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Long life

You can live forever if you make it through the next 15–30 years1. This is the extraordinary prediction from futurist Ray Kurzweil. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But Kurzweil is no crackpot. He holds a computer science degree from MIT and 13 honorary doctorates2. He invented the flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first electric piano. In 1999, he won the National Medal of Technology. In 2002, he was inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. Microsoft founder Bill Gates invites him over for dinner to pick his brain, and the Christian Science Monitor calls him a “modern Edison.”

According to Kurzweil, the “Law of Accelerating Returns” means that the power of technology is expanding at an exponential rate3. Computing power has been doubling every 2 years for half a century, and now genetic technology is following the same trend. This is leading to what Kurzweil calls the “Three Bridges to Immortality.”

The “First Bridge” is a health regimen that keeps people fit and slows down aging. The “Second Bridge” is a revolution in biotechnology that will enable scientists to regrow and rejuvenate your cells, tissues, and even whole organs. The “Third Bridge” is a revolution in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. By the late 2020s, doctors will be sending nanobots into your bloodstream to destroy disease, and repair bones, muscles, arteries, and brain cells.
By the late 2030s, you’ll be able to upload your consciousness into a computer and live forever4. Kurzweil says, “We are the species that goes beyond our potential. Merging with our technology is the next stage in our evolution.”

Live Long Enough to Live Forever
At 35, Kurzweil was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. After insulin treatments were ineffective, he cured himself with diet and exercise5. He drastically lowered his fat intake, and strictly avoided high-glycemic carbohydrates such as pasta and bread. He ate lots of vegetables and low-fat protein such as fish. For exercise, he walked 4–5 miles a day and lifted weights. More than 20 years later, he is still free of diabetes.

Kurzweil is doing everything he can to reach the “Second Bridge.” To cross the “First Bridge,” he takes 250 anti-aging supplements a day, and drinks 8–10 glasses of alkaline water, and 10 cups of green tea. Kurzweil believes, “Fifteen years from now, it’ll be a very different world. We’ll have cured cancer and heart disease, or at least rendered them to manageable chronic conditions that aren’t life threatening. We’ll get to the point where we can stop the aging process and stave off death.”

Extend Your Life
Although Kurzweil predicts that he will achieve immortality in his lifetime, most scientists believe that the maximum natural lifespan is somewhere between 100–120 years6. This means you might gain an extra 20 years on top of the average life expectancy by leading a healthy lifestyle and preventing the top 10–15 causes of death.

In a study from Harvard Medical School, researchers followed over 2,000 elderly men for 25 years7. They found that the average 70-year-old man had a 54 percent chance of living to age 90 if he didn’t smoke, had normal blood pressure, normal weight, no diabetes, and exercised 2–4 times per week. In contrast, he only had a 5 percent chance of reaching 90 if he was an overweight smoker with high blood pressure, diabetes, and didn’t exercise.

In a similar study from the University of Cambridge, researchers followed over 20,000 men and women for an average of 11 years8. They found that non-smokers who exercised regularly, drank moderately, and ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day had a mortality risk that was equivalent to being 14 years younger in chronological age. The fountain of youth is a healthy lifestyle.

Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
-Susan Ertz

Not everyone who leads a healthy lifestyle will live to 100. Over the last decade, a series of twin studies has shown that about 25 percent of the variation in lifespan is caused by genetic differences9,10. However, the other 70–80 percent is due to a person’s environment and lifestyle choices. So even if you come from a line of long-lived ancestors, you should still eat healthy and exercise regularly.

Caloric Restriction
Caloric restriction refers to a diet that’s low in calories without undernutrition. The average lifespan of a mouse is about 27 months. This can be extended to 45 months by reducing its caloric intake to about a third of its usual diet. Pretty impressive! But the effects of caloric restriction are not quite so spectacular in humans. Scientists estimate that sumo wrestlers might gain up to 5 extra years of life, while the rest of us non-sumo-types might extend our lives by a few years11.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet empire began to fall apart. On the island of Cuba, this led to serious food and fuel shortages. From 1991–1995, the average daily food intake dropped from 2,899 calories to 1,863 calories12. Cubans also switched from driving cars to walking and biking. The result of this unintentional population experiment was a drop in obesity by about 50 percent. The average adult lost about 10 pounds, or 5 percent of body weight. The proportion of physically active adults rose from 30 percent to 67 percent.
The effects on long-term health were dramatic. From 1997–2002, the death rates from various diseases fell significantly—by 51 percent for diabetes, 35 percent for heart disease, 20 percent for stroke, and 18 percent for all-cause mortality. Live longer by eating less and exercising more.

