Centenarians, people who have reached 100 years of age boast about 450,000 members worldwide; but super-centenarians, those 110 years and older, total just 58 as of May 5, 2013. Current title of the world's oldest person goes to Japan's Misao Okawa at 115. See Wikipedia Oldest People List.
Only seven people have made it past 115, including Jeanne Calment, the French woman who died in 1997 at age 122, the oldest human age ever recorded according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Why aren't the oldest living people getting older? Most experts believe they owe their longevity, more to freakish genes than perfect health. Surviving decades longer than their peers do, often in better health; super-centenarians could hold the keys to protection from disease, decline, and early death.
These individuals did not take precautions that most of us follow to maximize our health. Yet many went their entire lives without illness, some without ever seeing a doctor. Scientists are frustratingly trying to identify the 'lucky' genes that protect super-centenarians from disease, allowing them to live healthy lives right up to their death.
Anti-aging researchers would like to one day create therapies that would bring this power to everyone. However, the focus is to extend the health and lives of super-centenarians, and this will require new medical procedures that can slow or reverse, and eventually, stop the aging process completely.
Many believe that stem cells represent the best remedy to eliminate aging. As we age, the cell reserves we are born with decline. Cells lose their ability to regenerate and repair tissue, causing our organs, muscles, skin, and immune structure to deteriorate. This progression opens the door for numerous diseases that attack our bodies and eventually bring about death.
Researchers have found that by replacing aging cells with new stem cells, many age-related diseases can be stopped in their tracks; and as a bonus, patients receiving stem cell treatments experience an increase in energy, vigor and strength. The body and mind actually become biologically younger.
Though more research is needed to realize all the hopes and dreams of this 'stem cell magic', progress is advancing exponentially; especially in areas of creating dissolvable housing systems (templates) that direct stem cells to grow into specific parts, such as hearts, livers, muscles, bones, eyes, skin, and teeth.
In addition, by 2020, experts predict that most of the world will shift towards preventative healthcare. Sensors will soon appear in clothing and inside bodies, detecting everything from cancer to an impending stroke or heart attack. This proactive approach will allow doctors to stop most diseases before they start.
The following scenario illustrates an amazing possibility of tomorrow's stem cell future:
A monthly body scan reveals damaged heart muscles, placing you at risk for a heart attack. No problem, your doctor prescribes a 'supersonic drug gun' that propels regenerative protein molecules into the bloodstream. The new materials immediately bind to damaged heart muscle cells, touching off a chemical reaction that prompts your body to make new cells, quickly restoring you to perfect health.
Though this scene may sound futuristic, Hydra Biosciences researchers say their company has already demonstrated successful tests of this procedure with rats, and they hope to launch human trials soon.
Today, according to the National Institutes of Aging, 17 million Americans are between the ages of 75 and 85. That figure is expected to double by 2050. While centenarians may be a rarity today, Americans living beyond the age of 100 is expected to grow to 2.5 million by mid-century.
Anti-aging guru Aubrey de Grey believes the first person to achieve a 1,000 year lifespan has already been born. Can medical science stamp out aging and sickness in such a brief time? Although there are challenges to this optimism, positive futurists believe that with exponential advances in biotech research expected in the coming decades, an indefinite lifespan could be in store for all of us. Comments welcome.
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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