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.
But the point to make is, if you’re healthy at age 105 and life is good, then it’s a pretty cool idea and maybe we can imitate it.
So let’s see Irving Kahn.
[Video clip: (voiceover) In this office building on Madison Avenue, New York City, 104 year old investment advisor Irving Kahn is working hard as he has since his career on Wall Street began in 1928. He shares his secret to a long and healthy life:
Irving Kahn: To wake up in the morning and have something to look forward to.
Irving’s curiosity and keen business sense have led him to become a widely respected value investor, a member of the New York Stock Exchange and chairman of Kahn Brothers, the company he founded more than thirty years ago with two of his sons, including Thomas who is the president.
Irving works five days a week with a 67 year old son and 29 year old grandson Andrew.
How are you going to link the underwriting projects?
…playing an integral part in managing over $700 million in assets. This is the [Astech] website.
And Irving says not working is unthinkable.
Irving Kahn: I would pay you if you took it away from me, I try to buy it back.
He believes mental challenge is key.
Irving Kahn: The important thing is to keep that brain going machine.
To stay sharp, Irving reads materials online, two financial newspapers daily and a wide range of nonfiction.
Irving Kahn: I read a lot of science. I read no friction, no mystery stories, and no sex novels, so that leaves a lot of time. Science.
And it was Irving’s interest in science that led him to participate in the longevity genes project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine led by researcher Nir Barzilai. Nir and his team have recruited more than 500 healthy elderly, ages 95 to 112 and their children. Irving and Thomas are part of the study as is Irving’s big sister, 108 year old Helen Reichert, a former television host and fashion historian.
So far Nir and his team have found several gene variants that are more common in this group and protect against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Irving has the CTP genotype that seems to be protective against several age-related diseases, including a cognitive decline.
Nir’s team has also found that some genes seem to protect against the effects of certain lifestyle habits. Irving, for instance, used to smoke but quit to set an example for his children. And Helen smoked for more than 80 years.
Nir Barzilai: You can see both from him and his sister that those genes have real amazing effect not only on the fact that they’re alive but considering the fact that they were smoking and this should have shortened their lifespan immensely.
And Irving believes long life has its benefits when it comes to business.
Irving Kahn: Because part of it is some of the advantages that you have when you’re older, you know what’s rotten and what’s fresh and what is good or bad. And you can participate on a higher level.
[Video clip concludes.]
Nir Barzilai: Just to make clear, he was talking about reading sex novels. Okay, so something very interesting about those people, this shows the cost of the last two years of life, somebody who dies at age 100 versus somebody who dies at age 70. And it’s third the cost, okay.
It’s because they live longer and they’re sick… they have a big health spend but they are sick shorter time. This has been consistent since 1993. This data is closely monitored. We call it the longevity dividend. If you calculate it, if we could be like that, it would save trillions of dollars, okay and maybe that’s a motivation to start thinking about it.
Of course, there’s social security, there’s a retirement age, there’s a whole other issues. But there’s a huge longevity dividend.
Now you might come and tell me, just a minute, you know you’re talking about longevity genes and things like that. But maybe it’s their interaction with the environment. Maybe what’s unique about those guys, they have done what the doctors told us… tells us to do. Maybe they were eating healthy, they were thin, they were exercising, they were vegetarian, maybe they were drinking one cup of wine. They were of course not smoking.
Well this is what happens. Almost 50% of them were overweight or obese during their lifetime. In fact, 20% of them are overweight or obese when there are centenarians. 60% of the men and 30% of the [women] were smoking. You saw from Helen, if you smoke for 80 years, you do live long life.
Exercise… now let’s talk about just moderate exercise, like bicycling, housework, you know things like that. Less than 50% of them.
Vegetarian. Anybody’s interested in being vegetarian? Only 2% of the centenarians are vegetarians.
And the point here is for them, okay, not for us, it didn’t matter. And I want to show you the really disaster that happens to scientists, we published this paper, and the first to read it was Jay Leno. Let’s see what he was thinking about it.
Jay Leno: …study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I know where that is, but that’s what it says. They say the secret to a long life may actually be more drinking, partying and less exercise. The good thing about this combination is if you don’t live longer, you don’t care.
Nir Barzilai: Okay. So when that comes up, you’re just worried that everybody’s going to leave their habits and try to do what they shouldn’t do. So please understand it’s those very unique people like Irving Kahn that for them it doesn’t matter. For the rest of us, it matters.
So what are we finding?
So let me tell you a little bit. First of all, in nature there’s something really interesting: the little dogs live longer, the ponies live longer than the horse. Dwarfs in nature seems to live longer. So one of the things we’re looking for is what happens in those growth hormones.
And let me tell you that the growth hormones and other genes, not only growth hormone genes have been manipulated in many many animals in the worms, in fruit flies, in mice, in rats, even in monkeys. And we can extend not only lifespan but healthy lifespan in variety of models by manipulating sometimes single genes or using drugs or using certain nutrients, we can modulate lifespan all over.
So this is something that we’ve done again and again and again and it’s very possible to do.
In centenarians, Dr. Milman from Einstein have shown that when you take those hundred years old, and you ask what predicts their mortality? The answer was the people with the lowest growth hormone level have lived twice as long. Okay they are already centenarians but they live twice as long than those who have higher growth hormone level.
Another scientist from Einstein, Dr. Su have shown that there are functional mutations in the growth hormone genes in clusters and those people who have those mutations by the way are an inch shorter not dwarf but they’re an inch shorter. But there are other mutations in genes that are associated with longevity that have nothing to do with growth hormone either.
But all those have been shown from animals to centenarians. So imagine we are at the entrance of the promised land. Okay we know how to increase health span and lifespan in variety of models.
More than this, there are drugs that are being developed by pharmaceuticals, some of them based on our research but they’re not developed for aging but for specific diseases. Together with Dr. [Hussey Cohen] in USC, we have a company that has a novel technology to replace proteins that are being decreased in the plasma.
So those stories are everywhere.
Also there are drugs that are currently in human use, not for aging reasons, for other reasons that have shown to prevent variety of diseases. But they’re not being prescribed now against aging. And by the way, this is the 20-minute talk. In the second date I can talk more about the drugs out there that you could use.
But with all that knowledge, what’s hard to imagine is one thing: the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, doesn’t consider aging as something that can be prevented, and as long as that happens, you know if your insurance company is not going to pay your bill if you take a drug and the pharmaceuticals are not going to develop the drugs, because if nobody is going to pay for their use why would they spend the money into it?
So again imagine we are at a stage where scientists have done all they can to do the preclinical studies and to show and demonstrate again and again that healthy lifespan can be extended. And we need you to be aware of that and help us demand it so that your aging will be just beautiful.
Thank you so much.
Resources for Further Reading:
- #OCD: Starving The Monster – Tauscha Johanson (Transcript)
- My Brain Works Differently: Autism And Addiction – Dylan Dailor (Transcript)
- The Harm Reduction Model of Drug Addiction Treatment: Mark Tyndall (Transcript)
- The Past, Present And Future of Nicotine Addiction: Mitch Zeller (Transcript)
- I’ve Been Duped By Alcohol: Paul Churchill (Transcript)