Most of us will not be as fortunate as Madame Jeanne Calment. The Frenchwoman died at the age of 122 on August 4, 1997. Somewhat of a local celebrity in her hometown of Arles, Calment took up fencing at age 85 and was still bicycling into her second century, attributing her longevity to a diet of port wine and olive oil. Her story bears testimony to the fact that humans are living longer. Due primarily to medical advances that have nearly wiped out tuberculosis and smallpox, lowered infant mortality rates, and improved sanitary conditions, life expectancies for most people in the 21st century have doubled since the middle of the 19th century.
Yet these increases in longevity have been accompanied by a host of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer's, dementia, incontinence, decline in vision and hearing, and the irretrievable loss of muscle and bone mass. Even the remarkable Ms. Calment spent most of her final two years in bed.
While the chance of reaching the upper biological limit of 120 years is extremely remote, the prospect of a greatly extended and healthy life is alluring. Nearly 100 million Americans currently use anti-aging products and practices. Among these practices are special diets, such as "The 120-Year Diet" from Roy Walford (who died of Lou Gehrig's disease two months before his 80th birthday), plastic surgery, vitamins, mineral supplements, human growth hormones, and other hormones like melatonin, testosterone, pregnenolone, and estrogen. Good Housekeeping recently conducted laboratory tests on 90 anti-aging skin products alone. The editors used an advanced complexion analyzer and other scientific measurement tools to compile the "Anti-Aging Awards," announced in the October 2010 issue. The following issue included an article on how to "age-proof" your hair.
Most gerontologists assert that such remedies don't really slow the aging process. But what if we found a way to stay healthy and active well into our hundreds? What if it were possible to actually reverse the effects of aging—to heal arthritis, regain bone and muscle mass, and cure dementia by replenishing brain cells? With the promise of emerging genetic technologies, we may no longer need homespun remedies like port wine and olive oil. Nor will we need costly concoctions or impossibly expensive diets that only disguise age. Over the past decade, the search for the fountain of youth has moved from legend to laboratory.
For the first time, researchers have been able to slow aging in multi-cellular organisms and animals through selective breeding, dietary restriction, and genetic manipulation. One of the most promising avenues of aging research is the link between fasting and aging. Starve an animal, and it lives longer—it ages more slowly.
Molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon, for example, has doubled the life span of the worm C. elegans by altering a single gene, the result of which mimics reduced food intake. "I wanted to be those worms!" said Kenyon. She exclaimed that even a moderate increase in life span would be like having the body of a 45-year-old at age 90. "If our company could make a pill, everyone would want it," she said. Her company hopes to make a pharmaceutical that mimics the genetic experiment in humans and allows consumers to enjoy the longevity benefits of fasting without having to drastically alter their diets. Moreover, that longer life may include health and vitality, assuaging fears that lengthening life would only prolong old age's attendant afflictions.