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May 19, 2013

If you want to live longer, do nothing

Posted by in categories: biotech/medical, life extension

By Avi Roy, University of Buckingham

I want to live longer and help others do the same. I assumed the most effective way to do that is by understanding the science of aging and then engineering solutions to extend human lifespan. That is why I became a biomedical researcher and over the past several years I have pursued this goal almost single-mindedly.

When a 2004 study showed that reducing the calorie intake in mice extended their life by 42%, I enthusiastically embraced the results and even put myself on a calorie restricted diet. But, subsequently, a 2012 study showed that long-term calorie restriction may not have the promised benefits. On the contrary, fewer calories without the required nutrients might actually cause harm.

Calorie restriction is not the first such “promising” route that eventually did not live up to the promise, and it will not be the last. Antioxidants showed promise in holding back diseases caused by aging, but now we know that antioxidant supplements are more likely to shorten your life.

Earlier in May, researchers showed that reducing a protein called NF-kB in mouse brains modestly improved their lifespan. I am not holding out for this result either. Before too long, I’m sure there will be reports of severe side effects of manipulating levels of NF-kB.

Take it easy

Looking at the data I have come to the conclusion that “doing nothing” may be the best option in most cases. This may not be as pessimistic as it sounds and it is definitely not to say that research in fighting aging must not be carried out.

When I say “do nothing”, I am assuming that you do not smoke or drink too much alcohol, and have access to medical care in case of injury. Such measures are bound to increase your lifespan.

But currently, not intervening in the aging process is more likely to help you live longer than trying any of the methods I’ve mentioned, not by a few months but by many years. Trying any of those interventions may actually cause harm, and will do so for the foreseeable future.

Lesson from the past

The chart below shows the survival rates – the percentage of the population that lives to a certain age – for men in England and Wales from 1860 to 2010.

In the 1860s, more than 20% of children died at birth or soon after. On average, men’s health started to decline around the age of 30, and only about 20% of the population survived for more than 70 years.

By 1910, child mortality decreased, thanks to improvements in hygiene and better medical care. This meant more men lived past the age of 50. Circle A shows this reduction in childhood mortality between 1860 and 2010. But, as can be seen from Circle D, the gain towards the end was not significant. This is because only 30% of males passed the age of 70.

Fifty years later, after the discovery of penicillin and invention of more vaccines, 90% of English and Welsh men lived until 50, and more than half survived to 70. Arrow B marks this trend.

Today almost 80% of men live to the age of 70. Four times as many men reach 70 now than in 1860.

What accounts for the change? Between 1860 and 1960, the significant increase in survival rate was due to medical intervention. Since 1960, the survival curve has improved mainly due to reduction in smoking.

This trend is similar in many rich countries, including the US. Druin Burch, a physician and writer, says in his book Taking the Medicine, that eliminating smoking would provide more benefits than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer.

Age gracefully

Many experts believe that human lifespan might actually have an upper limit of 125 years. The average may not increase much beyond 90. If we are to agree with them, this leaves little room for improvement.

But we have never concentrated on maximising human lifespan before. Most people believe human lifespan is finite, so all drugs being manufactured today are targeted towards certain age-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. They are not designed to extend human lifespan.

If this bleak outlook is indeed true, we should not practise naive interventionism because it is unlikely to help. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his book Antifragile, naive interventionism occurs when we try to fix a single thing, but end up disturbing a complex system.

In case of extending human lifespan, those naive interventions would include calorie restriction, antioxidant supplements or manipulating the protein NF-kB, as mentioned earlier. They also include the current obsession with replacing fat in foods with sugar, the health benefits of drinking red wine, or the use ofsurgery or supplements to “fight” aging. This latter industry has grown in the past decade from being non-existent to an estimated worth of $88 billion today.

If intervening in the aging process with current biomedical science has any positive effect at all, it will be far too small to worry about. It’s far more likely to harm us.

That is why I have decided to do nothing and follow a simple rule: unless I meet with an accident, or suffer from a terminal disease, I will not add anything to my life with the explicit purpose of extending it. To do anything else would most likely do more harm than good.

Avi Roy does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Marios Kyriazis on May 22, 2013 3:54 am

    I agree with everything in this article, apart from the ‘Do Nothing’ bit. Current attempts at using pills, nutrients, injections etc against aging will have no effect in significantly extending lifespan. Biomedical or biotechnological interventions have (and will have) a disappointing effect on aging. However, if you ‘do nothing’ you go against your own philosophy (which was, as you said, to find ways in order to extend lifespan. There are other ways that may be useful in this respect, ways that are not based on biotechnology. See for example this: http://immortallife.info/articles/entry/environmental-enrich…-lifespans,

    or perhaps you can join us at

    http://www.elpisfil.org

  • Ivan Lovric on May 22, 2013 7:00 am

    I agree with the do nothing but with some more accuracy. Let’s say Do Nothing REAL but go Virtual or even more Spiritual. The difficulty here is that going virtual in order to do nothing real may lead us to compete with virtual agents which is already the case in video games, and might getting worse with artificial sinularity, so I’m not so sure that our virtual lifespan may dramatically extend. The goal seems to improve our spiritual skills, and I suspect that going virtual may help us improving our spiritual capabilities

  • John Thompson on May 22, 2013 12:54 pm

    I think that the Taleb quote has some validity.… The thing is, the complex body needs complex life-extension — if it’s a complex system right? So if you are going to do caloric restriction, whether the reduced calories are nutrient dense calories is the issue and probably effects the results of the study and how big and how long the cohort is matters too.… The complexity and parsing gets left out sadly. But people know. Toxic junk is bad, like cigs, or too much A. But DHA and EPA in balance, is good.

    So you’re going live longer with certain behaviors. Same with vitamins. I disagree that vitamin supplements shortens your life. Where’s the study on this? If you have a deficiency, taking a supplement is common sense. Even vitamin averse doctors subscribe B-12 and E — amongst others … C, etc..

    Another thing I’d add, is I want to try telomere lengthening. TA — 65. Sierra Sciences. Love to hear more about that.

    And I think that cleaning the epithelial and Lyso SENS — also mito SENS sounds very promising also.

    Gene therapies too — RNAi.

    Plus there are new proteins being used to regenerate cells in the body like the PIM 1 modification with Cardiomyocytes — rejuvenates hearts. And the author did point out medical care. So he did elude to regen med.…

    Eating nutrient dense foods gets left out — but not smoking or drinking too much too. So I agree with the author on that. But it’s complexity that is getting undermined by going a bit too simple — simple is great though!

    Bottom line … the future of expensive things we can do is exciting if we have money, until they scales … and supplements get a bad rap here.

  • Allen Taylor on May 28, 2013 2:10 pm

    The 2012 study with rhesus monkeys that supposedly showed no benefit in calorie restriction was deeply flawed and showed no such thing, although the shallow-minded press trumpeted that message. Read the study and you will find that the CONTROL monkeys were restricted too, and there was no monitoring to see whether they ate all of their monkey chow every day. They could well have been just as restricted as the experimental monkeys, so it is not surprising that they are not showing symptoms of aging significantly sooner than the experimental monkeys.