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Saturday, October 19, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Holding back the years: Scientists say extended youth may be near

The Washington Post

Just one generation ago, Jack Benny got laughs of recognition for perpetually claiming to be 39. At the time, 40 was over the hill. The idea of sexy 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds seemed a contradiction in terms.

How aging has changed. When feminist Gloria Steinem turned 50 at a gala looking "younger, thinner and blonder than ever," as one partygoer put it, she famously insisted, "This is what 50 looks like." That was 18 years ago. Now we have grandparents in their 80s casually jet-setting off to the Great Wall of China, and dancing, prancing rock 'n' roll stars in their 60s.

Remarkably, such pioneers of agelessness have accomplished all this using what some would call primitive means — exercise and diet, for example, antibiotics and vaccines, makeup and plastic surgery.

Today, a whole new industry is booming that vows to slow, halt or actually reverse aging. The lure is not just achieving advanced years. It is doing so vigorously and even, dare we say it, youthfully.

$6 billion-a-year industry

Americans are spending an estimated $6 billion this year on substances from ginkgo biloba to human growth hormone that claim to offer new powers. Some scientific skeptics think all those potions are simply passing through people's metabolisms producing nothing but expensive urine.

At the same time:

• Respected demographers calculate that half the American girls born today will live to be 100.

• The number of people older than 100 in America has been increasing by more than 7 percent per year since the '50s.

• Dozens of companies have been created in the past five years that are in the business of dramatically slowing aging. Some are staffed by distinguished scientists, including former members of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The question is whether this all reflects the naive hopes of creaky baby boomers or something like reality, in which case the baby boomers may be the last generation to die traditional old-age deaths. If the latter, how does such an enormous shift affect human nature itself?

The anti-aging industry continuum has, at its extremes, two camps. One consists of scientists who publish in prominent peer-reviewed journals and say there is absolutely nothing available right now that will stop or reverse the aging process, period — although of course they're working like crazy to change that.

The far larger group at the other end is the one at which throngs of Americans are throwing money. It includes people with fewer credentials who are only too happy to sell you tonics for which they make enticing claims. Their products include everything from vitamin E to shark cartilage to light rays.

The establishment scientists view such claims as at best unproven and at worst the work of "quacks, snake-oil salesmen and charlatans," as S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago puts it.

He leads what has become known as the Gang of 51, a group of scientists who study aging that, in May, put out a report flatly declaring, "At present, there is no such thing as an anti-aging intervention."

Firing back

Needless to say, those who believe they can offer such products — and in whom many Americans are investing their faith — beg to differ.

"Flat-Earthers" is how Ronald Klatz, 47, describes his detractors. Klatz is president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, or A4M, an organization that boasts 11,500 practitioners in 65 countries.

He sees the science and medical establishments as out to get him.

He lists Science, Scientific American and the Journal of the American Medical Association as publications that "sandbagged anti-aging medicine without justification and without science."

Klatz believes that within 10 years, we will begin to achieve "the technology necessary to accomplish mankind's oldest wish: practical immortality — life-spans of 200 years and beyond," as he wrote recently in the magazine The Futurist. "Humankind will evolve toward an Ageless Society, in which we all experience boundless physical and mental vitality."

Over most of the course of human existence, average life expectancy hovered between 20 and 30 years. In part this is because so many infants died, but that doesn't obscure a bleak evolutionary fact: For hundreds of thousands of years, not long after we reproduced, we died. Even in Western Europe, life expectancy did not reach 40 until 1800 and 50 until 1900, note demographers James Vaupel and Bernard Jeune in "Exceptional Longevity: From Prehistory to the Present."

In industrialized countries, female life expectancy is now above 80, slightly less for men. This represents close to a fourfold increase. Over the same period, your chance of living to 100 has increased from roughly 1 in 20 million to 1 in 50. The number of centenarians in the developed world has been increasing by more than 7 percent a year every year since the '50s, Vaupel says.

Life expectancy growing

In the journal Science, Vaupel and his co-author, Jim Oeppen, noted "an astonishing fact." Since 1840 — for 160 years — life expectancy has been growing by a quarter of a year every year. "In 1840, the record for longest life expectancy was held by Swedish women, who lived on average a little more than 45 years," they noted. "Among nations today, the longest expectation of life — almost 85 years — is enjoyed by Japanese women."

