Jay Olshansky, 67, once attended a party where he was one of the youngest people in the room. The party was for “SuperAgers”, people over the age of 80 that have the cognitive abilities of someone 30 years younger, as part of an ongoing research study. Olshansky, a professor at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, felt lucky to be in the rarified presence of the 1 percent of our population whose cognitive abilities do not deteriorate with age.
“When I sat around the table with them, if I closed my eyes I could’ve been at a roundtable with a bunch of CEOs of major companies,” Olshanksky told The Daily Beast. “They were that sharp. Their age was completely irrelevant.”
The SuperAgers study, run by the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University, is part of an emerging body of new research on aging and what a world where we live longer and healthier might look like. Back in the 1500s, humans used to have a life expectancy of 30. Now, life expectancy is about 77, and it might be increasing from there. One May 2021 study in Nature estimated that humans could live until 150. A September 2021 study in Royal Society Open Science journal said there is no upper limit. Other studies say nanotechnology can delay death—in some estimates, by beyond 100 years.
Whatever the final number is, having a large population of seniors could mean later retirement, more artistic contributions, and changing values for America’s youth-obsessed culture. Yet there are also some definite drawbacks to longevity and old age, even if your mind is still sharp as a tack. In a world where social safety nets are not built to handle a growing senior population, and being over 65 comes with the onset of chronic conditions, living longer than you’re expected to can put people in a precarious situation. Getting people to live longer is the hard part—getting them to live well in old age is the even harder part.
Before she passed away in 1997, the 122-year-old Jeanne Calment was the oldest person alive. Anthony Davison, co-author of the Royal Society Open Science study, told The Daily Beast reaching that age could be a possibility for more of us.
Davison compared the likelihood of aging until 130 to an annual coin flip. “If someone reaches 110, on their birthday, they flip a coin,” he said. “If it comes up heads they live to 111, if it comes up tails then they're going to die soon.” The likelihood of someone who is 110 living until 130 is the chance of getting 20 coin flips all coming up heads. “It could happen,” said Davison. “And if you have a million people flipping coins, then it's quite likely to happen.”
Changiz Geula, a research professor at the Mesulam Center, has spent the last ten years co-directing the Northwestern SuperAgers study, and he told The Daily Beast getting labeled a SuperAger isn’t easy. Being a SuperAger means you have the mental ability of someone decades younger. Few actually qualify. For a 2017 study, the lab screened over 1,000 people who all considered themselves to have excellent memory. Only 5 percent actually participated in the final research.
Candidates for the SuperAging study get tested on their episodic memory, their ability to remember events that occurred years ago. They also get tested on other cognitive abilities, undergo an MRI test, and take a questionnaire on their psychological well-being. Interestingly, most SuperAgers report maintaining robust social relationships.
After a decade of studying, Geula and his fellow researchers have found that SuperAgers have brains that look 20 to 30 years younger than they should, that their brains are resistant to certain protein interactions known to be signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and that their brains have higher levels of certain neurons that scientists think are important to communication.
As the world’s population grows, so does the number of SuperAgers—and elderly folk across the board. While the pandemic has had an effect on people’s life expectancy (in America it dropped by a whole year) and climate change will have a similar effect on many, people’s lives are still being extended. According to Davison, this is due to the world’s population getting bigger and healthier (especially thanks to lower rates of smoking), and the elimination of certain cancers in Western countries.
“In many countries, the oldest are actually among the fastest growing segment of the population,” Geula said. “When we compare them to the generation that was born in the ’20s or ’30s, just nutrition alone is a huge factor.” Geula pointed out that the millennial generation, with its wellness obsession and unprecedented access to all kinds of vitamins, health supplements, and protein shakes, will be a sort of aging test case on the effect of increased nutrition on life extension.
On its face, that seems like excellent news. But there are some latent problems to consider, because society is simply not built to handle just a large elderly population. In Europe, retirement ages are creeping up because social security systems can’t afford to care for such large populations of non-working adults, most requiring large amounts of healthcare. In England, older people are taking part-time jobs because the social safety nets they relied on can’t afford to take care of them. “That’s a trend we can anticipate,” said Davison, “People being employed longer, and maybe changing their career pattern entirely later in life.”
