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'Chasing Life' chapter 1, part 2: 'Beginning the chase'

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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Editor's note: The following is chapter 1 of "Chasing Life" by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, published by Warner Wellness.

Currently, most of us reach our physical peak between twenty and thirty and begin a steady decline after that. By seventy, we have lost 40 percent of our maximum breathing capacity, muscle and bone mass have declined, body fat has increased, and sight and hearing have gotten worse. We may want to chase life and live longer, but not at the expense of function, both of mind and body.

Truth is, when it comes to extending life, remarkable progress has been made in the last century. In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was 47.3 years, but that was an average dragged down by the huge infant mortality rate. The three leading causes of death in the United States at that time were pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, and diarrhea and enteritis.

In fact, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, workers were actually considered lucky to reach retirement age. The average life expectancy was 64 years when the federal government cut the first monthly Social Security check to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont. Of course, if you were lucky enough to make it to 65, chances were you'd live another 12.7 years, having beaten some of the early killers even back then. Ida May Fuller surprised everyone, including President Roosevelt. She lived to 100, while he only lived to the age of 63.

By the end of the twentieth century, U.S. life expectancy had risen to 76.9, and it continues to inch upward. At this writing, life expectancy for women in the United States is 80.4 years; for men, 75.2 years.

Public health measures such as ensuring clean drinking water and medical advances such as the discovery of antibiotics helped many more children survive into adulthood in the twentieth century. The challenge for science now is to help us survive and thrive in our golden years. The challenge is to help us chase life and also enjoy it.

Already, advances in medicine and public health have changed our concept of aging. Our expectations have grown. Technology has given us new faith in what is possible. Now, not only do we expect to make it to our seventies and beyond, but we want to remain physically and mentally active for years to come after that. We want our sixties and seventies to be a new beginning, not the beginning of the end. The good news is research has made tremendous advances, and there are many things we can do right now to improve the quality and length of our lives. And there are advances on the horizon that are more than promising.

Many researchers of aging prefer to consider what they call health span, not life span. They also use the term active life expectancy, meaning the number of years we can expect to live free of chronic functional impairments.

The goal of this book is to help you extend your active life. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, and I will distill it down for you and show the most effective choices you can make right now to improve your health and longevity. We all make choices every day that affect our lives. The sum of those decisions equals about 70 percent of the factors determining your life span. That fact alone should empower you to start making some changes that will increase your life span and your health span. Also, many choices you make as a young adult can have long-lasting consequences. Even at eighty, though, it is not too late to chase a longer, healthier life. I will shatter some myths along the way, and yes, I'll also talk about the cutting-edge science underway in labs around the world in such areas as stem cells, telomeres, nanotechnology, and more that may open the door to what some are already calling practical immortality. While I won't make you any false promises, you will be astounded at the small yet remarkably effective changes you can make today to put you on the path to chasing life. This book will explore where longevity research is heading and what you can do now, based on the latest research. How much can we do to alter our life expectancies? The short answer is plenty.

In the course of researching and writing this book, I've discovered some things that have already changed my own life. For example, eating well is important, no doubt, but eating less might actually buy you more years of life. All books will tell you to exercise, but it is the right types of activity, including upper body resistance training (no, not the StairMaster for sixty minutes every day) that will be of most benefit in the long run. Attitude makes a huge difference. Just the act of practicing optimism can help, as can spending valuable time every day decreasing your stress levels. I will show you how to do it reliably. Getting enough sleep at night and challenging your brain during the day in addition to socializing and maintaining hobbies all appear to be the keys to a longer, healthy life. I'll explain each of these keys to a longer life and the best ways to attain them.

Many books offering health advice focus on a single area. They may tell you how to keep your brain healthy or how to maintain peak fitness or how to lower your stress or how to sleep better. Some of these books are very good, but common sense tells us that we need a balanced approach between diet and lifestyle. In this book, I will try to offer that. I will also try to make this book a clear and concise guide that rises above the clutter.

Some of the advice may surprise you. For example, physical fitness can have a profound effect on your cognitive abilities later in life, and your mental outlook could have a profound effect on your long-term physical health. Taking lots of supplements, as many experts recommend, may not be effective whatsoever. Eating a low-calorie diet could trigger a cellular reaction that leads to a cascade of events ultimately leading to longer life. How much exercise and what kind you do can make a difference. Eating foods like dark chocolate and dishes containing the spice turmeric and drinking red wine, green tea, and even coffee can all help you live longer and healthier, with a dramatically sharper mind.

Many in the scientific community are thinking about ways to alter the human life span. They are imagining great leaps in understanding aging and dreaming up ways to counteract it. In their brave new world science, we will be able to replace worn organs the way you replace the worn brakes on a car; special enzymes or genetic therapies will rejuvenate our cells; microscopic nanobots will circulate through our bodies, warning of future health problems, which can then be addressed. Researchers are predicting stem cells will someday prevent such degenerative diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. These therapeutic advances could shatter what we now consider a human life span, extending it by decades or more. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and inventor, thinks scientific progress is advancing so quickly, we will all be able to live forever if we can only make it a few more decades.

Despite the flurry of activity in labs across the developed world, there is no magic elixir yet, leaving those of us who want to live longer, healthier lives to use the best information currently available as guideposts. Of course, there are no guarantees. People who live lives that are paradigms of clean living succumb to cancer, and others who spend years ignoring the best advice of doctors and others live into old age. After all, Jeanne Calment reportedly didn't give up smoking until the age of 117.

While there are no guarantees, we are not destined to a life span similar to that of our parents. Although genetics do appear to play a role in how long we live, studies suggest our DNA accounts for only about 30 percent of how long we live. The rest is up to us. There are some simple rules that we all know, even if we choose to forget them from time to time. Nothing else in this book will matter unless you make a pact with me that you will adopt the best health practices that exist today. What will we eat? How much will we eat? Where and how will we live? Will we smoke cigarettes? wear a seat belt? ride a motorcycle? Do we exercise? Lifestyle does make a difference. An astonishing 46.5 million Americans smoke, even though it will result in disability and premature death for half of them.

Nothing can stop aging, but we can take steps to increase our chances of living longer, healthier lives. For this book, I have looked at the burgeoning field of antiaging medicine. I will do my best to cut through the conflicting information out there and tell you what you can actually do right now and what treatments may be available in the future to help you age well.

We already know from closely studying our neighbors in other developed countries that lifestyle choices can result in living longer lives. More than twenty other developed nations, including Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden, have higher life expectancies than does the United States.

Many people in those countries have already learned that something strange happens as our bodies get older. While the process of aging does certainly continue, the incidence of age-related diseases starts to slow way down. The incidence of cancer, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease becomes increasingly lower. It is almost as if our bodies and our minds realize that if they can get this far along, they could potentially go much longer and achieve a sort of immortality, which is the endgame of chasing life. My goal is to get you to the point where you are living longer, free of disease and of sound mind.

You won't need to inject yourself with illegal stem cells, and you won't need to travel to subzero Russia to achieve your own version of immortality -- I have already done that for you. In fact, I have traveled all over the world to bring you stories of success, perseverance, and just good, old-fashioned clean living. Everywhere we go, we find one thing that binds us all together -- we are all chasing life. Next stop: Okinawa, Japan, where we learn to live to 100.


Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be touring the country for his new book "Chasing Life."

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