How to delay death

For the most part, it’s pretty good being alive. There are tacos, videos of monkeys, cheap air travel and many exciting hats to choose from. But it all flashes by very quickly and you barely get a moment to enjoy it between; sleeping, school, work, waiting for Windows 10 to install, and torrenting Star Wars. And before you know it, it’s all over and you’re floating away from your body wondering what you could have achieved if you’d skipped season 6 of How I Met Your Mother and gone out to sit in the sunshine for a while. So how do we hold on longer? Can we avoid the inevitable end because we are just not ready yet? I mean come on, I’ve got tickets to Cirque Du Soleil next week and I just bought a 3 for 1 toothpaste deal. Can humans delay death? Because, in the words of the great Terry Pratchett, “inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” If you switch on the news for a few minutes, you might feel like there is death and destruction lurking around every corner and that you’ll be lucky to make it to lunch time. But the truth is, overall, we are living longer than ever. If you look back to 200 years ago, life expectancy in almost every country except the UK was below 40 and as low as 25 in some of Africa and Asia. Since then it has increased with strange regularity. On average, we have gained one year of lifespan for every five years that have passed. There were obviously some dips after the world wars, as well as the Spanish flu epidemic in the early 20th century, but we have arrived today at a global average of 71 years. Women outlive men by about 4 to 5 years but we’re still not sure why this is. If it was down to less manual work, you’d have expected there to be less of a difference now that we all sit on bean bags, staring into spreadsheets for 8 hours a day, but it’s unchanged. And if it’s the extra cigarettes, beer and chicken wings men supposedly consume, then why does the same difference occur in apes? A Korean scientist named Han-Nam Park has suggested it could be the effects of testosterone, citing a study that showed eunuchs, that’s men who have had their testicles removed, lived noticeably longer than other men. Um… I think I’m fine with the five-year difference actually. It’s diet and medicine that keep pushing our life expectancy up. Although there must be some upper limit to how long a human can live, there have been no signs that we have reached it yet. We will eventually arrive at a 100-year average and probably keep going. Soon we’re going to get pretty bored of the sight of each other. Heart disease and strokes are by far our biggest killers but as the treatments and care for these improve, we are getting better at fighting them. Both are linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, so doctors can help patients with a range of lifestyle changes and medications to lower their risk. Just 100 years ago, these killers were a lot less common, not because people were leading healthier lives; far from it, statistics show we actually eat healthier now, even with the prevalence of fast food. But it was that people were dying much earlier from infectious diseases such as pneumonia, flu and tuberculosis. Now that’s what happens when your national cures are mainly whiskey, cigarettes, sea air and radium. They weren’t glowing with health, they were just pumped full of radiation. Aside from combatting disease, we have spent many years looking into slowing the aging process itself. We’re not clear on exactly why we age but a fairly common theory is that over time your DNA loses its ability to withstand damage and to repair itself, making mutations more likely. And these aren’t the cool mutations that give you laser eyes and teleportation, these are just your cells ceasing to function in the way you need them to. Your body renews almost perfectly between the ages of about 20 to 35, and after that your cells begin to lose interest and start thinking about retiring, maybe to go sit by a nice beach somewhere down by your kidneys. So one way to combat this is to poke around in the DNA and find the troublemakers. The Buck Institute 238 genes that could be deleted and increase the lifespan of yeast. And you might be thinking; Oh yeast, whoopty-doo, I always wanted immortal bread, but your DNA shares much more in common with a slice of toast than you might think. That’s right, when you eat your lovely buttery toast in the morning, you’re chomping down on your DNA cousin, you monster! They managed to get a massive 60% increase in the life of these yeast strains and are now looking to test this out a little higher up the evolutionary chain. The key gene for this 60% jump is called LOS1, which is linked to a master switch that is associated with calorie restriction. It’s long been thought that calorie restriction has been linked with longer lives. After all, humans aren’t designed to gorge ourselves every day on burgers and ever so deliciously flaky, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth pastries, yes, I know it’s difficult. But humans are hunter gatherers at heart, our body has evolved to go days without eating at all, which was common for our prehistoric ancestors. Interestingly, during the Irish Potato Famine, national life expectancy actually rose from 40 years to 50, going against every expectation. Now, before you spit out your ramen and throw away your banana, you’re not supposed to starve yourself. Malnutrition has a terrible impact on your body. The key is to walk that fine line of getting just the calories you need to survive. The research is still a little vague, partly because no matter how dedicated you are, it’s hard to get someone to have that much self-control for 10 years or so. I mean, I’ve only just mentioned food and you’re already thinking about what’s in your fridge; yes, that tub of Ben & Jerry’s will still be there when this video’s finished, please sit back down. Experiments on mice that involve just limiting their food on alternative days, known as intermittent fasting, has resulted in longer living mice and a reduction in age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer. All from just missing a few meals each week. It could work for a few reasons. The reduced energy in your body may mean your core temperature is slightly lower so your general metabolism happens a little slower too. Also, less cellular division means there is less chance for your DNA to become damaged. So if you don’t want to eat less, maybe just reduce your core heat by sitting in a bath full of frozen peas and ice cream. I should be a doctor. The metabolism is clearly a big part of the aging issue. Researchers at Cardiff University were investigating type 2 diabetes and they noticed that patients who took the drug metformin lived, on average, 15 percent longer than a group of healthy people who didn’t have diabetes and weren’t taking metformin but were similar in nearly all other respects, in terms of age, lifestyle, favourite Game of Thrones character and so on. This is very surprising because diabetes, even when controlled, should shorten your lifespan. It could be because metformin interferes with a process called glycation. This is a major metabolic process where sugars attach to proteins but it leaves behind a thing called Advanced Glycation Endproducts, or AGEs ironically. This is bad and they basically gum up your biomolecular workings like when you got cake in your keyboard. Because we are a greedy and ridiculous species, we’ve actual been adding AGEs to our food, typically things with caramelization like donuts, barbequed meat and dark sugared drinks. Why does evil have to be so delicious? Our last way of living longer sounds like it’s been ripped from the pages of some creepy Victorian novel. In 2005, Thomas Rando from Stanford University, found that he could rejuvenate older mice by surgically linking their blood flow to younger mice. It apparently works best if there is a new moon, the young mouse is a virgin and stays off garlic-flavoured mouse food. But maybe I’ve been reading too many cheesy vampire novels. This vampiric practise enabled the stem cells of doddering old rodents to suddenly become effective again and begin to repair damaged cells, build new tissue and stop them being so confused about smart phones. Harvard University biologist Amy Wagers looked into this further and believes it is a protein called GDF11 that is responsible and that this is what is lost in older mice. She managed to get similar results to Rando by just injecting them with the protein, but Rando said that his creepy vampire way was much more fun and gave him an excuse to wear a cape and play My Chemical Romance at full volume all day. However, because this is science, recently a team from Cambridge, Massachusetts claimed that GDF11 actually increases with age and acts to inhibit muscle generation. So, the complete opposite. See, this is why everyone hates you science, stop contradicting yourself! But before you start worrying about adding a few years to the end of your days, you’re probably better off dealing with the life you have now. So, go ask out that boy or girl you like, find a good book to read and if you’re worried that eating that box of donuts will shave a week off your existence, why don’t you compromise by leaving that bit in the middle, that’s where all the calories are you know.

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