This increase in seniors will force a reckoning of our cultural values. “Economically, if we are only thinking of productivity, then we will run into a problem,” Geula said. “Not everyone can afford to retire, and the system cannot handle an aging population with increasing health problems. We will have to consider what is our definition of productivity and what are our values as a society.”
Nir Barzilai, founding director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, interviewed hedge fund manager Irving Kahn when Kahn was 104 years old. (Kahn died in 2015, at the age of 109.) When asked what would happen if his job, managing assets at his $700 million investment firm, was taken away, a still-ruthless Kahn responded that he would just buy it back.
“When you’re over 100 and you’re healthy, like Kahn, life is good,” Barzilai told The Daily Beast. “What people are unhappy about is being sick. We need to target the aging process.” In his view, we’re asking the wrong questions. It’s not how long we live that matters—it’s how long our health lasts. In wonkier terms, it’s not lifespan, but healthspan we need to be obsessing about—and targeting the aging process is key.
This could come in many different forms. The diabetes drug Metformin is thought to potentially slow aging by lowering inflammation and inducing other beneficial cellular effects that slow aging. Resveratrol, found in red wine, is thought to help stimulate the activity of anti-aging proteins in the body. Rapamycin, an immunosuppressant used to help make organ transplants safe, has been shown to help increase longevity in some cases. It may have a similar mechanism to caloric restriction—going on a diet without incurring malnutrition. Caloric restriction is fairly well established as a way to increase longevity and bypasses the need for pharmaceuticals or supplements, but it might also result in decreased mental integrity.
None of these leads have panned out yet as anti-aging breakthroughs. Most people over 60 will develop at least one illness. The older they get, the more illnesses and complications they will acquire. We might live longer these days, but we’re not necessarily living healthier.
That sentiment hasn’t stymied the influx of money funneling into longevity research, especially as tech billionaires and millionaires, now middle-aged, face the prospect of one day dying. In September 2013, Google cofounder Larry Page created Calico, a research lab researching the biology of aging. Peter Thiel is an investor in Unity Biotechnology, a company designing drugs to delay aging in cells. Jeff Bezos has invested in anti-aging startup Altos Labs, which wants to stop aging by directly reprogramming cells themselves. Barzilai himself is hoping to get funding for a study on Metformin.
Perhaps these wealthy investors are doomed to face the realities of old age. As opposed to making an old body young again, Barzilai thinks the real future is in slowing aging in a younger body. “In the future, probably the easiest thing to do, will be to take a 20-year-old and give him a treatment once a week or once a month or once a year to basically erase the epigenetics of aging,” he said. “Then we have a Peter Pan who will live longer than 115.
“I think the next 10 years are going to be eye-opening,” Barzilai predicts. “We’re going to increase our healthspan all over the body. It’s already happening now.”
Not everyone buys into this future. Olshansky thinks all of this talk about slowing aging is nonsense. “To suggest that there’s no upper limit to human longevity is equivalent to suggesting that there’s no limit to how fast we can run,” he said. The current world record is 3 minutes, 43 seconds for the one mile run, and it would be essentially impossible for our bodies to trim that time down to two minutes.
Similarly, there are inherent limits to the functions of our body. Our teeth get weaker over time. We have nonreplicating parts of the body, like muscle fibers or neurons. The plasticity of our brain—its ability to adapt to changing circumstances—deteriorates. “Aging marches on,” said Olshansky. “We cannot stop the process but we are searching for ways to influence it.”
The SuperAgers are essentially the closest to immortality humans have ever gotten. When Olshansky got to the SuperAgers party, he said that as someone who studies aging for a living, he was impressed at the sight of all these people in one room. “It’s a wonderful thing to see,” he said. “It doesn't happen to everyone, but when it does happen, it’s remarkable.”