Vitality. Strength. Energy. Beauty. In America, all of these are associated with youth.
Aging, however, which is analogous to wisdom in many cultures, has less pleasant connotations. Links on the National Institute of Aging Web site are enough to depress anyone inching into middle age: Forgetfulness. Menopause. Urinary incontinence. Osteoporosis. Hospital hints. Constipation. Arthritis advice. Cancer facts. Early Alzheimer's disease. Planning for long-term care.
Plug the word "longevity" into an Internet search engine, and you're likely to get more than 300,000 possible links. Clearly, living longer is a topic that interests many of us Ü especially the 600 million people in the world 60 and older.
The United Nations' population division and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs project that number to grow by the year 2050 to almost 2 billion. Older people will outnumber children for the first time in history.
The population is growing and shifting because people are living longer. But the one-time goal of merely living to 100 is not enough anymore. People want to know how they can stay healthy and independent as they grow older. And they're trying just about everything to accomplish this. However, while numerous studies involving rats or mice are enticing and suggestive, understanding what makes humans live longer Ü and better Ü remains a mystery.
Many believe that if you can re-create the chemistry you had as a young person by bringing your hormones into balance, this might extend your life span and extend your health, said Dr. Clif Arrington, a family practice physician and anti-aging specialist in Kealakekua on the Big Island.
"Some critics will say this hasn't been studied long enough, and that's true," he said. "It will be 40 to 50 years from now to have actual proof."
One hundred years ago, few people lived to be 100 years old. In fact, the life expectancy of Americans born in 1900 was 47 years. Today, about 50,000 Americans are 100 or older. Life expectancy rose about 30 years during the last century in industrialized countries because of lower death rates from infectious diseases, and it probably will continue to rise. Even so, people continually seek methods to extend their own lives.
However, most experts agree that these methods are largely unproven, and all agree that no treatment works for everyone. Diana Joy Ostroff, a naturopath and licensed acupuncturist, said people come to her and ask, "What can I take?"
Her answer? "(Feeling better and slowing the aging process) is not about what you can take; it's about what you can do."
Nutrition, for instance, "has to be specific to each person. We all have different needs for energy sources." While Ostroff employs natural hormones in some treatments, she said, "very infrequently do I start with a hormone, because there are so many gentler ways to start healing the body."
Some experts think the focus on hormones and other supposed life extenders is misguided. S. Jay Olshansky, a biostatistician at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a Washington Post article, "The bodies we have are not made for extended use. We must cope with accumulated DNA damage, cell damage, muscle atrophy, bone loss, decreased muscle mass and joints worn out from overuse during a lifetime of bipedal locomotion."
Olshansky advises people to reduce "age accelerators" like tobacco, obesity, alcohol consumption, lots of sun exposure, and drug and medication use. His findings indicate that hormones and antioxidants are not making much difference in longevity.
He said that regular exercise and a good diet can achieve the same results at less expense. Recent evidence suggests that good health may be extended and disability delayed by at least seven years if people stop smoking, maintain an appropriate weight and remain physically active.
This is Jan Newhart's philosophy. Newhart, 73, cross-trains every day and is preparing to race in her 11th Tinman this July.
"I try to watch my diet," she said. "I don't eat much meat. I eat quite a few nuts, I use olive oil and canola oil a lot. And lots of vegetables and fruits."
She does take a multivitamin, a small amount of B12, and glucosamine for the arthritis in her hands. But she is careful: "I'm pretty conservative about the extra stuff I take. I feel that I eat such a wide variety of foods, I'm probably getting most of the healthy stuff we're supposed to get."
Such caution seems justified. Little hard information is available on supplements sold in health food stores and pharmacies; the National Institute on Aging said the advertising claims that certain chemicals and supplements can extend life are "very much exaggerated."
One of the greatest dangers of over-the-counter herbs and medications available is the way people experiment without guidance.
"(Older people) don't have a whole lot of faith in the curative powers of Western medicine," said Marilyn Seely, director of Hawai'i's State Executive Office on Aging. "Experience tells them that it's almost impossible to cure a chronic condition," so they seek out alternative treatments. "They hate the cost of medicine, so they'll often cut pills in half, or go to the store and buy something" a friend has told them works. They may not be aware of the potentially serious danger of drug interactions, including reactions from "natural" herbal remedies, or the difference in how supplements affect individuals.
There is more to extending life, however, than diet and supplements. Seely said that people who pay attention to the spiritual side of their lives "report a dramatic increase in quality of life." That could mean anything from being involved in organized religion to volunteering to help others.
Kenton Eldridge, 57, is a former senior executive with Duty Free Shoppers who serves on several nonprofit boards, has run about 15 marathons and will soon compete in the Australian Ironman triathlon.
While he does take a comprehensive multivitamin called Damage Control Anti-Aging System (which he brought to his physician for approval), Eldridge believes a variety of factors have contributed to his good health, including early retirement and lots of cross-training.
He also gets a massage about every 10 days, and pays strict attention to his diet. He eats five small meals a day, focused on fruits and vegetables, with a little meat and fish three times a week. He also thinks genetics have played a role in his good health. "Other than that, I don't know," he chuckled. "Maybe luck."
Popular methods for combating aging
Antioxidants: natural substances that may help prevent disease. They fight harmful molecules called oxygen free radicals, which are created by the body as cells produce energy. Free radicals also come from smoking, radiation, sunlight and other environmental factors. Some studies show that antioxidants help prevent heart disease, some cancers, cataracts and other health problems. Most experts think the best way to get these vitamins is by eating fruits and vegetables rather than by taking vitamin pills.
DNA and RNA: DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the material in every cell that holds the genes, which are readily damaged with age. Claims have been made for taking DNA and RNA (ribonucleic acid, which works with DNA in the cells to make proteins) orally, but experts say that, taken this way, the material is broken down into other substances and cannot reach the cells.
DHEA: (dihydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone that has turned back some signs of aging in animals. DHEA levels tend to decline with age. No studies have proven DHEA effective in extending human life.
HgH: (human growth hormone): Recent studies indicate that injections of growth hormone boosted the size and strength of muscles in men, thickened and tightened the skin and increased the sense of well-being. Now, more studies are testing growth hormone and other hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, to learn if they can prevent weakness and frailty in older people. However, it's too early to make definitive conclusions. The side effects could be serious; large amounts of some hormones have been linked to cancer.
Caloric restriction: According to the Life Extension Foundation, no anti-aging therapies have been conclusively shown to work in humans except for caloric restriction in a nutrient-rich diet. But, according to its Web site, "while the effectiveness of this anti-aging regimen is likely far greater than others currently available, the difficulty of this regimen for most people is also far greater."
Good news: If current trends continue, statistics at the Executive Office on Aging indicate that people in Hawai'i can expect to live three to four years longer than people on the Mainland. Life expectancy is projected to increase to 81.8 for females and 76.2 for males by 2030.