Miércoles 29 de Noviembre de 2006, Ip nº 181

Medicine will not only make us live longer, but live better
Por Antonia Windsor

Last weekend, it was reported that two sisters in their early 20s had their stomachs removed to protect them against a genetic stomach cancer that had prematurely killed their father, grandmother and cousin. Earlier this month, doctors at two London hospitals announced they were to begin treating heart attack patients by injecting the organ with stem cells taken from their own bone marrow in the hope that they would repair the damage to the heart and prevent heart failure. And last month, it was reported that British scientists had successfully grown a laboratory liver from stem cells in a move that could revolutionise transport surgery. These are just some of the medical advancements that have taken place in the past few weeks in the industry dedicated to helping us to live longer, healthier lives.

Medicine is not just aimed at helping us to live longer, but at helping us to live better for longer. No researcher is interested in prolonging our stays in care homes. Emphasis is on isolating genes that cause debilitating illnesses and the shortening of otherwise healthy lives, of using stem cell research to help our organs repair themselves, and of educating people that lifestyle can greatly enhance well-being into old age. Prescription drugs now decrease disease processes and prolong life in almost all areas of medicine and surgical procedures replace faulty joints and organs.

The body isn't programmed to age, ageing happens because previously we were more susceptible to early death from illness and environmental hazards and our ancestral genes therefore placed little priority on long-term maintenance and repair. Aging therefore comes about through the gradual build-up of unrepaired faults in the cells and tissues of our body. The introduction of vaccines and antibiotics and increased sanitisation has wiped out many of the causes of early death and has led to our life expectancy being radically increased. At the start of the 19th century, we could have expected to live to 40. Now we can expect to live around 75 years as a man or 80 as a woman. So one of our focuses now is in finding ways to slow down the degeneration of our cells as we live longer lives. Increased knowledge of how our cells succumb to damage means that we can adopt simple measures such as eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to provide us with fighting anti-oxidants.

The good news is that we need not fear our increased life expectancy as we are increasingly able to maintain our bodies in a fit and healthy state and more and more of the illnesses associated with old age come under our control. Living until the age of 90 in 50 years time, will be a very different experience to someone living to that age 50 years ago.

In February this year, a US scientist estimated that retirement age could reach 85 by 2050. Shripad Tuljapurkar of Stanford University claimed that anti-ageing advances could raise life expectancy by a year each year over the next two decades. As we get older healthier, then there is no reason why we should not continue our active, productive lifestyles for longer. This would have substantial benefits; we could extend a mortgage over a longer period, we would have longer to invest in a pension, and simply have more time to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.

And it is not as if we do not have models for what a healthy, happy old age can be like. In 1997, Jeanne Calment died at the age of 122 and 5 months. At 85 she had taken up fencing, at 100 she was still riding her bicycle; she lived on her own until 110 and at 114 took on her first acting role in the film Vincent and Me. She had been 14-years-old when the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889. Oh, and she was a smoker - only giving up when she was 117. Perhaps in 50 years time, this will not seem like such a remarkable story.


  20/11/2006. The Guardian.


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