chat! Contact us any time.
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