Running The Longevity Gauntlet
Us humans are running the longevity gauntlet, we always have been, and we always will be. The gauntlet that we are running today looks different from the one we were running a hundred years ago, and much more different than the one of a thousand or a hundred thousand years back. And the gauntlet will look much different in the next couple decades as well. The gauntlet is always changing due to breakthroughs in medical science as well as personal lifestyle choices.
Each of us is running the same gauntlet, but because of personal choices each of us makes in the way we live our lives, this gauntlet looks a lot different for each of us. For some the gauntlet feels like an endless set of obstacles, while for others it seems almost non-existent.
Most people living in the Western world address the gauntlet via medical treatments, prescription drugs, or questionable supplements, each of which is designed specifically to help us clear the current hurdle we face in the gauntlet. If we are lucky, and most are, we clear the hurdle, take a breath and then find ourselves facing the next one, which modern medicine has been working diligently on a treatment for. We undergo that treatment and if we are lucky enough, we survive and get to face the next hurdle. This is the gauntlet.
Some of us are running a gauntlet that looks much different. For some of us, the hurdles in the gauntlet are so tiny that we don’t even know that they are there. Believe it or not, it is highly possible to live a life where the gauntlet doesn’t even exist (at least not until we face the final hurdle - death itself). While dying of old age has disappeared from the certificate of death, our goal is to make it reappear.
Tricking The Timekeeper
We climbed down out of the trees and began walking upright about 8 million years ago, we started really looking human about 2 million years ago, we were almost fully modern about 200,000 years ago, and we became the people we are today about 70,000 years ago. Give or take. 8 million years of evolution has led to what we are today, and whatever it was that was good or bad for us during that stretch still lingers within us to this day.
While evolution has been fairly kind to us as a species, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve.
The trade-off - the things that help us survive early in life are the very things that take us down toward the end. The systems that help us grow and become strong are the very same ones that cause diseases such as cancer. Even more diabolical is what our DNA has in store for us. Our DNA doesn’t care about the quality of our lives and if we are happy or not. All it cares about is that we carry out its reproduction and survival through propagation and development into a creature that can repeat the cycle. Any amount of time we spend on the planet after carrying out this task is not only un-useful but actually an obstacle. Once we became obsolete, we needed to be gotten rid of.
Mother Nature needed an indicator to know when we were becoming obsolete. Unfortunately, even though we have developed an advanced society with an excess of all the resources that were so scarce for our ancestors, Mother Nature didn’t get the memo. Most, if not all the internal triggers that announced our ensuing obsolescence within our ancient ancestors, still exist within us today.
If we could figure out what those triggers are, maybe we could figure out how to turn them off. There is a wealth of scientific research being applied to figuring out this exact problem. But currently, they are still just scratching the surface. So for now all we can do is apply mostly correlational data and anecdotal success stories to try and come up with our own strategies to navigate the gauntlet.
We could start with a question - What might indicate that an individual is no longer a productive part of the society enshrined with the task of propagating the species? Two things come to mind, first a cessation in propagation (not having sex), and the second being an inability to provide for the immediate family or the tribe. This would entail an inability to hunt or gather, predominantly, by getting slower and weaker.
“The latter part of the life cycle [becomes] a genetic garbage can.” - Geneticist Michael Rose
For the former, all we need to do is convince our bodies that we are still in the process of producing offspring. While Mother Nature has built in regulators telling her when reproduction is supposed to stop, what if the hormones produced during sex create a conflict in the system. Maybe just trying is enough to push back the expiration date a bit. It’s definitely worth a shot. What’s the harm?
For the latter - what if we could convince our bodies that we are still tracking and hunting and gathering (not slowing down), that we are still producing and still worthy of sticking around for a few extra years. If we can reproduce the physical stimulus that tells our physiological systems that we are still viable and valuable, then maybe we can head off our inevitable decline.
