If you want to live forever, just stick around for the next five decades.
Researchers are beginning to unravel the puzzle of aging, and so far they've identified simple lifestyle changes that add years to our lives. They have found unique proteins and single chunks of DNA that, when altered, protect our cells from withering.
The $1-million prize: This week, California radiologist Joon Yun announced he would use his Palo Alto hedge fund to award $1 million to the first scientists who prove they can put the brakes on aging. The money, split into two prizes of $500,000 each, will award one team that can protect an animal's heart from aging and another that succeeds in extending an animal's life expectancy by 50%.
Funding for anti-aging has exploded. In the past century, humans have nearly doubled the time we spend on Earth. Cadell Last, an evolutionary anthropology Ph.D. student and scientist at the Global Brain Institute, estimates humans will reach their 120th birthdays by 2050. And he's not alone in his quest to extend life. In 2006, PayPal's Peter Thiel invested $3.5 million in the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit focused on allowing "90-year-olds [to] be as healthy as 50-year-olds." Four years later, Thiel gave another $500,000 to Halcyon Molecular, a biotech start-up whose founder wants to "create a world free from cancer and aging." Nearly 15 years ago, David Kekich founded the Maximum Life Foundation, a nonprofit he claims will develop the tools to reverse the human aging process by 2029.
There are genes that add years to life. A team of biologists at the University of California, Los Angeles found a chunk of DNA that, when activated, can put the brakes on the aging process. In lab experiments with fruit flies, the scientists found that once activated in the fly's intestines, the gene's anti-aging effects spread throughout its body and brain. Turning on the gene also extended the fly's life: Those with the activated gene lived an average of 30% longer than those without it.
Your own lifestyle choices impact longevity as well. Too much greasy, fried food causes your cells to visibly age, shaving years off your life, according to Mayo Clinic researchers. Yet there's a pretty simple cure: exercise. Clinic researchers fed two groups of mice the same greasy, fast food diet. Then they supplied one group of mice with running wheels so they could exercise. The cells of the mice who didn't get running wheels broke down and lost their ability to rapidly renew themselves. But something miraculous happened to the mice who got a chance to exercise: Their cells didn't age. Other research has suggested that the same thing happens in people — those who get in at least a 20-minute workout daily not only lead healthier lives with less illnesses and disease, but also live an average of two years longer.
Add some color to your plate: Eating 5 servings of veggies and fruits a day adds an average of four years to your life, according to research from risk expert and British statistician David Spiegelhalter. A recent Oxford University study suggests even bigger benefits associated with incorporating a handful of berries or a few slices of apple into each meal, including a lower risk of death from all causes (32%), stroke (40%) and heart disease (27%).
Quit: A single cigarette shortens life by about 15 minutes. It's no surprise then that smokers live about 10 fewer years than people who've never smoked. Despite its deadly effects, quitting before your 40th birthday reduces your risk of dying from smoking-related diseases by about 90%.
Together these scientific advances, coupled with a few key lifestyle changes, will add years to human life. While initial developments will likely be too expensive for most, they'll eventually become commonplace. Today, a child born in Afghanistan will have an average of 44 years on the planet while one born in the United States will be alive for nearly twice that length. The technology to expand life could soon smooth the lifespan gap, giving all of us more time to fight climate change, eradicate deadly disease and eradicate extreme poverty. Better start collecting those birthday candles.