Too much sleep and too little sleep are both unhealthy. In animal experiments, total sleep deprivation causes death in about the same time as total food deprivation. At the other extreme, too much sleep makes us feel tired and irritable. Scientists call this the “Rip Van Winkle Effect.” They’ve shown that extending normal sleeping time by 2–3 hours causes sleepiness, poor mood, and lower performance for reaction time, vigilance, and mathematical tasks13. Think twice the next time you want to sleep in on the weekend.

Most people sleep between 6–8 hours a night. But what is the optimum amount of sleep for health? In a study from the University of California, San Diego, researchers analyzed sleep data from more than 1.1 million men and women14. There was a 15 percent higher risk of death when people regularly slept less than 4.5 hours or more than 8.5 hours per night. Most people who slept too little did so because they had an underlying disease condition that also increased their risk of dying. Too much sleep may have increased the risk of death because fatigue from the “Rip Van Winkle Effect” lowers resistance to stress and disease.

The same study also observed a 25 percent higher risk of death in people who took sleeping pills more than once a day15. The risk was about the same as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. A good night’s sleep is part of a healthy lifestyle. Aim for 6–8 hours a night, and avoid sleeping pills.

In addition to a healthy lifestyle, your social life can influence your lifespan. The National Longitudinal Mortality Study (NLMS) tracks death rates in a group of almost 300,000 Americans16. After adjusting for socioeconomic factors such as income, researchers found that married people have a 24–49 percent lower risk of death than singles, depending on race and sex.

Strong social relationships boost the body’s immune system and improve overall health. At Ohio State University, researchers deliberately induced suction blisters on the arms of married volunteers17. Couples in supportive relationships healed about 40 percent faster than couples in hostile relationships. Health and happiness go hand in hand.

  1. Kurzweil R, Grossman T. (2004). Fantastic voyage: live long enough to live forever. Rodale.
  2. O’Keefe B. (2007). The smartest futurist on Earth. Fortune. May 14, 2007.
  3. Philipkoski K. (2002). Ray Kurzweil's plan: never die. Wired. November 18, 2002.
  4. Gaudin S. (2006). Kurzweil: computers will enable people to live forever. InformationWeek. November 21, 2006.
  5. Lindsay J. (2005). Ray Kurzweil aims to live forever. LiveScience. February 14, 2005.
  6. Roth GS. (2005). Caloric restriction and caloric restriction mimetics: current status and promise for the future. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 53(9 Suppl):S280–3.
  7. Yates LB, et al. (2008). Exceptional longevity in men: modifiable factors associated with survival and function to age 90 years. Arch Intern Med. 168(3):284–290.
  8. Khaw K et al. (2008). Combined impact of health behaviours and mortality in men and women: The EPIC-Norfolk prospective population study. PLoS Med. 5(1):e12.
  9. Skytthe A et al. (2003). Longevity studies in GenomEUtwin. Twin Res. 6:448–454.
  10. Cournil A, and Kirkwood TB. (2001). If you would live long, choose your parents well. TRENDS in Genetics. 17(5):233–235.
  11. Phelan JP, and Rose MR. (2005). Why dietary restriction substantially increases longevity in animal models but won’t in humans. Ageing Research Reviews. 4:339–350.
  12. Franco M, et al. (2008). Obesity reduction and its possible consequences: what can we learn from Cuba’s Special Period? CMAJ. 178(8):1032–1034.
  13. Youngstedt SD, Kripke DF. (2004). Long sleep and mortality: Rationale for sleep restriction. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 8:159–174.
  14. Kripke DF, et al. (2002). Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 59:131–136.
  15. Kripke DF, et al. (1998). Mortality hazard associated with prescription hypnotics. Biol Psychiatry. 43:687–693.
  16. Johnson NJ et al. (2000). Marital status and mortality: The National Longitudinal Mortality Study. Ann Epidemiol. 10(4):224–238.
  17. Kiecolt-Glaser JK et al. (2005). Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production, and wound healing. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 62:1377–1384.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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