Centenarian Envy

Is there such a thing as centenarian envy? Do many people read articles about gung-ho, active centenarians and scheme on how to do just as well in later life? I suspect envy could be a powerful motivator in this case, especially now that the mainstream media has come into the habit of linking centenarians with aging and longevity research:

Right now, most Americans say they don't want to live that long. A USA TODAY/ABC News Poll of 1,000 adults released today shows that Americans, on average, would like to live to be 87 years old, up from the current life span of nearly 78. Just a quarter of the people who responded to the poll said they want to live to be 100 or older.

If researchers could make it possible to live to 120, most Americans would take a pass. Their reasons: Most worry that they'll become disabled by health problems and end up being a burden to their families.

But old age, as Murray illustrates, doesn't always translate to disability or even disease. And scientists already have made some progress toward provocative, futuristic therapies that would slow the aging process itself.

Research by Richard Weindruch at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others, for example, suggests that an extremely low-calorie diet, one right on the edge of starvation, pushes the life span of mice and other animals to an extreme. If people get the same benefit, some might live beyond 120, about the longest the human body is thought to be able to last today.

Other advances on the horizon include genetic research to identify those genes that might one day protect people from heart disease and other age-related killers.

The National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health, last week announced plans to use its gene-sequencing capabilities to search for the genetic roots of diseases that have long eluded scientists.

And scientists at the University of Utah and other research institutions believe that telomeres - long segments of repeated "junk" DNA on the ends of chromosomes - might hold the same key to human longevity that they do to the life of an individual cell. The Utah team linked shortened telomeres to higher death rates from heart disease and infections, speculating that telomere-lengthening drugs could add years to a human life.

Attitudes towards aging and living longer are very shaped by the Tithonus error, as the survey mentioned above demonstrates - far too many people have no enthusiasm for healthy life extension precisely because they think it that a longer life necessarily means more infirmity and disease. Nothing could be further from the case, of course; all successful efforts to repair or prevent age-related cellular damage will contribute to extending your healthy years and postponing age-related degeneration.

Can centenarian envy overcome the widespread Tithonus error in popular culture, leading to greater support for healthy life extension research and a future of legitimate, working anti-aging medical technology? We can hope so - and it certainly can't hurt to see more of this sort of article in the press.

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Years ago I heard about this British guy back in the 19th Century who had died at the ripe old age of 154 years and 9 months (rumor has it that he died as a result of the foods the king had served at a banquet thrown in honor of his old age, and as a result of the king's guilt at the reason for his death, he is now interred at West Minster Abby). All he ate was meat and potatoes.

Is this true or just a rumor?

Posted by: Joseph A Nagy Jr at October 24th, 2005 8:08 AM

Based on what we know of human biology, I think it's safe to say that myths of historical superlongevity are nothing more than myths.

Posted by: Reason at October 24th, 2005 10:26 AM

I really think the Mouse prize has the best chance of overcoming Tithons error.

I also think Mr. Nagy's British fellow was pretending to be his own grandfather in an attempt at fame and fortune. It got him a nice last meal anyway.

Posted by: Brock at October 24th, 2005 11:35 AM
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