BY GRANT MERCER – Twenty years ago at the age of 122, the world’s oldest living person, Jeanne Calment, passed away in August of 1997. Outliving all her family and all her doctors, except for, the last one of course, she attributed her long life to copious amounts of garlic and olive oil, as well as refusing to brood over things beyond her control. She rode a bicycle until she was 100, lived independently until she was 110, and smoked until she was 117. Calling herself “the woman God forgot”, she ate two pounds of chocolate each week and relaxed at the end of each day with a glass of port. A journalist, interviewing Calment when she was 118, ended the interview saying, “until next year, perhaps.”  Calment quipped, “I don’t see why not! You don’t look so bad to me.”  

Living over a century was surely inconceivable for early humans as the average person was lucky to reach the age of 40. However, beginning in the mid-1800’s, this slowly started to change with life expectancy rising about three months with each passing year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  In 1840, the average American lived to 45 years of age. Today the average age has reached 79. The lengthening of life seems independent of any single event. When viewed globally, antibiotics and vaccines did not greatly increase life expectancy while war and outbreaks of disease did not significantly decrease it. Historical life expectancy ascended smoothly, with third world countries rising alongside first world nations. That is until 1990, when the upward trend leveled off. Could the two-decades-long plateau, following over a century of record-setting longevity, signify that humans have reached the limit of human life?

The supply of healthy centenarians has certainly increased over the last twenty years, but none have matched Calment’s record of 122 years of life. The closest has been 117 years, but the majority of the world’s oldest have hovered around the 114 to 115 threshold. There are four major age-related diseases: heart disease, cancer, respiratory issues, and stroke. Traditional medicine tends to focus on curing these ailments individually, but all too often this gives one of the others the opportunity to attack aging cells. While approximately 30% of longevity is considered inherited, the remaining 70% could be changed if the body’s systems are viewed as interconnected. Calment may be an outlier in terms of years lived, but her longevity has pushed scientists to envision this approach as the first step in extending life.

One of the more unusual approaches being tested is using blood from the young to reinvigorate the old. The idea was borne out in experiments which showed blood transfusions from young mice restored the mental capabilities of old mice. A human trial under way is evaluating whether Alzhemier’s patients who receive blood transfusions from teenagers experience a similar effect. Tony Wyss-Coray, the Stanford researcher leading the work, hopes to isolate factors in the blood that cause this, possibly incorporating them into a drug treatment. Since publishing his work with the mice, many healthy, very wealthy people have contacted Wyss-Coray, wondering if the “blood of teens” might help them.

Silicon Valley, awash with billionaires, has embraced the challenge of pushing the limits of aging. Joon Yun, a hedge fund manager, launched a $1 million prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years. The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which 15 scientific teams have entered so far, will be awarded to the first verified case of restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%. One of the Longevity Prize board members, Aubrey de Grey, finds it a “difficult job because the world is happy to accept that aging is unavoidable when the reality is that it’s simply a medical problem that science can solve. Just as a vintage car can be kept in good condition indefinitely with periodic preventative maintenance, there is no reason why the same can’t be true of the human body. We are, after all, biological machines.” The Longevity Prize has yet to be awarded.

Yun’s quest for the modern day Fountain of Youth is just one of many life-extending endeavors taking place in the tech world. In September 2013, Google created the California Life Company – Calico for short.  Its mission is to “reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan and devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.” Combining scientists from the fields of medicine, pharmacology, molecular biology, genetics, and computational science, Calico intends to uncover the secrets of prolonging life. According to their website, the necessary funding to tackle that mystery is already in place.

In March 2014, tech entrepreneurs Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis announced a new company dubbed Human Longevity, Inc. It plans to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including those from supercentenarians. Venter says that data will shed critical insights on key factors for a longer, healthier life, and expects others working on life extension to use his database. “Our approach can help Calico immensely and if their approach is successful, it can help me live longer,” explains Venter. “We hope to be the reference point at the middle of everything.”

Medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic have made this decade’s biggest breakthrough in understanding the complex world of physical aging. The researchers found that removing stagnant cells (ones which can no longer reproduce) extended the lives of otherwise normal mice by 25 percent. Better yet, scouring these cells actually pushed back the process of aging, slowing the onset of various age-related illnesses like cataracts, heart and kidney deterioration, and even tumors. “It’s not just that we’re making these mice live longer; they’re actually stay healthier longer too. That’s important, because if you were going to equate this to people, well, you don’t want to just extend the years of life that people are miserable or hospitalized,” says Darren Baker, one of the cell biologists leading the projects.

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to three scientists – Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University, and Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital – for their work in analyzing how controllable factors impact cell aging. Their research on telomeres, the end part of DNA, determined that an individual’s telomeres will either lengthen or shorten, depending on that person’s behavior.  When they shorten due to poor lifestyle choices or stress, cells are less likely to continue dividing, resulting in greater cell death and accelerated aging. However, as Blackburn noted, “If all aging was due to telomeres, we would have solved the aging problem long ago.”

With both Nobel Prize winning scientists and the brightest minds in technology seeking solutions to extending human life, the 122-year-barrier to life expectancy may soon be broken. Just as the U.S. lifespan has doubled since the 1800’s, so may 100 years of life become the norm, rather than the exception. Keen of mind until the very end, Jeanne Calment, when asked how she envisioned her future, replied with her famous sense of humor, “Short”.  

The next generation of centenarians may need to find another answer for that question.