Humans might have a limited life span, but there are ways to max out
As a species, we humans are doing pretty well. Species recognizable as human have been going for a couple million years at least, and homo sapiens have made it a few hundred thousand years, outlasting other hominids. We’ve developed tools and skills that have us on top of a world once dominated by giant reptiles. As individuals, we’ve been living longer too. Agricultural revolutions, basic hygiene, and medical advancements combined in the last couple centuries to really shoot life expectancy up.
In the last few decades, some of us have gotten very interested in extending our lives as long as possible. Those who study such things call it an essentialist mindset, “aimed at conquering or significantly postponing a biologically determined aging process.” Others are more laid-back about the whole thing, choosing to take life as it comes. Those who want to push the envelope on aging don’t just want to live longer, they want to live well longer. There are ways to increase longevity, but research hints that there might be an upper limit to our life span no matter what we do.
Natural vs. Medical
If we could simply get rid of disease (cancer and heart disease being the two biggest threats) and other stressors, we’d be able to live longer. But a study by Singapore-based Gero measuring blood cell counts and step counts determined that even without major stressors, these diminish over time. Our ability to bounce back fades over time, and we lose a step. The study put our maximum life span at somewhere between 120 and 150 years (the oldest person on record died at 122). A 2016 analysis in “Nature” determined that while there will be the occasional Jeanne Calment (the 122-year-old French woman who died in 1997), the probability of one person in a given year being 125 or older is 1 in 10,000 and the “natural limit” is around 115 years.
“The result in this paper is absolutely correct, but it says nothing about the potential of future medicine, only the performance of today’s and yesterday’s medicine,” Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist at SENS Research Foundation, told Scientific American.
In just the last few years, devices that can help us lead healthier lives have become widely available. Fitness and health trackers keep track of our workouts and even give us EKGs. Fall detection devices allow older people to get quick help even if they’re alone, and social media keep them connected to friends and loved ones.
Medical facilities have equipment that detects potentially life-threatening conditions early enough to treat. Originally tried as a diabetes treatment, Metformin has been hailed as a wonder drug that may enable us to live longer. Bank of America is betting on “moonshot medicine” from companies like genetics-focused Illumina and Sangamo Therapeutics to push the average human lifespan past 100.
Mind Over Matter
The same mindset that makes people want to live longer might help them do it. The types of people determined to beat aging are extremely motivated.
“Goals are the states people deem personally desirable and want to achieve,” she explains. “They provide direction and meaning, they motivate us to acquire new skills or maintain functioning and give us a sense of agency and control to shape our lives according to our values,” Dr. Alexandra Freund, lead guest author for a supplement in the “Journals of Gerontology” told Very Well Mind.
The supplement focused on the importance of motivation for longevity. It drives people to eat well, exercise, connect with other people, and look forward to milestones. Motivations will change as we change, but setting goals remains life-giving. It takes effort, though.
“As we age, it’s harder to have a get-up-and-go attitude toward things,” Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT and member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, said. “This get-up-and-go, or engagement, is important for our social well-being and for learning — it’s tough to learn if you aren’t attending and engaged.”
She and her fellow researchers are working on possible drug treatments that could stimulate striosomal activity in the brain, making it easier for us to stay motivated as we age.
Dos and Don’ts
If you’re motivated now to live longer, there are few habits you can take up – and a few you can stop – that might extend your life.
- Count calories – Reducing caloric intake by as little as 10% can increase your lifespan. Hara hachi bu (“eat until you’re 80% full”) is a technique employed by many in Okinawa, where there are four times as many centenarians as anywhere else in the world.
- Eat more plant-based foods – vegetarian and vegan diets can lower risk of premature death by 12-15%. Chances of getting heart disease, cancer, depression, and brain deterioration are lower for vegetarians and vegans. You don’t have to give up meat altogether, just maybe mix in more salads and nuts.
- Exercise – This comes as no surprise, but staying physically active – even for as little as 15 minutes per day – can help you live longer.
- Make friends – Forging and maintaining connections with other people makes you happier and gives you things to look forward to. Amazingly, a healthy social circle can help you live up to 50% longer than living in isolation. And what good is living longer if you’re not sharing life with friends.
On the other side of the coin, there are vices you can ditch to live longer:
- Sitting still – Sitting for extended periods has been linked to obesity, hypertension, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. For those who work long hours, a standing desk can get you off your feet periodically.
- Stressing out – Stress and anger trigger our bodies to produce cortisol, which can be bad for your heart, immune system, and metabolism. Yoga and breathing exercises are excellent tools for keeping calm amid the stresses life throws at you.
- Burning the midnight oil – People who sleep less than six hours per night are at higher risk of premature death than those who get between six and nine hours (yes, sleeping too much is also bad). Setting the right atmosphere with darkness, meditation, and white noise can work wonders.
- Eating processed foods – We all get busy, and sometimes we need to stuff something in our faces quickly and get back to work. But the sugar, saturated fat, and especially sodium often found in takeout and frozen food really take their toll on your body. Yet another reason to eat more plant-based food.