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Special Event

Millennium 2000: 75 and Counting

Aired January 3, 2000 - 7:19 a.m. ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: The secrets of why we get old may lie in the tips of your genes or the power plants in your cells. And unlocking them would work wonders.


DR. WOODY WRIGHT, UNIV. OF TEXAS SOUTHWESTERN: If we're lucky and if our hypotheses are correct, is extend the period of vigor.


HARRIS: Even if you can't beat Father Time, we'll show you how to put up a better fight.

We began the 1900s in the industrial revolution. Technological advances were soon followed by medical advances, like the invention of antibiotics. As we begin a new century, many are hoping for the ultimate achievement in medicine: immortality.

Our medical news correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore takes a look at where we stand in medicine's quest for eternal youth.


DR. STEVE SALVATORE, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Why do we grow old? Why don't we live forever? The question itself has been around for thousands of years. Aristotle thought we aged because an internal fire burned itself out. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon thought a fountain of youth in what is now Florida held the key to immortality.

Carl Nolting is following in their footsteps. We first met Carl in 1996 when at age 75 he was a vigorous runner, scuba diver and user of many anti-aging remedies. They may be unproven, but he swears by them.

CARL NOLTING: Overall, overall, I feel good. I get up in the morning at least at 5:00, sometimes a little bit before, and I do my little exercises that I do, and then I head off to work. And I can't wait to get to work. I mean, it's -- I really enjoy it. And of course in order to stay young you've got to have -- you've got to have an active body and an active mind.

SALVATORE: As part of his program to stay active, Carl takes vitamins, supplements and hormones. He also exercises vigorously and stretches, a regimen he hopes will slow down the changes that come with age.

DR. RICHARD HODES, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF AGING: The challenge, I think, is for us to understand the nature of these changes well enough to try to promote lifestyle behaviors, intervenes, that will encourage optimal preservation of function and health as aging continues and to try to minimize or interfere with those processes which are detrimental to health and independence with aging.

SALVATORE: If we didn't want aging to continue we'd have to accomplish two very difficult feats: prevent or repair all accumulated damage in the body and stop or reverse any biological clocks that might set a maximum lifespan.

Many researchers believe there are biological clocks within our cells. They're called tilamers (ph), and they're located at the end of our chromosomes, the genetic material that determines almost all of our inherited traits.

Tilamers are a bit like the little plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. They're made up of a repeating genetic code that doesn't function like normal genes. They don't really do anything except when the cell divides.

(on camera): At that moment, each chromosome pair creates a copy of itself, but when it does so the chromosome shortens a little bit at each end. Since the tilamer is the part that shortens, the chromosome isn't harmed. However, as a person ages and their cells have divided many times, the chromosome shortens past the tilamer and starts cutting into working genes. This interferes with the function of the nucleus and the cell dies.

(voice-over): Most researchers agree the tilamer system evolved to prevent cancer. When cancer cells develop, they divide very rapidly, effectively killing themselves. But some cancers do keep growing because they've mutated to produce an enzyme, tilamerese, that regrows the tilamers.

At the University of Tennessee-Memphis, researchers are using tilamerese to give old cells new life. They're growing artificial corneas from real cornea cells. Tilamerese allows these cells to keep replicating over and over, something they couldn't do in nature.

Some scientists hope to use the same approach in the cells of the human body. They think it may grant us some youth, but not eternal youth.

WRIGHT: I don't think that preventing tilamers shortening is going to make human beings immortal. Although what it can do, if we're lucky and if our hypotheses are correct, is extend the period of vigor and perhaps the entire human lifespan, so that people are still going to die.

SALVATORE: But most scientists believe the tilamere theory does not provide a complete explanation of cellular aging and death, a process known as sinescence (ph).

DR. DOUGLAS WALLACE, EMORY UNIVERSITY: It doesn't seem to me a very good explanation for aging and sinescence because most of the tissues that age and sinesce that we're interested in -- the brain, the heart, the muscle, the kidney, et cetera -- those cells never divide at all and they never replicate their nuclear DNA. So not replicating their nuclear DNA, their tilamers can't get shorter and therefore that couldn't affect their longevity.

SALVATORE: Dr. Douglas Wallace and his team of researchers at Emory University are studying another theory: the mitochondrial theory of aging. Mitochrondria are the power plants of the cell.

