Will We Live Forever?
Probably not. But researchers at Scripps Health have set out to unravel the genetic secret code of healthy aging——and their research holds the promise of a bright future free of heart disease, diabetes, autism and other serious afflictions. An average healthy lifespan of 110-120 years may well be in our future.
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WHO ARE YOU?
No, really, who are you?
What shapes the intricate architecture of your mind and body? What drives your flights of imagination, your fits of rage? What scripts your well-being and defines your very lifespan? In the rapidly evolving realm of genetic research, scientists believe they will soon have the answers to these and other fundamental questions about human health and, quite possibly, the essence of human nature. In the process, they hope to revolutionize the practice of medicine.
Given time—perhaps in your lifetime—they will chart a course leading to cures for a host of common afflictions: breast cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, multiple sclerosis, autism and heart disease, to name a few. And at the core of this complex, intriguing adventure, they will focus on three simple letters—DNA—the virtual blueprint containing specifications for the human species. In the end, they hope to satisfy your intrinsic drive to understand yourself—to answer that most compelling question:
Who are you?
THE OCTOGENARIAN strolling gingerly through the well-tended grounds surrounding his home in Fairbanks Ranch appears to harbor the fire of a 25-year-old. He maintains the gardens himself. Mows the lawn once a week, prunes the avocado trees, trims the lush magnolias and still manages to carve out three to six hours a day for reading. The wood-paneled bookshelves in his library are overflowing with works of history, biographies of prominent figures who shaped that history, books on politics, religion, philosophy, current events, science and medicine. He is endlessly curious and has energy to spare. It’s as if he’s found the fabled Fountain of Youth.
“I’ve always been aware that I’m extraordinarily healthy,” says Dr. Forrest Adams, 88. “I’ve been extremely lucky.”
The seeds of Adams’ good fortune may be found in the roots of his famous, and famously healthy, family tree. He is a descendent of former presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, who lived to be 90 and 80, respectively. Dr. Adams’ parents both lived to be 92. But it’s not longevity alone that distinguishes this published author and pioneer in the field of pediatric cardiology. Unlike most people who live into their 80s and 90s, Adams has never had a serious illness. Not one.
“Even when I was taking care of people with severe diseases like meningitis, diphtheria, strep throat and tuberculosis, I never suffered one sick day,” Adams says. Does he feel more fortunate than most people who were born, as he was, in 1919? “Absolutely,” he answers, smiling. “Most of them are dead.”
Clearly, there is something beyond good fortune afoot here. That explains why Adams attracted the attention of researchers at Scripps Genomic Medicine Program, an initiative of Scripps Health in collaboration with The Scripps Research Institute. Scientists there are working on the Wellderly Study, attempting to unravel the genetic secrets of healthy aging. Today, Adams is among a growing number of volunteers taking part in that ambitious undertaking.
“We’re trying to understand the genetic mechanisms that keep people healthy,” says Dr. Eric Topol, chief academic officer of Scripps Health and the study’s lead investigator. “If you ask most people, they’ll tell you they don’t simply want longevity; they want a healthy lifespan. They want their so-called golden years to shine.”
Many people carry the genes that cause cancer and other diseases, but some have “modifier” genes that cancel out their risk. “It’s nature’s way of protecting them,” says Topol, a noted cardiologist and nationally prominent researcher.
To date, medical research in this area has focused on the genetics of disease, Topol points out, whereas the Wellderly Study focuses on people in their ninth decade of life who are in fine health and asks: What is it that’s special about them?
We are not immortal, of course. We never will be. But it is conceivable that the average health span could one day be 110 or 120 years, according to Topol.
“Control of the aging process is starting to open up,” he says. “We’re getting a better understanding of the biology of aging. Today, the average lifespan is up in the 70s and 80s, and it’s progressively going up. But increasing the average health span, not just longevity, is the overriding goal. Elderly people who are in good health augment the richness of our society. They have more seasoning, more savvy, than younger folks.”
Nicholas Schork, Ph.D., director of research for the Scripps Genomic Medicine Program, is among those working with Topol on the Wellderly Study.
“The genes that neutralize adult-onset diseases are nature’s best-kept secrets,” Schork says. “This is a treasure trove of biological information.”