How Long Can a Human Live? Telomeres & The Effect of Money on Life Expectancy

The World Health Organization has released statistics that relate the most common causes of death in relation to overall income for a country.  Believe it or not, HIV/AIDS is the second leading cause of death among low income countries.  Also in these countries, almost 1/2 of the deaths in children under the age of five occurred within the first 28 days of birth.  Causes of death for these infants are taken for granted in western societies, diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria are major causes of death in parts of the world with the lowest income.  And let’s not forget tuberculosis, a disease that is making a comeback due to the length of time required to treat, not to mention the cost. Fully 1/3 of all deaths in low income countries are from these above mentioned causes.  To add to these deaths is the increased percentage of maternal deaths – moms that pass away during childbirth, because of pregnancy related medical issues or medical problems related to the birth of their child after birth.  Premature births are also a major contributor to death in this population.

However, in contrast to the infectious diseases mentioned above, the higher income countries death rates showed that 87% of deaths were non infectious disease related deaths. 70% of people in high income countries die at the age of 70 or higher in contrast to 20% in low income countries.  What are we dying from in higher income countries?  Ischemic Heart Disease and Stroke, collectively known as cardiovascular disease.  Only 1 in 100 deaths is among the age group of 15 years old and younger in western societies, compared to 4 in 10 for lower income countries.

What does this all tell us?  Well people in these low income countries still die of heart disease and stroke.  We just live longer in higher income countries because of the healthcare and medications available that allow us to fight these diseases.  Certainly medications have drastically lowered the main causes of death here that are common for the low income countries like communicable diseases and childhood deaths.  We may die of accidental causes more in western type societies.  As a pharmacist I can tell you if I take away the number of prescriptions that are for infection, cardiovascular disease medications amount for a significant proportion of medications.   Psychoactive meds perhaps second, acid lowering meds close behind (which brings to light the issue of gastric cancer in western societies as compared to lower income countries).  As I have blogged before, the medications are only a small part of it, as is evidenced in the difference in life expectancy between the US and Canada.  Life expectancy in Canada is notably higher than the US even though we have the same medications available, just different healthcare models.  Healthcare in Canada is free for the most part except for medications.  I think the main reason is diet, as many states have similar life expectancy to Canada except for the Southern states, which have quite a different diet than the rest of the country and skew that country’s total life expectancy to a lower number.

So how long can we expect to live as humans?  Absolutely one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century was the increase in lifespan for those on the planet.  We have extended lifespan by nearly 40% in the last century.  Definitely getting a human past the age of 15 is a huge hurdle in extending this timeline.  In the next 50 years, the percent growth in our population is expected to be exponential in the 85 and older group compared to those that are younger.  All of the above mentioned factors of medication, research, healthcare models, and so on have certainly helped and perhaps knowledge of nutrition, but food has been the downfall of how we die.  Not only cancer but other obesity related issues can be chalked up to our diet in some way or another.  Exposure to other toxins daily due to our lifestyle has drastically changed in the last 60 years as well.  Our lifespan has increased but our disease state that ends our life has changed.   Seemingly, when someone moves from Rural China to North America, the reason for dying changes within a generation or two.

The timing of our decline and ultimate death is encoded deep in our genes.  I am always quick to argue that your genes can be controlled to prevent disease but ultimately there is something more powerful going on that we can’t yet override.  There seems to be a clock or sensor in our genes that says, “time to wind down”, or “you are no longer able to contribute to the reproduction of the species”.  These genes are interfered with less in lower income countries with less availability to medication or healthcare.  Diet, exercise and lifestyle are free to impose their natural forces on DNA unhindered by medicine.  Even if we avoid disease, if that is possible, we still can’t live forever.  Why is that?

The telomere theory of agin does a good job to explain this.  Telomeres are located at the end of our DNA strands.  As our cells divide, the DNA replicates so each new cell has its own DNA.  Telomeres are disposable caps at the DNA strands.  As DNA divides there is always a point where the division of DNA occurs before the actual end of the DNA strand.  Small amounts get clipped at the end with each cell division.  Telomeres are the buffers that contain “throw away” pieces with each cell division.  Now imagine how much of this finite buffer is left when you are 80 compared to 20 years old.  At that point we start clipping useable pieces of DNA with each cell division after using up the telomere buffer during your lifetime.  At that point we actually have defences to stop division of that cell so mutant cells or cancer won’t develop.  The bad side is that we don’t duplicate a cell like that anymore and it dies.  Antiaging medicine has focused on keeping the length of these telomers as lengthy as possible to maintain healthy cell division.

This is an over simplified method of aging.  How do we prevent the shortening of telomeres and therefore heart disease, cartilage loss?  Antioxidant support, astralgus, B,D and C vitamin and mineral support, a good diet, organic food, lack of stress, and as much a we hear that multivitamins are useless, a study has shown that telomeres are on average 5% longer in those that take multivitamins as opposed to those that don’t.  Dropping inflammation with omega 3 is also helpful and green tea, curcumin, quercetin, resveratrol, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E mix) also have shown promise.

So we can debate the effect of money on cause of death for a given country, but in the end, even if we prevent disease, we aren’t living forever.  Keeping the degradation of telomeres at bay not only prevents longterm disease, but extends lifespan even more.  Don’t agree with these nutrition recommendations? Just start by eating better and exercise more.







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