WALLACE: The mitrochrondria make energy by burning hydrogen in the food that we eat, our carbohydrates and fats, with oxygen that we breathe from the atmosphere to make water. And in that process they convert that chemical energy into a usable form which is a carrier molecule called adenasene triphoserate (ph), or ATP.

SALVATORE: The instructions on how to make this ATP are contained within DNA on the mitochrondria's own ring-shaped chromosomes. Free radicals, a byproduct of making ATP, can damage or kill mitochrondria. When one is killed, another mitrochondria must divide to replace it. But this process of replication can accumulate mutations throughout all the replicated mitochondria.

To explain why this happens, we arrange a demonstration with a class of children playing the game "Telephone." In this game, a message is whispered to the first child on one side of the classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?

AMBER: Amber.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amber? Amber, come here, I'm going to whisper the message to you and you'll pass it around.

Bugs Bunny is the best.

SALVATORE: Think of this message as the mitochondrial DNA. In this game, the first child whispers the message to the next child, which corresponds to the mitochrondrial dividing and reproducing itself. As the message is passed from one child to the next, there are plenty of opportunities for the message to become corrupted. Maybe a child doesn't whisper clearly or doesn't hear it right. On the cellular level, it might be damage from a stray oxygen molecule. Each time the message is passed on, new errors may arise and previous errors are repeated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is the message now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Today's the Second.

SALVATORE: Had most of the mitochondria within a cell built up this many errors the cell would have died. So if we're trying to make Carl Nolting immortal, could we restore his mitochondria? WALLACE: The problem comes if you're going to talk about mitrochrondria and aging and you believe that all the cells in the body are acquiring defective mitochrondria. We don't have any way of replacing all the mitrochondrials -- mitochondria of all the cells in the body, and I don't see any good way of doing that in the near future.

SALVATORE: Which means we have to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place.

WALLACE: One of the things that we feel might be very important is trying to control the amount of oxygen radical toxicity that occurs from our mitochondria.

SALVATORE: And the best way they know to do that is to take antioxidants like Vitamins C and E, which help clean up free radicals, which means Carl Nolting may be doing all he can for now. But like many of us, he's already found one way to live forever: through his children.

HODES: To the best of our understanding, it appears that evolution acts not to preserve the survival of any individual, but to preserve the survival of the species.

SALVATORE: Most aging researchers don't believe we'll find the key to individual immortality any time soon. All we can do for now is live healthy and enjoy our brief lives as much as possible.

Dr. Steve Salvatore, CNN, New York.


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, let's turn now to some experts on the aging population.

HARRIS: Yes. Right now joining us from Washington is longevity expert Anna McCormick. She's with the National Institute of Aging and she has directed several studies on this subject.

We thank you for talking to us this morning about all this.

How, in terms of the science, how much is there to learn about aging?

ANNA MCCORMICK, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF AGING: I think we've just barely scratched the surface and we're beginning to understand some of the aging processes, but we have a lot more to learn before we can understand aging in muscle as compared to aging in the heart or aging in the brain since all of these tissues seem to age differently and at different rates.

HARRIS: And so once that secret is actually finally broken and is decoded, is it feasible to think that people could arrange to live forever?

MCCORMICK: I don't really think so. I think what our goal is is to -- there probably will be some increase in lifespan, but to make sure that that increase in lifespan is paralleled by an increase in health span. That is, that older individuals are living healthy, independent, high quality lives. So I don't think in the near future or even in the distant future we will have immortality.

HARRIS: Well, you talked about spans there, lifespan and health span. Give us an idea of the span of years you're talking about in each case.

MCCORMICK: Well, I think right now the average lifespan for a woman is 78 and for a man is 72. But what we're noticing in several studies is that the population of centenarians and super-centenarians is increasing over the last decade and will continue to increase. So I think we're going to be seeing more people living into their hundreds and living to be very, very functional and very active into their -- past 100.

MCEDWARDS: And what do you learn from those people who do live the longest? How do their bodies age differently than people who don't live that long?

MCCORMICK: Well that's one thing that we're really anxious to find out. We think their rate of aging is slower, but their tissue functions such as their muscle function and their brain function, their bone function and strength seems to be preserved. So these people who are the oldest old seem to have just a special combination of both maybe their genetics, maybe their environment, and probably the interaction of the two that makes them be healthier longer.

