Full text of aging researcher Nir Barzilai’s talk titled “How to die young at a very old age” at TEDxGramercy conference. Nir is a Professor of Medicine and Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Deputy Scientific Director at the American Federation for Aging Research. He has pioneered breakthrough research on the biology of aging.
Nir Barzilai – Professor of Medicine and Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine
So let me transfer you immediately to my world with this beautiful New York story. It’s about a hundred-year-old guy that walks into a life insurance office and wants life insurance. And the clerk looks at him and says, “Are you crazy? We’re not giving life insurance to 100 years old.”
And he said “Well, that’s not true. My mother is insured here.”
He said, “How old is your mother?”
He said, “She’s 120.”
“And is she okay?”
He said, “Yes, she is fine.”
So clever clerk… he goes to the boss and there’s a lot of a promotion here. And they come back to the elderly gentleman and they say, “You know what, we’ll be happy to give you life insurance. In fact, why don’t you come on Tuesday? We will have all the papers ready and you’ll be on your way.”
And the elderly gentleman says, “I’m sorry, but I’m busy on Tuesday.”
And they looked at him and said, “Old man, what do you have on Tuesday?”
He says, “Well, on Tuesday, my grandfather is getting married.”
“How old is your grandfather?”
He said, “He’s 150.”
“He is 150! He wants to get married?”
He said, “He doesn’t want to, but his parents puts lots of pressure.”
Seriously now, you guys out there, you know Justin Matthew, whatever your name is, your grandparents are looking at you, and they see a lot of them, if you remind them of them when they were young.
But when we’re looking at our grandparents, we have a total lack of imagination. We think they’re different creature; they were born like sick and old.
And so what I want to tell you is that we… biology of aging… are harnessing the science. We are able to move on and make sure that not only we can live longer but live healthier.
So let me tell you, first of all, the problem.
The problem is depicted in a graph here, and you know we scientists have to have at least one graphing in a lecture. And this graph depicts the relationship between age-related diseases — and there are few up there — and aging. You see all of them are going up.
And those diseases are conserved in blue and heart-attacks in red and Alzheimer’s and diabetes in orange etc. And you see that it’s very common for all of them. Aging is the major risk factor. Not only it’s a major risk factor but it’s on a log scale, which means when you go from 20, 30 to 80 the risk goes from 1 to 1,000.
Now you know about risks. You know that cholesterol is the risk for heart disease. And you know how much of a risk it is; it’s a three-fold risk.
But when you age, you go from 1 to 1000 and it’s common to all those diseases. So I’m coming to this field and I’m looking at this graph. And I’m saying, hey, the only way to really make an impact is to delay aging, because if you don’t delay aging, you’ll just switch one disease for another.
And since then it’s actually we know that it’s true. You know, if you walk into the emergency room and have a heart attack, you can get the bypass, you can get the stent into your coronaries.
But you know what happens? Within two years, if you don’t get another heart attack, you get diabetes or cancer or Alzheimer’s, because we just fixed the heart; we didn’t delay the aging.
Now there’s another problem, and this problem… you’re going to help me. I’m going to actually ask you this question: Do you think that we humans age at different rate? Do you think that maybe our biological and chronological age are not the same?
So I’m going to… so you think about your parents, your grandparents; think about a 50 year old guy that you know that maybe he looks like he’s 40. Think of a 60 year old guy that maybe looks like 70.
Think of those and if you think… if you think that we humans age at different rates, everybody raise their hands, those who think so. And everybody looks around to see how many of you are thinking that way. Please… if we age at different rates, raise your hands and look around.
So you see, intuitively, you all think… thank you very much. By the way I can’t see anything. But I’ve asked these questions before and I’m sure that almost 95% those that are not asleep are thinking intuitively that we can delay aging. That we age at different rates.
And so how do we use this knowledge in order to understand how come some people die earlier and how some people die later?
So one of the approaches that I’m going to talk a bit is to take hundred years old, because we assume that hundred years old, their aging has been delayed the most.
Okay. So what are we trying to achieve here? The upper bar here, that is blue, and going to kind of pink and then red, represent what’s happening now. Actually it’s more of an optimistic picture, because life expectancy in the United States is 80 years old, and this upper graph shows you’re until age of 85.
But you can see that after age 50, people start getting sick and they get sicker. And 10 years of their life they’re spending being sick. So this is now.
The centenarians I’m going to talk with you about are healthy, healthy, healthy and they have a short period of time when they are sick and then they die. So maybe we want to achieve that.
You know, we might… when I write my grant, I’m not saying I want longevity, I’m saying I just want people to stop being sick. So live your 85 years but don’t be sick.
And of course, the worst scenario, the nightmare that we have as scientists is that we achieve longevity without expanding the health span. Okay so everybody just live longer being sick longer and we don’t want to do that.
So let me tell you that we’ve collected a large number… we have almost 600 hundred years old, the people that were really healthy at age 95, we have their children, we have their families. And we’re looking for longevity genes and other factors that can influence their aging.
And you see a picture that was taken like 1920s of those four guys that are siblings. They were all born between 1910 to 1920 to two parents in New York. And what’s unique about them is each one of them have reached the age of 102. When the young sister that way died at 102 they were shocked, couldn’t believe that.
The other sister lived to be 110. The brother that’s sitting died not long ago at 106. But I want to introduce you to my dear friend Irving Kahn that is sitting down there with a rifle. And I want to show you a little clip. And the reason I want to show you this really clip is for you to understand… by the way he’s 108 years old now. This was taken when he was 105; he’s still going to work every day.