Friday, August 01, 2008

Longevity Genes (and Being Inspired by George Burns)

Growing up in the 1970's and 80's, I recall rather vividly the various media attention which the actor and comedian George Burns would often receive.

Burns lived to be a 100 years old, despite his bravado attitude towards healthy living- like smoking cigars, one of his trademarks (though he has admitted he did not inhale, it was just a prop).

Burns was not of course the oldest living human, far from it. Jeanne Calment lived to be 122 years old. Furthermore, Burn's eschewing (at least to get laughs in public) of healthy living makes him less than the ideal poster child for longevity science. But many of the quotes that are attributed to Burns are inspirational. I'll mention three here.

The first quote is this:

"I look to the future because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life".

This is a very profound insight, one I wish we would all take more seriously.
Looking to the future should help us realise how important the aspiration to retard human aging is, for the diseases of aging could be the real scourge of the 21st century.

Burns was very fortunate, but not all of us are born with the "golden genes" he was lucky to inherit. The future of the world's existing 6.6 billion plus population will be a future of unprecedented levels of chronic illness. As the world's population ages, the ravages of time will inflict disease and disability on all countries- from the richest to the poorest. The harms of senescence are universal and severe.

Perhaps the greatest thing to take from Burn's legacy is that he did not let senescence prevent him from continuing on with this work. And this is a large part of the reason why Burns figured so prominently in the media in the last decade of his life, and why his 100th birthday was such a big deal. Making it to 100 years old disease-free and able to work is very rare indeed! As Burns put it in this second, humorous quote:

"If you live to be one hundred, you've got it made. Very few people die past that age".

Finally, I also like this quote from Burns:

"Age to me means nothing. I can't get old; I'm working. I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you're working, you stay young. When I'm in front of an audience, all that love and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age."

Now Burns was of course very fortunate that he was able to continue working and making a living up to the end of his life. But this is not the case for most people. And while it is easy for those in the developed world to dismiss longevity science as something that would not really aid those in the developing countries, these critics fail to realise that poorer countries do not have the generous age-entitlement provisions and health care services that we have. And so remaining healthy and productive is even more vital to their livelihood.

So retarding aging would bring enormous economic, as well as health, benefits to those whose livelihoods are determined by their ability to do ardous physical labour. It is easy for those in rich countries to retort "Who wants to work their whole life!?". Or, "if the aged stay in the work force there will be no jobs for the young!"

Well, the vast majority of the world's population, especially the poorest, would welcome the opportunity to continue making a living rather than suffer the vulnerabilities of senescence. For remaining healthy increases the chances that they will make the income necessary for them, and their families, to survive. And as the populations of developed countries age, and greater strains are placed on age-entitlement programs, I believe we will see that having the opportunity to continue working is a good (not bad) thing.

And so Burns' third quote, when spun in the way I have spun it, reveals another important dimension of retarding human aging- its impact on our socio-economic opportunities. And this is very important for the poorest countries that do not have the state pensions or disability benefits, let alone the healthcare resources, we enjoy.

Why do some people reach 100 years of age without the diseases of aging that afflict most people? As the example of Burns makes evident, it cannot all be down to healthy living! Genes also play an important role.

Rather than sequence the genome of Craig Venter, I wish, if he had lived long enough, we had sequenced the genome of George Burns instead. Understanding the genome of humans that live long, healthy lives could greatly improve our understanding of human health.

So I was thrilled to read this story in the Technology Review which reports that this very research is actually being undertaken. Here is a sample from that story:

An ambitious plan to sequence 100 genes in 1,000 healthy old people could shed light on genetic variations that insulate some people from the ailments of aging, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, allowing them to live a healthy life into their eighties and beyond. Rather than focusing on genetic variations that increase risk for disease, scientists plan to focus on genes that have previously been linked to health and longevity.

This is a great example of the point I made in my earlier post on the need to move beyond the disease model. So research like the kind taking place at the Longevity Gene Project at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine(see here) could help us better understand how the George Burns of the world lived such long, healthy lives. And, given that all of our futures will be spent in more advanced aged states than we currently enjoy, we all have an interest in the research being done on longevity genes.


Update: Nova Science has an excellent video on this very topic here.