HARRIS: Well this bring up a whole lot of other issues that we want to get into in just a couple of minutes, so stay with us. Anna, you stand by.

Folks, stay with us at home. We'll be back with more in just a moment.

Don't go away.


HARRIS: All right. We continue now our conversation this morning about aging and what the future portends for all of us as we grow older and older and older.

We're joined in Washington by Anna McCormick and we're also joined now from San Francisco by psychologist and gerontologist Ken Dychtwald. He is the author of "Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New Old." You're predicting.

Ken, that basically we're going to have a gerontology or a society ruled by older people. How old are you talking about and what does that mean?

KEN DYCHTWALD, GERONTOLOGIST: Well let's put it in context fist, Leon. As you know, through 99 percent of human history, the average life expectancy worldwide was less than 18 years. Up until the last century or two, really very, very few people got to see their 40th or 50th or certainly 60th birthday.


DYCHTWALD: But in this century in particular -- I guess I should say in the last century -- that one we ended a few days ago -- there were some terrific advances in public health and pharmacy and medicine. And so we began to create some longevity. And I'd like to also comment on the fact that here in the United States, as was mentioned, the average life expectancy has vaulted from 47 to about 76 in the 20th century, but there's about 25 countries throughout the world that actually have a higher life expectancy than the United States. I think we think we're the best, but with regard to longevity we're not that very good at all. We have countries like Japan and Israel and Kuwait and England and Singapore and New Zealand -- all live longer than we do.

The question is: How much farther is it going to lift? And while I agree with the doctor from Washington that we're not likely to see immortality, I think there's a very good chance in the next decade or two that we will see breakthroughs in nutraceuticals. I do think we're going to have organ transplantation -- organ cloning where we can get spare parts whenever we need them. I think we're going to be able to manipulate the stem cells of the human body to essentially re- grow wornout tissue. And frankly, I believe that we're going to have the ability to manipulate the biologic clock through that exact mechanism you discussed earlier -- the manipulation of tilomers.

Now if that's going to happen, there's a very good chance that the average life expectancy will be somewhere between 90 and 100 in the middle of the next century. But the point -- the idea that becomes interesting is that many of us will live 90 or 100 years. Some of us will live 120 or so. But I think there will be a handful of people who live will live to 150. And you know what? They'll probably be the same men and women whose pictures you see on the cover of Fortune magazine these days. They're the rich people, because aging will be -- longevity will be purchasable both on the open market and the black market.

MCEDWARDS: Dr. McCormick, your thoughts on that. Are these notions realistic?

MCCORMICK: I think they are realistic. I think there's being breakthroughs made all the time that help us understand that some of the hallmarks of aging which are loss of muscle mass and strength and loss of bone mass and strength which leads to frailty can ultimately, based on studies in animal models that have been done and are continuing, that we'll be able to prevent those conditions which severely limit, you know, functional independence. And so accompanying these increased years I think there will be increased healthy years. And I see no reason why the population won't have an average lifespan of 90 to 100 within the next few decades.

HARRIS: Well if that actually does happen, let's talk about some of the implications. Doesn't that necessarily mean that at some point, somehow, some way what's going to have to be accepted worldwide is the idea of reduction in birth rates? I mean, if you're going to have a world well all of a sudden people are engineering themselves to live to be 180 or 150 years old and nobody dies and kids keep being born, then we have a whole new set of problems don't we?

DYCHTWALD: Yes, Leon -- the world is actually kind of reorganizing itself demographically as we speak, to the exact point you've just made. As it turns out, in all the nations of the world that are seeing incredible growths in longevity -- they are the industrialized modernized nations -- you're also seeing plummeting birth rates. In Europe, there isn't one country that's having enough children to replace themselves. The birth rate in the United States is hovering at around 2 or 2.1, which is barely replacement level.

And so if you can imagine a kind of a seesaw. What's happening is that youth, which was always very high, with huge amounts of growth and huge amounts of attention -- and by the way, I would tell you, a huge amount of attention in marketing and advertising and politics -- that side is declining. On the other side, maturity is now growing in numbers. It's becoming the wealthiest segment of society and older adults are now finding themselves with unrivaled political might.

