Can We Reach Extreme Longevity with a “Natural” Approach?

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by Nils Osmar. Updated Nov. 21, 2022. Medical Disclaimer

Imagine that you had the power to bring together several thousand people who were interested in longevity. If you asked them about their approaches, you’d find a lot of variations, and widely differing choices.

In group one…

… we’d find people interested in living to somewhere around 90 or 100 in good health Their motto might be that people should “age gracefully”. Their goal might be to feel good physically as their aging — to stay healthy, have good energy, and be able to think clearly as long as they’re around, then pass on quietly in the company of their loved ones. 

Their approach would be to go natural as much as possible. An ideal image of this, from their POV, would be drinking pure stream water; breathing clean mountain air; and growing their own natural, organic food in their own back yards. Or coming as close to this ideal as possible.

In group two…

… we’d find those who are interested in extreme longevity, and possibly even immortality — ie., doing away with the aging process altogether.

Aging could be regarded as a disease, from their point of view; one that we all unfortunately have. Why not do away with it as a cause of death, just as we’ve done away with some other diseases that used to kill people in large numbers? Their motto might be, “Why bother aging in the first place?” Or even — “Why die?”

People in this group might tell you that while eating organic, breathing clean air and drinking pure water are all fine, they won’t get us to immortality. From their perspective, something more basic is needed, which would be likely to come from advances in medical technology.

If a pharmaceutical company ever developed an effective vaccine against aging, they’d be first in line to take it.

Combining approaches

In reality, we can’t completely separate the “natural” approach from the technological.

We can’t all drink pure stream water, but we can get close to the same benefits by using a good water purifier or distiller, which of course is based in technology.

We  can’t all live in the mountains, but we can use air filters and purifiers to remove dirt and dust and noxious gases from our indoor air (a technological solution).

Filtered water and purified air (and even nutritional supplements) are technological approaches on the path to what many people think of as a more natural way of life.

Different goals and strategies

Where the groups differ would be mainly in their longer range goals. Those in Group Two would have no objection to living to 90, 100, or 105 (as a start). But they’d see those as steps toward a more important long-range goal.

Their question –- and mine –– would be, why stop there? If it turns out that we have the capability, why not live to be 150? Or 200? Or 300 or more? In fact…

Why age at all?

Group one might answer, “Oh, you’re being ridiculous. If we really could live to be 150 or 200, we’d be so old and frail by the time we got there, we wouldn’t want to live anymore.” 

But what if we didn’t need to get old and frail? What if we could freeze the aging processes at a certain age, or slow it glacially –– or even reverse aging? What if we could be as healthy at the age of 100, or 200, or 300 as we are at 20? Why “age gracefully” if we may not have to age at all?

If we get cancer, most of us don’t set a goal of coexisting peacefully with it. We don’t go around wishing each other pleasant strokes or heart attacks. We don’t tell people they should “die of cancer gracefully”.

I suspect that the reason we’re so adamant about the idea of aging “gracefully” may be that we’ve given up on the possibility that we may be able to not age at all.

Is death inevitable?

Most of us learned about growing older and dying when we were young. We may have had a pet that died, or a friend or relative.

We asked our parents about it, and were told that everyone and everything dies–– that we may not like aging and dying, but there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should just forget about it, or even try to find the divine inner wisdom of cooperating with the inevitable. 

But what some of us are looking at in the longevity movement is the possibility of a paradigm shift – and the possibility that maybe, someday, people who want to will have the option of staying young and healthy as long as they want.

Other causes of death

Even if we do away with aging, could still die of other things, of course.

If a car hits you or your plane crashes, you could still get badly injured or killed.

But if we learn how to prevent aging, we would not die from old age anymore (because old age would not be happening).  And we’d be less likely to die from cancer, heart disease or diabetes, because all of those conditions are exacerbated by aging.

Some would say that it’s ridiculous to ask whether we might live forever. I would counter that it just seems unthinkable to them because it’s never been done before.

Interestingly, many of the people I’ve talked with say that immortality is ridiculous or undesirable are the same folks who’ve embraced religions that promise that they’ll live forever on another plane of existence. They’re still interested in immortality, they’re just moving it to another (theorized) location in their beliefs, i.e, an “afterlife” in which people would somehow be re=created and live forever. (One of the attractive things about “heaven” is that it’s a supposed place in which people stay vibrant and healthy forever… they never age or die.)

Steps toward immortality

Is the end of aging (here on Earth, not in a theorized “afterlife”) possible? Or is it just another fantasy?

There are signs that aging could be done away with, or at least slowed down. The research is in its infancy. Still it does show some promise. At the time that I’m recording this, we have interventions that could very likely help us to live 20, 30, or even 40 years longer than the usual lifespan.

Getting partway there

We don’t know for sure yet how to increase lifespan in humans. We have clues, but no way to test them directly. (People live too long to conduct longevity studies; it would take more than a typical human lifespan to be sure that an intervention is working.) But we can find some clues in animal studies.