We have the tools and the time at our disposal to do all the things necessary to maintain that stimulus-response mechanism for quite a long time. Much longer than Mother Nature built into us. It’s definitely plausible, if not entirely possible, but even if we are not sure of it’s probability, the things we will do in the process of attempting to trick Mother Nature into giving us a few more decades are proven to aid in the improvement in our chances of defeating the hurdles of the gauntlet and will most assuredly improve the years we have in us. And that’s the real goal anyway.
Spoiler Alert - You may notice a lot of similarities in the causes and prevention strategies for most of the diseases of the gauntlet.
Reduction of Inflammation
Inflammation is one of the responses of the body's immune system. When an infection or injury is detected, there is an inflammatory response as a part of the immune response. This is known as acute inflammation, and it is accompanied by pain, swelling, and redness, and usually only lasts for a few hours or days.
Chronic inflammation is when this response lingers and can even spread throughout the entire body. The pain and swelling may be unnoticeable and we may not even know we are experiencing it. But for many, it exists and can be the cause of persistent ailments and diseases. Chronic inflammation is indicated in almost every one of the diseases we potentially face in the gauntlet including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and cognitive decline and dementia (in older adults).
Causes of chronic inflammation include chronic stress, untreated acute inflammation, autoimmune disorders, chemical irritants, smoking, obesity, and alcohol.
Lifestyle changes are the best way to reduce chronic inflammation in the short run as well as the long-term. These lifestyle changes include the most obvious like quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption (especially the hard stuff), and avoiding toxic chemicals in our urban environment. But to take it to the next level, we need to adopt a physically active lifestyle that includes adequate cardio and strength training aimed at achieving a healthy physique as well as consuming the nutrients our body needs (nuts, leafy greens, fatty fish, tomatoes, fruits, berries, olive oil) while reducing and eliminating the substances (refined carbs, sugars, hydrogenated oils, processed meats) that are harmful.
Report from PubMed - Strategies for Reducing or Preventing the Generation of Oxidative Stress
After decades of research and hundreds of billions of dollars invested, there still is no cure for cancer, only treatments. While many of these treatments have been proving more and more successful, there still seems to be only one viable “cure” for cancer and that is prevention.
There is growing evidence that cancers or, more accurately, cancerous cells and tissues, progress through their entire life cycle within us throughout our entire lives. But, it is our immune system that keeps these cells from progressing and becoming deadly. The key is that our immune system must keep these cancers from reaching a level of development that they can no longer be eliminated.
In fact, studies have been done showing that when a cancer reaches a certain growth level, it can incorporate the very immune cells that are supposed to fight it. When this happens, the immune system will no longer even attempt to fight the cancer. At this point, our fate lies with the medical community to help in its eradication. It’s possible that this is the point when the cancerous cells become what is diagnosed as cancer.
So, every one of us not only possesses the ability to fight off every type of cancer, it is something we are doing all the time. Odds are that it is only when external factors weaken our immune system’s ability to eliminate cancerous, or pre-cancerous cells that we struggle to contain it.
Obviously, different types of cancer will be affected by different lifestyle choices (i.e. smoking and lung cancer, alcohol and liver cancer, etc…), but by making overall healthy choices, we can successfully combat the whole family of cancers that we face.
Adoption of a healthy lifestyle that strengthens and improves our immune system will create an environment within us that is ill-suited for cancer growth, while at the same time eradicating the cells that do happen to become cancerous..
Preventing Heart Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death amongst both men and women, and has held the top spot for most of the past hundred years. While we could examine the most common causes of heart disease:
- High blood pressure and cholesterol
- Overweight and obesity
- Poor diet
- Lack of physical activity
It is important to question why heart disease became the number one killer in the first place. There was a time when people, for the most part, didn’t die from heart disease. So what changed? Were we more active? Did we consume more whole food and less processed stuff? How much sugar did we consume a hundred years ago? Most women avoided smoking. Once our hygiene improved, we were living a much healthier lifestyle, believe it or not.