And so the effect of it is that in the early decades of this new century, America will become a gerontocracy. We will no longer be a country ruled by the young. We will be a country controlled, ruled, and influenced by the old. And by the way, they'll be the new old -- not our moms and dads or grandparents, but the boomers as it turns out who we've always thought of as the youth generation, are about to become the elder boomers. And it will be that generation that will live the longest and have the most power in their mature years, and that's a whole different society than our founding fathers ever imagined. And keep in mind when the Declaration of Independence was signed, the life expectancy was only 35. I mean, they never imagined a world with Americans living 90, 100 or 150 years. This is something that the world has never seen before.

HARRIS: Well one thing they're going to have to see right now is a commercial break. We're going to have to take one right now, but stay tuned. Stay there in San Francisco. Stay there in Washington.

And folks, stay there at home. We will have more with our guests in just a moment.


MCEDWARDS: And we continue our discussion now on the world's aging population and what the future holds.

HARRIS: Gerontologist Ken Dychtwald joins us from San Francisco this morning, and longevity expert Anna McCormick is in our Washington bureau this morning.

Anna, let me ask you one question about the ethics that actually are tied to this issue. Are there any ethical concerns about changing biology? We're talking about something that's very, very close to what we are as human beings -- what we really are. And you're saying now that there's a possibility that we can develop a pill to change that nature. MCCORMICK: I think there are a lot of ethical concerns that are being addressed, both because of manipulations to aging populations, but also with the explosion of knowledge that's coming from the human genome project, in that we're going to have the complete human blueprint in two to three years.

So there are ethical considerations. I think that we're going to have to be very careful in how we proceed. But I think that it's no different than trying to find a cure for cardiovascular disease in a person who's 60 years old. It's no different than trying to find a prevention or intervention strategy that will extend the health span of a 90- or 100-year old.

So I think there are ethical concerns, and we want possible interventions to be used wisely. But I think that progress in this field will be well-controlled in the future.

MCEDWARDS: Dr. Dychtwald, when you spoke of a different society where there are more older people, explain what about that society will have to be different as well in order to support this kind of a population.

DYCHTWALD: Well let me mention three or four key things. First of all, we're going to have to get a completely different concept in our minds as to when people grow old. The point was made for me a little while back. My literary agent was commenting that he recalled being at his grandfather's funeral. His grandfather, as it turned out, had died when the man was 62. And so my agent was there as a young boy and he remembered people reflecting on the fact that he had lived a long life and he had died an old man. Well as fate would have it, his own father died at exactly the same age -- 62. But at his funeral, everybody commented that what a shame he had died such a young man and lived such a short life.

And so what's happened is that since the 1880s when Otto von Bismarck picked 65 to be the marker of old age to help create Europe's first pension plan, we are living longer and longer and people are staying healthy and youthful longer. We all see it around us. You know, there's Mick Jagger at 56 and Sean Connery at 69 and Lena Horne at 82 and John Glenn doing his great space ride at 78. What we see is that people are living longer, but not growing old as they used to -- simply be old a longer time. People are staying young longer. They're staying middle aged longer. And I think in fact we're seeing an entirely new vigor and vitality to maturity.

And by the way, most people like the idea of growing old later, but boy is there going to one kind of political battle over the idea, well, if you're growing old later, maybe you shouldn't get your entitlements until you're 75 or 80.

HARRIS: You shouldn't retire until you're close to 80 or 90.

DYCHTWALD: Yes, I mean, by the way, it's ludicrous that people retire today. Last year, the average retirement age was only 62. And then a 62-year-old whose already got almost 20 years of life expectancy in front of him. It just doesn't make any sense at all that we have such a long life now and people are still hooking to a marker of old age that's over a century old.

By the way, I think the second thing you're going to see is that people are going to be living what I'll call cyclic lives. Instead of only learning once and then having one career and then retiring never to work again, you're going to see more and more people with two and three and four careers -- going back to college at 50 or 70 or 90. Or you'll see people retiring only to be rehired once again. It'll be a much more of a renaissance life, where people can continue to reinvent themselves and late-bloom throughout their years.

HARRIS: Well they're going to have something to do with themselves if they retire at 80 and they still have another 80 years to expect to live.

Dr. McCormick, let me ask you -- we only have a couple of seconds here. But I just want to get an idea from you, from a scientific perspective. How soon before we have this magic pill?

