Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don't Have To
by David A. Sinclair 2019
Five of five stars *****
How would you feel about living an extra thirty years? And how about if those years were relatively disease-free and healthy ones? If everybody lived that extra thirty or more years, would that necessarily be a good thing? What would happen to families, work, and society with double the elderly population as today?
These questions and more are examined in this fascinating book by Dr. David Sinclair, one of the leading experts on aging and founder of a prestigious laboratory at Harvard University. Dr. Sinclair gives a detailed description of the research that's going on today related to aging and how it affects the human body.
The author spends a good amount of time advocating for a new type of healthcare, one that looks at aging as a treatable disease and not something that's inevitable. He compares our current system to a whack-a-mole game where different diseases pop up and are treated, only for new ones to keep coming. The focus on individual diseases like cancer and heart disease overlook the big picture of what's going on with the march of time.
According to Dr. Sinclair, aging is really a loss of information, as our DNA gets corrupted by contaminants, diseases, and stressors. If you can find a way to repair the DNA through time, you can slow and even reverse aging. He theorizes a prehistoric survival circuit in our genes that turns this repair system on in times of stress and hardship. When the cells are healthier, the system is dormant and aging progresses. The trick, therefore is to fool the cells into thinking they need to switch into repair mode while the body is still in good shape.
Some of the best ways to accomplish this anti-aging rejuvenation is through behavioral changes. Intermittent fasting is supposed to help with longevity, as are calorie restricted diets, because the body has to struggle just a bit more to operate. (This doesn't work if the body gets to the starvation point and lacks required nutrients) Exercise is also a great rejuvenator, as even brief periods of strenuous exercise wakes can wake up repair circuits. Spending time in cold environments helps as well, as long as it's not too cold to risk hypothermia or serious damage.
Of course one of the biggies that I've heard from several books, that may or may not be related to the repair system, is proper diet, including mostly fruits, nuts, beans, and vegetables with little amounts of starches, sugars, or meats. This goes against the standard American diet, but I see more and more research pointing to the Mediterranean diet as the best way to head off diseases before they hit.
In addition to the behavioral changes there are some pills and supplements that the author recommends. I won't mention them here (read the book if you want to know), but I'll be looking into them in the future. If the leading expert in the country is taking them, they might just work.
Several chapters of the book detail current research in medicine that almost looks like science fiction. There may soon be vaccines that we can take that can remain dormant and activated when we get older to help stall the aging process. Cells that we thought could never be regrown, like spinal cord cells and optic cells are being manufactured that give new hope to the blind and paralyzed. Wearable biosensors are available today that can monitor your vitals while you exercise, sleep, or work, collecting vital information that can help you find diseases before symptoms ever show up.
The most amazing process that is becoming easier and cheaper is DNA sequencing. Your entire genome in the future could become a part of your medical records, letting doctors prescribe drugs with laser like efficiency and giving diagnostic tests critical information for the best diagnoses and treatment plans. The impact on life-expectancy for all these innovations is substantial. We will live longer and have less disease, which sounds awesome. This is all apparently just ten years away or less.
In the final part of the book, Dr. Sinclair looks at the possible ramifications to society if all of this comes to pass. He predicts that humans could live to 150 years of age in the not too distant future, with average life expectancy rising from around 80 now to 110 or higher. He addresses the current problems of environmental destruction and climate change that the current population of 7.5 billion creates. Some scientists believe we are already at the carrying capacity of the planet, and more people will only lead to a gradual decline in food, energy and raw materials as too many people chase too few resources.
Using the city of London as an example, the author disputes those claims in an optimistic leap saying that human innovation over the next century can solve a lot of the problems that we see today, making the maximum sustainable population much higher. Not only is earth's population growing, but people in third world countries are improving their lives and expecting to consume more resources like the Americans and Europeans have been doing for so long.
While I don't necessarily agree with the author's unbridled optimism about the future, he opens up a lot of fascinating questions. What happens to retirement if and when people live past 100. Our current system is already struggling under life expectancy predictions from the 20th century that proved wrong, and will become bankrupt if over half the nation wants to live in retirement. People will be healthier and more will want to work, but will we have enough jobs for them? Already there are concerns that artificial intelligence and outsourcing will strip most of the good jobs in the 21st century. Will family reunions now include great-grandparents and great-great grandbabies?
People in positions of power cling to it as long as possible, and it's reasonable to predict that we would have hundred year old politicians, judges and CEO's calling the shots for decades. The problem with that is that the older you get, the less you're willing to look at the world in different ways and progress would take twice as long. The wealthiest of the wealthy could amass even more money and let it sit idly while the world gets starved of capital for new projects. How on earth would we choose where to celebrate family holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving if four sets of parents and grandparents all in good health want to host them?
In a way, death is a blessing. It clears the way for new ideas and new approaches, and without it we would feel no urgency to do something with our lives. What would society look without death and disease? Healthier? More crowded? Would inequality get worse and bigotry more entrenched? The approaches mentioned by Dr. Sinclair don't conquer death- just push the inevitable off a bit. Still, most of us would love to have some extra healthy years and the train has already left the station. This book is a real thought-provoker and anyone in the medical field, business, or government needs to start thinking about these ideas.
As I write this, life expectancy is actually getting shorter. Problems with drug abuse and suicide are claiming more of the young, and American food and drink over-consumption is taking years off of lives. Hopefully some of the items in this book will come to pass before I kick the bucket. But before science gives us the means to live longer lives, we have to find a better meaning of life. Why are we here and what were we each put on earth to accomplish? Thirty more years won't necessarily answer that question. And we still will all die. Whether you live 10 years or 150, make each one the best you can.