It is more than obvious that heart disease is caused by lifestyle choices, but the good news is that the poor choices we have been making can be changed for the better. These lifestyle choices are as simple as adopting a proper diet, getting adequate exercise, and quitting smoking.
But these changes must start today. It would be far better to start your cardio routine before the heart attack, and preventing plaque build up in our arteries is much easier than getting rid of it. And there’s never a better time to stop smoking than today. Integrating these three lifestyle choices into our everyday lives will drastically reduce our risk of heart disease from the obstacles in the gauntlet.
There are so many reasons that we must do whatever we can to protect our heart and keep it healthy, but there is one last thing to consider - Every cell type in our body has some level of regeneration, except cardiac cells. Whatever damage we do to our heart, it is permanent.
“When we ask what kinds of physical activity levels would have driven the evolution of our cardiovascular system and the evolution of our neurobiology and our musculoskeletal system, the answer is not likely 30 minutes a day of walking on a treadmill. It's more like 75-plus minutes a day." - From Modern Hunter-Gatherers Show Value of Exercise
Preventing Liver Disease
The liver is an incredibly versatile organ. It helps regulate the fat and sugar content in our blood stream, filters out all the toxins (ones that we produce ourselves as well as the external ones) from our system, and stores vital vitamins and energy in the form of glycogen. Along with its versatility, it is extremely resilient (it can regenerate up to two thirds of itself).
The most common disease of the liver is cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, and is the precursor for one of the two causes of liver failure. When the scarring becomes so bad, either the liver will just fail, or the scarring will lead to cancer. The two most common causes of this scarring are, heavy, long-term alcohol consumption which puts an incredible strain on the liver's filtering capabilities, and obesity and insulin resistance (which many times are related) which are associated with the toxic build up of fat in the liver.
By choosing a healthy diet which includes fruits, vegetables, fiber, and healthy fats, maintaining a healthy weight, plenty of exercise, and the elimination of heavy alcohol consumption, we can reduce the load that is put on the liver and ease the burden of regeneration. There are many hurdles we will face in the longevity gauntlet, liver disease really should not be one of them.
As we progress through the longevity gauntlet, as we enter “old age” the prevalence and risk of death due to diabetes starts to become significant. While diabetes is one of the fastest growing afflictions that people in Western societies face, for most, its truly harshest effects don’t kick in until we reach 65 or older.
Interestingly, the causes and effects of having diabetes (i.e. chronically high blood sugar levels, obesity, and insulin resistance) are the ones that cause the diseases of the longevity gauntlet that we are likely to see before diabetes becomes deadly.
We don’t die from diabetes because we died from something else that was caused by the thing that would have caused our death from diabetes. It’s complicated. The most diabolical thing is that diabetes is just waiting for its turn.
But the “good” news is that most forms of diabetes (type II) are generally preventable and are a result of our lifestyle choices. Type II diabetes can be prevented, controlled, and even eliminated through a healthy diet and exercise. Conversely, relying on pharmaceuticals should only be considered if we have type I, or if type two has progressed to type I. Relying on drugs to do the job of a healthy lifestyle is the worst of all options.
Strength training should be included in an exercise regimen designed to combat the progression of diabetes. Since skeletal muscle stores glucose (in the form of glycogen), it acts as a buffer to temper blood sugar spikes, should an excess of carbs be ingested. The more muscle mass, the better the buffer. Also, during strength training, glucose is the predominant fuel source during higher intensity training.
“It’s really hard to have diabetes when you have a lot of muscle” - Dr. Peter Attia
Of all the obstacles we may face in the longevity gauntlet, frailty is not only the most diabolical, but the easiest to defeat. Frailty doesn’t appear overnight, it sneaks up on us over the course of decades, never really showing its face year by year, until we start to notice some of the telltale signs, we aren’t as strong as we used to be, we don’t recover from injuries as fast as we used to, and the injuries seem to be worse.
