What's making life expectancies increase? What can we do to keep our health in advanced years? An interview with anti-aging specialist Dr. Bernd Kleine-Gunk about red wine, active social lives and work in the fresh air.
DW: Why are life spans getting longer - at least in the Western world?
Prof. Dr. Bernd Kleine-Gunk: "They have the best conditions for it. Their medical care, for example, is constantly improving. But we know that isn't the most important aspect. Most of all, it's better living conditions that are decisive: better nutrition and better hygiene. Apparently, that plays a much greater role than medicine by itself.
What can we learn from the regions where people live longer than average - in what's known as the 'blue zones‘?
That can't be reduced to a common denominator. People in different regions have different habits. On Sardinia, for example, they swear it's the red wine that helps them live so long. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, it's the seaweed diet. But there are a few things they have in common. None of the people who live longer than 100 years are overweight. In fact, they've been practicing calorie restriction for decades - just like the anti-aging specialists keep recommending. They don't do that as a conscious dietary choice, but because they've simply had very little available to eat for decades. What's more, their diet is based on fruit and vegetables. Many are farmers, and they work as long as they're able, physically, as well. So they spend a lot of time in the fresh air and build up good vitamin D levels. And what else seems to be quite important is that they're all integrated in their family and social structures. No one lives in a nursing home. The feeling that 'I'm still needed; I have a part to play in life' is apparently quite important. That keeps these people going.
How important is your own attitude to living well and long?
People who are optimistic and friendly have more friends in their old age. The ones who are loving are also able to be loved. Others enjoy getting together with such people, but not so much with sourpusses. We've found that this is a fabulous way of helping prevent Alzheimer's. The brain is a social organ. We need to communicate with others. And apparently, that's just what people with a basically friendly personality do better than the ones who live reclusively with no sense of purpose.
Is there a formula for staying young longer?
I'm sure there's no one formula. But there are some pretty good tips. One is: don't stop doing the things you have fun at. No artist stops painting at age 65 - or writing or playing music. Another piece of advice is: avoid anything that makes you age and die prematurely. The very first thing to be mentioned here, of course, is smoking. Another one is: watch your weight. Eat a balanced diet. And furthermore, stay curious about life. If I keep discovering wonderful new things, I've got a good motivation to keep on living."
Why do we even age at all?
We're on Earth, because we have a basic biological mandate, and that consists of passing our genes on to the next generation. And once this mandate is carried out, we're actually pretty much superfluous. Then we start aging perceptibly and measurably. Up to the age of thirty, by which time our procreation is actually supposed to be completed, we remain mostly youthful. After that, we're no longer of any interest to 'mother nature'. If you want to stay youthful and healthy after that, you have to take increasingly good care of yourself.
Women can't reproduce as long as men can, but they still have a longer life expectancy? How is this to be explained?
There are two theories on that. One is that women are simply more important. They contribute so much more to the preservation and propagation of their own species than men by giving birth to, nursing and raising the young. And that's why they're biologically better protected. The other theory is known as the 'grandmother hypothesis'. It states that older, infertile women apparently still play an important part in taking care of and raising their grandchildren. And since that helps to further the species, nature lets older women live longer. Old men, on the other hand, are generally useless mouths to feed.
What happens to the body when we age?
Many utterly different things happen. Basically, we distinguish seven pillars of aging. One is oxidation. That's a process by which what are known as free radicals are produced that put a strain on the organism. Then there's the process of glycosylation, where sugar is attached to proteins, leading to a loss of function for the tissue. And chronic inflammation is another part of the aging process. These are inflammation processes on a very small scale. When the stem cells that regenerate us die, that's yet another side of the aging process. Genetic and epigenetic damage to our D-N-A also mounts up with age and results in age-related disease. Another pillar is hormone deficiencies and, finally, the shortening of the telomeres. Those are the tips of the chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, they come out a little shorter, and when a given critical limit is reached, the cell can no longer divide, and it dies. Nowadays, telomeres can be measured, and that will probably give us a scale for longevity.
Can measuring the telomeres predict when we'll die?
No, that'd be over-interpreting it and only end up scaring people. But measuring the telomeres could open the way to answering the question, 'Am I biologically older or younger than my chronological age would indicate? And the positive news is: I am able to influence the results through my lifestyle choices. Aging is no longer just a matter of destiny. Aging is a mutable process.
Dr. Bernd Kleine-Gunk is a gynecologist and president of the German Society of Anti-Aging Medicine GSAAM. He has a gynecological practice in Fürth. http://www.kleine-gunk.de/
Dorothee Grüner conducted the interview.