MCCORMICK: That's pretty hard to predict, but I think at last within the next 10 years we're going to really start revealing a lot of the underlying causes of aging and age-related disease. So I don't know if there's going to be one magic pill, but I think we'll have the knowledge to develop either prevention or intervention strategies. So I'd say, these are not going to come as one big discovery, but they will be coming as discoveries through the next 10 or 20 years.

HARRIS: We're going to have quite a bit to discover. This is going to be a fascinating era that we enter into. We sure thank you very much -- both of you for coming and talking to us now this morning. Ken Dychtwald, the author of "Age Power" and Anna McCormick, we thank you very much, from the National Institute on Aging. Fascinating.

MCEDWARDS: Though some people might say that an advantage, rather, of aging, particularly aging slowly as we've been talking about, is the opportunity it offers to be an eyewitness to history. And as she visited with an elderly couple in Los Angeles, CNN's Anne McDermott learned of some of the century's most memorable moments from America's melting pot.


ANNE MCDERMOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Meet Jack and Rose Weiner. Both were born in Russia, raised in Brooklyn and now are living in Los Angeles at the Jewish Home for the Aging, where they'll soon celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. Seventy years -- and what years, most of the 20th century.

Both were born in 1904 and have vivid memories of such things as their families' horses and that very first automobile.

ROSE WEINER: Do you remember what you paid for that Ford?

JACK WEINER: Seventy-five dollars.

ROSE WEINER: Twenty-five. JACK WEINER: Twenty-five dollars

MCDERMOTT: And they remember World War I, that war that was supposed to end them all.

Jack was too young for it, but he didn't escape the great influenza epidemic of 1918. His parents, his mother especially, knew folk medicine, and his mother healed him, just as she did when a neighbor gave Jack problems.

JACK WEINER: Well, she gave me an evil eye.

ROSE WEINER: Did you ever hear of an evil -- did anybody ever hear of an evil eye?

JACK WEINER: Did you ever hear of an evil eye?

MCDERMOTT: Well, he survived it to watch the '20s roll in -- which is when Jack Weiner and Rose Brownstein began to date.

ROSE WEINER: Yes, I learned to dance a little bit.

JACK WEINER: We used to dance the Charleston, the Charleston we used to dance.

ROSE WEINER: The Charleston.

MCDERMOTT: And they used to go to the movies. Jack preferred Douglas Fairbanks, Rose was crazy for Rudolph Valentino.

JACK WEINER: We used to go into the movies. It cost us five cents.

ROSE WEINER: Oh, yes a nickel -- or two for a nickel.

JACK WEINER: Two for a nickel.

MCDERMOTT: Then the crash, and the Weiner's began married life as the United States began its Great Depression.

ROSE WEINER: And we suffered, you know?

MCDERMOTT: But not as bad as some. Jack Weiner's kosher meat business actually prospered, as their family grew.

And then World War II erupted. The Weiners gave blood and collected their rationing coupons and prayed for a cousin in the service.

JACK WEINER: And he came to us in a house and he brought a bottle of scotch to celebrate that he came through.

MCDERMOTT: The Weiners were proud of their country, proud of their president, though Rose still can't quite forgive some of his lapses.

ROSE WEINER: His mistress was with him at the time he died.

MCDERMOTT: But there would be far more terrible revelations when the Weiners and the world learned of the Nazi concentration camps and the deaths of six million Jews.

JACK WEINER: I asked many times the rabbis, I says, where was the almighty above that this happened? And they couldn't give me an answer.

MCDERMOTT: But at last it was peace time. And with peace came prosperity, and for the Weiners their first TV.

ROSE WEINER: Tuesday night I had everybody from the neighborhood coming in, sitting on the floors watching Milton Berle.

MCDERMOTT: But as the years went on, the Weiners became less and less enchanted with what their TV showed them and the world they saw on television news.

JACK WEINER: People getting shot and killed for no reason at all.

MCDERMOTT: But there were many more happy times, including all those anniversary celebrations, where Jack Weiner would head for the microphone to warble his favorite song for his Rose.

JACK WEINER (singing): Everything is happy, happy now.the sing for rose.

MCDERMOTT: And he says he'll be singing it soon for their 70th. But first the Weiners have a new year to celebrate and the start of another century.

ROSE WEINER: Drink a little wine.

JACK WEINER: We'll drink wine and we'll say Le Chaim -- to life.

Anne McDermott, CNN, Los Angeles.



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