This stream of progress shows no sign of slowing down, they say. In the first half of the 20th century, we knocked back death among the young. Clean water, antibiotics and vaccines played enormous roles. In the second half, we improved survival after age 65. Incremental progress in fighting four big killers of the aged — heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and stroke — continues briskly.

The proverbial march of science has if anything accelerated. Ask yourself: Do you think the sequencing of the human genome, stem cells and cloning will have any effect on medicine? If so, you might find credible Vaupel's controversial projection that the average American girl born today will live to see 100.

This, of course, does little good if all we end up with is a vast cohort of geezers "drooling on their shoes," as Klatz puts it.

That's why the anti-aging industry isn't particularly interested in gerontology — patching up the old, hobbled and doddering. How more efficient would it be to interrupt the aging process in the first place, they reason.

For them, the object of the game is to die young.

As late as possible.

Mental exercise's benefits

A growing mass of research points to the importance of mental recreation. Scientists no longer view the brain as a static organ that inevitably declines with age. Quite the opposite. The brain possesses amazing plasticity and can rebuild damaged connections — all the while expanding its powers.

Education and intellectual activity are correlated with longer life spans and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. People who aggressively use their minds from early childhood through their 40s and 50s maintain their memories better as they age.

The famous Nun Study, which analyzed the lives and brains of 678 Catholic nuns, showed that fostering linguistic ability in childhood and stimulating the expression of complex ideas may protect against Alzheimer's disease.

PET scanning studies found that college graduates have higher activity in the posterior cingulate, a key part of the brain involved in memory performance. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, sums it up in his book, "The Memory Bible":

"Mental stimulation, or exerting our brains in various ways intellectually, may tone up our memory performance, protect us from future decline in brain function, and may even lead to new brain-cell growth in the future!"

Even rats do better in stimulating environments. In experiments, the ones with toys and treadmills grew new brain cells, had more synapses, ran faster through mazes and generally appeared more intelligent than rats in ordinary laboratory cages.

"Continual, lifelong mental stimulation is healthy for human brains as well," continues Small. "Mentally and physically active people over age 65 have been found to have higher IQ test scores and higher blood flow into the brain compared with those who remain inactive over a four-year period."

'GRIN' technologies

Geriatrics researchers are up to their lab rats in work on memory, impotence, menopause, baldness, wrinkles, obesity, deafness, muscle loss, bone loss, cholesterol buildup and general aches and pains. But these relatively conventional research directions, while promising, aren't the sort of thing that fires up visions of godlike immortality.

For that you want the revolution described by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce in a July report. It points to the four rapidly evolving and intertwining "GRIN" technologies: genomics, robotics, information and nano-engineering. Together they hold the potential of "a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes and quality of life," the report says.

"The human body will be more durable, healthy, energetic, easier to repair, and resistant to many kinds of stress, biological threat and (the) aging process," the report states.

That's why the inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, 54, is personally eating very few carbohydrates and fats, taking more than a hundred supplements and trying not to be too big of a nag to others his age. But he almost can't help himself.

"If I look at my kids — kids in their teens, 20s or even 30s — unless they have unusual problems, a decade or two from now they will be young and the revolutions will be in full force. They don't have to do a lot to benefit from really radical life extensions," Kurzweil says.

"The oblivious generation is my own. The vast majority are going to get sick and die in the old-fashioned way. They don't have to do that. They're right on the cusp," he maintains.

Like many others, he sees biotechnologies within the decade that will, for example, allow us to regrow our tissues and organs, prevent hardening of the arteries and cure diabetes. Beyond 10 years he sees technologies that will allow us to supplement our red and white blood cells with little robotic devices that are hundreds of times faster.

"Our biological systems are really very inefficient, not optimally engineered," he says. A well-designed blood system, he says, will allow you to "run an Olympic sprint for 16 minutes without taking a breath."

He also sees us replacing our gastrointestinal system with an engineered one that would allow us to eat as much of anything as we want, for sociability and pleasure, while our new gut "intelligently extracts nutrients from food" and trashes the rest. "Our whole GI system is pretty stupid. It stores too much fat," he says.

"There's always risks, but I really envision living through this century and beyond, and it does give me a sense of the possibilities. I am not looking to slow down 10 years from now and be happy if I make it to 80. It's liberating. I envision doing things and being different kinds of people that the normal model of human wouldn't allow," says Kurzweil.

But to get there, you've got to take care of yourself now, he insists.

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