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How Long Can You Live? And Do You Really Want to?
November 08, 2016

How Long Can You Live? And Do You Really Want to?

Most folks would like to live a nice, long life, but it’s not something we control. Our lifespan is the result of genetics, environment, lifestyle, medical care and luck. New research suggests that the maximum lifespan has increased over the last century. But it’s not on its way to “forever” as some claim. Instead, it has plateaued at 115 years. They say that’s as good as it gets..

Others believe the first person who will live to 150 is already alive today. Steve Austad of the University of Alabama went so far as to place a bet on it. He probably won’t live long enough to find out if he won, but maybe his children will.

It comes down to two camps. There are those who believe the human lifespan has a natural limit we cannot overcome. Others believe our maximum lifespan can be pushed out by technology. More important, we can’t predict what new technologies will do in the future. Maybe we’ve hit maximum lifespan today, but who knows what tomorrow holds?

This is a fun debate. But is it a worthwhile goal for most of us to reach the maximum lifespan – whether it tops out at 115 or not?

If you are one of the few – about five percent of us - who make it into your nineties, your remaining years are often limited, if not downright challenging. A family friend, approaching her 100th birthday, confided in her daughter that she was concerned that the Lord had forgotten about her.

The old saying is true – “It’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years.” I’d like to live to 100, too. I’d also like to do it in much the same condition as I am now. Minus a few pounds.

If longevity isn’t the goal, then what is? Instead of a long lifespan, how about a long healthspan? This means trying to increase our healthy years instead of the years we are alive.

If we slow aging, can we increase our healthspan? Aging is a complex process that occurs at the cellular level. Waste products build up in cells and damage DNA. The repair process accumulates errors over time. Genetics, lifestyle and environment are all components that influence these factors and how they play out in any one individual.

There isn’t much we can do about our genetics - yet. We can improve our environment, but only in limited ways. Most of us can’t just ditch our current home and move to a mountainside retreat in Switzerland. We have to work with our own genes in our own environment.

Which leaves us with lifestyle. Boy, have we all got room for improvement there!

Nutritional choices, sleep, exercise, relationships, and other factors are all more or less within our control. They impact how we age and how long our healthy lifespan is.

Once we’ve done all we can with those factors, we have to make choices about what is important to us. At what point does increasingly invasive medical care stop being worth the little extra time it buys?

Of course, this is a practical question applied to a very impractical topic. There is beauty and wisdom in aging. Robert Frost said, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” Maybe we’ll finally figure out the answers if we can just live long enough.

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