We are One Lucky Generation in Seven Thousand

Finding beauty in unexpected places: a bubble blow from soapy water and frozen solid because of the unusually cold tempratures.  An apt image for this cold New Year.
Finding beauty in unexpected places: a bubble blow from soapy water has been frozen before it could erupt due to the unusually frigid temperature. An apt image for this cold new 2014!

“The chief beauty about time
is that you cannot waste it in advance.
The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you,
as perfect, as unspoiled,
as if you had never wasted or misapplied
a single moment in all your life.
You can turn over a new leaf every hour
if you choose.”
— Arnold Bennett

On Positivity, Longevity, Genetics, Civil War Veterans, Leading Scientists, and the New Year

We are now well into January 2014 and it would appear we’ve survived both the ice storm and the blistering cold.  Some people dislike New Year’s resolutions – arguing that they are too soon cast away and that people who were really bent on making a change would do it without the assistance of an arbitrary date wait for such an arbitrary date.

Still – it’s nice to think that although you can’t change the past – you can always re-define your future and change how your story will unfold.  Whether you hope to embrace a new year filled with the things that you already love or whether you hope to welcome a year full of things that have never yet come to pass – it’s worth noting that it is an exceptional time in human history to be alive.  When asking yourself if it’s worth making more time for your health and other such new year’s resolutions you should remind yourself that with care – we are living not just longer lives but much healthier lives.  You may have heard this before and you may just consider a platitude but not to worry – we intend to prove it you.

If you’ve been telling yourself there was no point trying to outrun old age on a treadmill or that it wasn’t worth signing up for that dance class you’ve been considering – let the blistering cold of the holidays wipe clean last year’s mistakes!  With a little work we can stave off fragility for a very long time, possibly forever.

Today, age is no longer synonymous with infirmity.  But you don’t have to take our word for it…

An Unprecedented Era in Human Evolution

The good news is that it’s an incredible time to be part of human history.  According to health and longevity researcher Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, this century’s humans have undergone a form of evolution that is unique among the 7, 000 or so generations of humans who have inhabited the earth.  Not only have we dramatically increased life expectancy – we are also bigger, more robust and powerful than our ancestors.   This has important implications for how we view and think of ageing in the future.

Heart and lung diseases as well as arthritis are occurring 10 to 25 years later than they used to and there is less disability among older people today than there ever has been.  You may, as I did, wonder how researchers are able to determine all of this.   The desire to understand the causes of good health and longevity obviously drives many scientists.  Although there is no one right answer, some leading theories have emerged. They paint a fascinating picture.   Some of these findings may surprise you!

People often say that our new life-extending therapies preserve biological life but that they fall short of granting a life that is actually worth living.  The veracity or falsity of that statement is difficult to assess. Indeed the modern increase in quality of life is difficult to gage given the challenges involved in finding a reliable historical control data set.  But Dr. Fogel and his colleagues found an ideal opportunity to do just that: they analyzed a sample of 50, 000 Union Army Veterans – the first generation to turn 65 during the 20th century. They compared the Verterans’ health data with the health outcomes experienced by seniors today.  They found that people at the turn of the century were not just sicker but that they were sicker much longer than they are today.

According to Fogel, 65% of American men 18-25 signed up to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. Obviously there are always outliers: people who lived longer healthy lives then and people today who become gravely ill early on in life now.  On the whole, however, improvements in health and longevity have been measured in all of the industrialized populations where these studies have been performed.  In 1900, 12% of people who were 65 could expect live to be 85 compared with nearly 50% today.  Only 50% of American men have heart disease by the time they are 60 now compared with yesteryear’s 80%.  These changes have also been accompanied by significant changes in our physiology – American men are now 3 inches taller and a whopping 50 pounds heavier than they were 100 years ago!

The Barker Hypothesis

While genes and modern medicine partially explain away some of the differences that cause some populations to be healthier than others they don’t account for everything.  One of the surprising leading hypotheses has to do with events that take place in the womb and in the early stages of life but whose effects do not manifest until middle and old age.  In the academic community this theory is known as the “Barker hypothesis” after David J.P. Barker, a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

He believes that what happens to us before the age of 2 has a permanent and lasting effect on our health.  He examined the records of several populations that would have undergone hardships – people whose mothers may have been starving or may have been pregnant in adverse conditions. People in Helsinki between 1933 and 1944, for example.  He found that those whose birth weight was mostly less than 6.5 lbs and who had a low BMI, as infants were more likely to suffer from heart disease earlier on in life.

The same was found while studying a population of children born to women pregnant throughout the Dutch famine that took place during World War II.  Dr. Theresa Roseboom found that the children who survived birth seemed fine until late middle age, at which point they began to suffer from chronic diseases at much higher rates than normal (they were three times more likely to get heart disease as people born after the famine and also suffered from more diabetes and kidney disease).

Even those who were initially skeptical have come around.  Dr. Douglas V. Almond of Columbia University originally objected to the Barker hypothesis on the basis that the studies had not examined randomly selected populations.  He felt that this made if difficult to establish causality as a variety of other factors could have been at play. In order to test the hypothesis, he decided to study an event that had affected everyone: the 1918 influenza pandemic. He compared those whose mothers were pregnant during the epidemic with those whose mothers were pregnant shortly before and after.   He found that the children born to mothers pregnant during the flu epidemic had more illness later on, especially diabetes (in this population the incidence was 20% higher by age 61).

Of Cardiovascular Disease and Frailty

Tamara Harris, Chief of Geriatric Epidemiology at the National Institute on Ageing says that the reason some people may age well and others don’t may have to do with frailty involving “exhaustion, weakness, weight loss, loss of muscle mass and strength.  A prognosis whose causes were little understood”.  Frailty is one of the reasons people may loose function and independence while getting older.  Scientists are increasingly finding that undetected cardiovascular disease is the reason people become frail.

There are many misconceptions about cardiovascular disease: people imagine that it mostly affects men and that symptoms are limited to chest pains and stroke.  In fact, cardiovascular disease is not only the leading killer of women; it is also the leading cause of disability. The disease may partially obstruct blood vessels in the brain, legs, kidneys and heart resulting in exhaustion, mental confusion and weakness. Once people stop using their muscles for walking, standing etc., they atrophy – unfortunately leading to further frailty.

The Future Looks Different

These are but two of the leading scientific theories that explain why people are living healthier longer lives and why we know that this trend will only increase as the boomers age. Today’s boomers will be the first generation to grow up having had childhood vaccines and antibiotics. Their early lives were better than their parents’.

Investigators also hope that new insights into the role played by cardiovascular disease in late-life disability will enable them to slow, delay or prevent these changes by treating the disease instead of the symptoms.

In 1957, the life expectancy of a 65-year-old Canadian was 14.6 years. By 2007, it had risen to 20.0 years. And those extra years are healthier too.  Will old age be the same for boomers?  No, it will not.  Old age just might not be so bad after all… Perhaps a set of new year’s resolutions might just be in order!