Seeing the 22d century -- in person

Health: Medical breakthroughs that could extend life and improve old age may well be close.

Life After 50

January 30, 2000|By Maureen West | Maureen West,Arizona Republic

Many readers of this article, particularly those at midlife or younger, probably expect to live through a good half or more of the new century.

What they may not be counting on, however, is the speed of medical progress:

Some people who are middle-aged today may well live through the entire 21st century.

The average life span was 47 years when the 20th century began. It is now 76 years, thanks to public health improvements, antibiotics, vaccinations, heart surgery, cancer treatments and other breakthroughs. Some scientists say the American life span could double by the end of the century, thanks to tinkering with the root causes of aging and disease.

A world of 150-year-olds doesn't mean a world of tottering frailty: Extended longevity will be the result of robust health, extending into the ninth decade of life and beyond.

There are an estimated 70,000 Americans who are 100 years old or older. That number has tripled since 1980.

If this all seems like an extended pre-death limbo that you're really not looking forward to, be cheered by the probability that things such as wrinkles, gray hair, old skin, old muscles, old brain cells, old eyes, old spouses and poor memories could be fixed at the spa with pills, creams, injections and flavored sorbets.

As a new century begins, scientists studying aging are cautiously optimistic about making progress soon in addressing the cause of aging and the diseases associated with aging. They have had astonishing success in recent years in increasing the life spans of laboratory species such as worms and fruit flies. Genetic advances also offer tremendous potential.

Life spans of 200?

Although some on the fringe of the scientific world are predicting life spans of 200 or more within the next 50 years, most of those doing the more serious aging research aren't saying they agree or disagree.

When pressed, however, they are beginning to say fairly amazing things.

"My hunch is that there's a 75 percent chance that someone born today will live to be 150," said Steve Austad, a University of Idaho biologist specializing in aging and the author of "Why We Age."

"Over the next couple of decades, we will be able to unravel the mechanism of aging," said Cynthia Kenyon, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California-San Francisco.

They noted that with just a few genetic alterations, scientists have created worms and fruit flies that have life spans twice the norm and that die healthy and vigorous -- the worm or fly equivalent of being 90 and looking 45.

Incremental increases

Judith Campisi of the Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley, one of the leading experts on cancer and aging, sees average life spans increasing in increments, as the diseases that kill us are eliminated.

She said, "I expect we will be able to ameliorate and perhaps reverse some of the disabling conditions that plague the last decade or so of human life."

Stem cell research in particular, she said, offers the potential replenishment of cells lost due to aging, trauma or disease.

Most age researchers are more excited about quality of life than quantity of years.

"What many people don't realize is that we are talking about having 90-year-olds who are as functional as 50-year-olds," said Kenyon.

Quality of life may be safer to talk about because the culture may not be ready for the idea of more of us living to 120. When Campisi explained to a group in San Francisco that her aging research could dramatically extend the lives of people, the problem of overpopulation came up.

"The perception that what we are doing is bad for all humankind can't be ignored," she worried.

"There is huge hypocrisy around this issue," said Austad. "Some of the same people who respond that too many people will live too long are lined up at the drug counters buying melatonin and other supplements purported to have anti-aging powers."

Ethics of aging

Bill Arnold, director of the gerontology program at Arizona State University, worries that without thoughtful discussions now, only the rich will be able to benefit from some of the scientific advances.

"Ethics will become a major point of discussion where science, medicine, economics and aging interface," he said.

"In some ways, the biggest challenges facing aging America will be psychological," said Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and author of a new book, "Age Power." "America has always considered itself a young nation, a new society -- not an old one."

But Dychtwald predicts that it will happen: "We are the beneficiaries of a Wild West of organ cloning, cyborg body parts, nutriceuticals and biotech manipulations of the biological clock to the extraordinary extent that some baby boomers will live well past 100 with the look and feel of 50- and 60-year-olds."

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