Instead of taking action, we commit the worst sin of all, we blame it on our age. Since we can’t do anything about getting older, we shrug it off and continue our path toward frailty. But we don’t have to go down this path. There are vast studies proving that we can not only maintain muscle tissue, but even build muscle well into our advanced years. Cardio too.
While there are many reasons to avoid frailty, the most glaring is the fall (the life altering event that can lock us into old age). By improving our balance and becoming stronger through strength training, we can deal with the fall in three ways - first, by avoiding the fall altogether. Second, by minimizing the effects of the fall. And third, by improving our recovery time if and when the fall occurs.
Strength and increased muscle mass can be developed predominantly through high intensity exercise. Strength training, by pushing our muscles to fatigue (8 to 10 reps before failure - to avoid injury), performing three sets per muscle group, each muscle group at least once a week. Giving special attention to the core and trunk (core plus upper legs and lower back) - this is where the fall prevention comes into play.
After we determine to become stronger through exercise, we must properly feed the growing muscle. Eat a high quality diet that includes fruits, vegetables, proteins, good fats, whole grains and dairy products. Protein is the key.
Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the punch in the gut that awaits us should we defeat all the previous obstacles in the longevity gauntlet. While many groups are working on finding treatments and even cures for Alzheimer’s there is no single avenue that currently stands out.
Here are some possible causes:
- Some autopsy studies show that as many as 80% of individuals with Alzheimer's disease also have cardiovascular disease.
- There appears to be a strong link between future risk of cognitive decline and serious head trauma.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there is encouraging evidence that points to three types of intervention:
- Increased physical activity
- Blood pressure control for people with high blood pressure (hypertension)
- Cognitive training
Some studies have shown that people who exercise have a lower risk of cognitive decline than those who don't. Exercise has also been associated with fewer Alzheimer's plaques and tangles in the brain and better performance on certain cognitive tests.
"The most convincing evidence is that physical exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer's or slow the progression in people who have symptoms," says Dr. Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
The Compression of Morbidity
Ultimately, we have no idea what lies in wait for us at the end of the gauntlet. We can do everything within our physical ability, we could do everything right, only to face some unknown obstacle as we pass the century mark. While we have seen people live to 115 or more, in every single case, there are things that they could have done (and not done) to possibly add even more years. The truth is, nobody has done all the things we now know can extend our lives.
Only now are we seeing centenarians that are still running, still lifting weights, avoiding smoking, drinking, getting outside every day, and maintaining a healthy weight. And this group of people are extremely rare. It is a very small “trial” group, with a massive control group. In essence, we are the trial group, and it's a long trial. We don’t really know how many years all of this stuff will add to our lives. But, we do know that it will add life to our years!
So, the goal really is to improve the quality (health) of the years we have on this planet. To push our bodies hard, to challenge our minds, to enjoy every minute we are alive, and when our decline comes, let’s hope that it is a long time from now and that it happens fast.
The worst case scenario is that we find a way to add a decade or two, but we are stuck spending it in a nursing home or a hospital bed connected to tubes and wires. Attacking the gauntlet with everything we have should guarantee that this doesn’t happen.
It is obvious that living a healthy lifestyle will add years to our lives, we’ve been told that most of our lives. But we now know the specific benefits of making healthy choices in so many of the diseases and ailments we will face as we approach “old age.”
Knowing what exactly the obstacles are that we face in our quest to add healthy years to our lives, and the specific damage that every unhealthy choice we make does to us, hopefully motivates us to make better life decisions. The challenge is that it is human nature to avoid a specific “pain” in the present or near future, even if we are sure it will bring more pain in the distant future.
But just know that one day we will all be lying on our deathbed. What regrets will our future selves have? Will our future selves be angry at our present selves for the life choices we are about to make? Understand that the “pain” we have to endure in the present is really discomfort, and it is not what we imagine it to be.
By keeping the changes we need to make small, incremental, and permanent, we can get to where we want to be without the imagined pain that we think we will have to endure. We just have to do our best, and knowing we did that is enough to feel that when we reach the end oneday, we will have no regrets.