Joy . . . or Pain?

(Adam Pretty - Getty Images)
By Suz Redfearn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

We all crave that mythic pill that eradicates wrinkles, diminishes our risk of heart attack and averts dementia while ensuring that we live to be 99. A hale, attractive, cheerful 99, that is.

Don't bet your life on it.

Despite the constant promotion of products claimed to extend life and prolong vigor, nothing you can buy in a box, bottle or tube has been shown to extend anything other than your credit card balance.

"There are clearly no pills or potions that have yet been established to increase longevity, and in fact for many of such pills and potions out there, there are real concerns about adverse effects," said Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

You know the products he's talking about: human growth hormone, testosterone, antioxidants and dietary supplements with several hyphens in the name that (it's okay to admit it) you've begun to consider trying as the signs of aging multiply.

"People spend a lot of money on one kind of anti-aging remedy or another, and they have for thousands of years," said Peter Whitehouse, Case Western Reserve University professor of neurology and biomedical ethics, who studies age-related cognitive decline.

Alas, aging is still the fundamental fact of the life cycle, and the human mortality rate remains 100 percent. But we can, if we're fortunate, exercise some control over the timing of our death and what our life is like until that day comes. Hodes says studies have shown that about 25 percent of how we age is determined by genetics; the other 75 percent, by the environment.

Which is to say, by tending to our environment and what we do within it, we can shift the odds of a longer and better life in our favor, at least a bit. Of course, the best life practices won't prevent that proverbial bus from running you down this afternoon, or some cruel cancer appearing on your liver in September. But if those things don't intrude, there are a few key lifestyle choices you can make that science has connected with long and healthy tenure on this earth. And they are fairly well established to reduce risk substantially for early onset of the diseases most likely to kill or disable you: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia and some cancers.

James J. Fries, professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, offers his "compression of morbidity" theory.

"By postponing the age at which chronic infirmity begins," he wrote this year in an issue paper from the Alliance for Health and the Future, "disability and morbidity could be compressed into a shorter period of the average human life span."

When he first proposed the idea in 1980, he wrote, "I predicted a society in which the majority of people could enjoy a long and vigorous life, with a relatively brief terminal collapse at the end." In other words, instead of suffering progressive heart disease, physical disability and dementia for the 20 years before your death, you can remain mostly healthy and vigorous until, say, 83 and die of whatever disease finally gets you at 84 or 85.

His theory is holding up, he says: Since 1982, disability rates in the United States have dropped 2 percent per year -- twice as fast as death rates -- thanks to better screening, diagnosis and preventive drugs, as well as to lifestyle shifts, especially the drop in the number of smokers. But rising levels of obesity have offset some of the gains and threaten to shift the numbers in the other direction.

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