Animals that are fed calorie restricted diets or periodically fasted have been found to live up to 50 percent longer than those that are free to eat unlimited quantities of food whenever they want.

Drinking coffee is associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality.

AKG, available as a supplement, shows evidence of compressing morbidity and slightly extending lifespan.

Creatine has been shown to extend lifespan about 9 percent in mouse studies (the equivalent of seven years in human beings). Fucoidan, rapamycin, metformin and several other compounds all show possible life extending effects.

Raising glutathione by taking approximately equal doses of glycine and N. Acetyl cysteine, in animals, confers a startling 23% increase in lifespan… similar to the life extension seen when animals were given rapamycin together with metformin.

Are supplements ‘natural’?

Yes and no. In a sense we could view taking supplements like berberine or medications such as metformin and rapamycin as being natural approaches. Berberine and metformin come from plant compounds; rapamycin comes from a natural compound which was discovered years ago in the soil. 

But in another sense, of course they’re not. it was technology that identified rapamycin and refined it and made it available as a medication. Making supplements also requires the application of technology.

The longevity pathway

Years of research have established that an enzymatic process called AMPK is the longevity pathway.

AMPK is associated with autophagy, apoptosis and activation of the PGC1-alpha gene. When these processes are activated in lab animals, they live much longer. They stay healthy well beyond their expected end of life –– and have good eyesight, good energy, and stay mentally sharp and clear. Some mice on the longevity pathway live for three or four years in a laboratory setting, instead of two years like their littermates.

The growth pathway

We also know that a different enzymatic process called mTOR is a growth pathway. This pathway can help us to build strong muscles, but if it’s “on” all the time, we’re very likely to die young. If it’s switched off periodically, or kept on a slow burn most of the time, lab animals live much longer.

Some mTOR activity is needed to prevent dementia, keep our immune system strong and keep our muscles from atrophying as we age. But activating it constantly by incessant nibbling; or eating foods high in leucine at every meal is associated in lab animals with a shorter than usual health-span.

We know that some drugs, including rapamycin, can switch on AMPK and lower mTOR in mammals. MTOR in fact stands for “mammalian target of rapaymycin.” 

Rapamycin really is a key anti-aging drug, and it’s reasonable to expect that taking it could result in longer lifespans. It has some side effects, but the idea (in theory) would be to take it and handle those side effects as they come up.

Natural vs. pharmaceutical

The point of “going natural”, to me… growing our own food, eating organic, drinking clean water and breathing clean air, and exercising… is to live live long enough that we’ll still be around when more powerful pharmaceutical interventions become available.

There’s no guarantee that escape velocity will ever be reached. It seems likely to me, but not inevitable. But it’s a fun thought, so my feeling about it is, why not try?

Do we have drugs yet which will completely stop the aging process? No, but researchers are working on them. Rapamycin shows that drug-induced alterations to the aging process are possible. I suspect that as time goes on, we will have much more powerful anti-aging drugs building on the same biochemical architecture in the next thirty or forty years.

At that point, aging will have to be recognized by doctors as a disease condition. (We may actually have the cure before the diagnosis.) Doctors will routinely start patients on very powerful anti-aging drugs somewhere in their forties or fifties. The drugs will probably slow aging at first. It’ll become typical for people to live to be about 120, 130 or 150 years old.

Then more drugs will come along which clean up the damage that even a slowed-down aging process can cause. At that point, we might be on the path to no longer dying from old age, because the aging process will have been effectively done away with as a cause of death.

What kind of future?

Will this lead to problems such as even more pollution, inequality and overpopulation? It could, but there’s no reason it should have to. Curing heart disease and cancer could lead to overpopulation too, but we’re not arguing against curing them for that reason.  If problems of that sort do occur, we’ll have quite a stretch of time to solve them.

In many countries, the population is actually dropping these days due to a decline in fertility; living longer may end up just balancing out that decline.

Will any of this really happen? I would say, maybe. We don’t know what the future will be.

To me, planning for a future like that would also involve things like cleaning up the environment, making sure people all over the world have clean air, clean water, food that’s high in nutrients, and access to medical care when they need it.

It’ll also involve shifting medicine over to an approach that recognizes that preventing aging is the most effective and cost-efficient way of preventing cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Including everyone

It’ll be important, in my opinion, to make sure that life extension isn’t only available to people in relatively privileged groups, any more than other medical interventions should be. Just like other forms of medicine, life extending technologies should (I believe) be made available to everyone who wants access to them.

One thing I like about David Sinclair’s approach is that he doesn’t view dramatic increases in life expectancy as being only for the wealthy, but as something that, if it does turn out to be possible, could change everyone’s lives for the better, not just the lives of the very rich. We could have time to do everything, instead of just some of the things we want to, to find solutions to the other problems facing the world, and to really figure out our lives.

Not medical advice

This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplements, just reporting on what I’m doing. All supplements can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen.  See full Medical Disclaimer

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