How long can we go?
Here's what science knows about aging.
When the end comes, LaVerne Bugna, 96, will reunite with her beloved husband in a single plot at Pacific View Memorial Park, where she’s instructed their children to place her coffin facedown over his, as if poised for an eternal kiss.
Bugna, a recently retired attorney who lives by herself in Newport Beach and still drives, has attended too many funerals not to think about her own. Her biggest grievance with aging isn’t any particular ailment but rather that she’s outlasted most of her friends. Those still living are too frail to golf, sail or attend happy hour, where she favors a Manhattan on the rocks. “Now I know what the term ‘bored to death’ means,” Bugna quips about her languishing social life. “I can see it happening.”
But in the future, isolation may not be an inevitable side effect of a long life. Researchers are pursuing genetic discoveries and pharmacological interventions to stall the aging process at the cellular level. So-called super agers like Bugna, who live far beyond their expected life spans while maintaining physical health and mental acuity, could become the norm instead of the sometimes lonely outliers. Longevity researchers at UC Irvine are learning from Bugna and roughly 400 other still-living participants enrolled in the university’s 90+ Study.
Elsewhere, scientists in laboratories around the world work to push the limits of the life span and human body. Rather than seek to eradicate any particular disease, their goal is to prevent chronic conditions caused by growing older. “We really do need a revolution to change the mechanisms by which we go about trying to keep people healthy,” says Brian Kennedy, CEO of Novato-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging. “Right now we wait until people get sick and we spend a fortune trying to keep them alive. I view aging research as trying to keep people healthy longer. We want to know the intrinsic process that drives these diseases, and we want to slow that down.”
Since 2003, UCI has examined the lifestyles of elderly participants, with detailed surveys on such things as vitamin usage and time spent volunteering. Currently, the oldest member is 110. Out of 1,736 to join, 293 have reached or surpassed the century mark. Participants undergo one-time brain imaging followed by memory tests every six months to catch any cognitive decline. Once they die, their brains are autopsied to look for evidence of memory loss.
Bugna can’t begin to speculate on why she’s lived so long with only minor health concerns.
“How would I know?” she asks from her apartment along the waterfront. “As far as healthy habits go, mine aren’t so good. I absolutely refuse to eat fruit or vegetables. I have no use for any of them. I’m a meat-and-pasta person. I don’t even like potatoes.”
The study has yielded a number of associations between certain lifestyle habits and longer lives, including moderate coffee/caffeine consumption, 45 minutes of daily exercise, moderate alcohol use, and time spent on social and cognitive activities. Dr. Claudia Kawas, a geriatric neurologist and co-principal investigator, said she’s driven to discover how one of her study participants died at 108 with “really amazing thinking and a really amazing-looking brain.
“People wouldn’t mind being 100 if they could walk and talk and think,” Kawas says. And while genetics and lifestyle certainly play a role in life span, some anti-aging researchers say science could drive this century’s big longevity booster, serving as the equivalent of clean drinking water and vaccination against infectious diseases that prevented premature death.
Researchers at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine are planning a clinical trial in humans that will test if an FDA-approved drug used for diabetes can delay aging and onset of other diseases. Stanford University researchers have successfully increased the length of telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, in human skin cells with the achievement described as “turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life.” Harvard scientists are studying how to reactivate ovarian stem cells to extend female fertility.
“We spent 20 years or so showing we could slow aging in animal models. Now we can make mutations in yeast, worms and mice that make them live longer,” Kennedy says. “The field has come to the realization that it’s really time to try these in humans. The challenge is how do we do the tests in a way that doesn’t take 40 years to see if people live longer.” But anti-aging researchers acknowledge that most people don’t want to live longer unless they can live better, making the real goal a longer “health span,” or more years of full functioning without drawn-out end-of-life illness.
Eradicating all types of cancer, which is the second cause of death among adults 65 and older, would increase lifespan only by three or four years, says Valter Longo, director of the USC Longevity Institute. “If you look at most of the diseases, the major ones, whether cardiovascular or cancer, aging is the No. 1 risk factor,” Longo says. “If we completely cure cancer, you live three years because you’re going to die of cardiovascular disease, an infectious disease or neurodegenerative disease.”
So what is the life span of the future? Will people live to 200 or even 500? Researchers have more modest projections. Longo, whose research in mice and humans centers on calorie restriction and fasting as ways to trigger cellular changes – including decreased amounts of the hormone IGF-I, which leads to aging and possible cancer growth – believes that within 20 years a longevity drug will be on the market. “I think what’s possible is about 10 percent,” Longo says. “Right now we get to about 80 years of age or so on average. Making that 90 is going to be a major achievement.” Kennedy, who studies drugs that block the genetic pathways that cause aging, said interventions have increased the life span of mice by 15 or 20 percent, which he thinks is an incremental and attainable goal for humans.
“They still die from the same diseases; it’s just later,” he says. “They’re healthy longer.” Kennedy envisions a future where longevity strategies become routine.
“What I would love to see happen is we bring people into the clinic at 45 or 50 and we say: Let’s look at your genetics, let’s look at your lifestyle, your family history of disease, and let’s look at some of your blood markers that are predictive of disease, and let’s try to come up with a personal strategy for healthy aging that works for you,” Kennedy says.
Bugna says she never thought much about her age until the past year, when her social life began to diminish. She said she hopes her participation in the UCI study will prove useful. “I hope they learn something that will help other people,” she says.
She was raised by her mother in San Francisco after her father died of tuberculosis when she was 7. She attended UC Berkeley with an aspiration to study law but after graduation decided to marry Charles Bugna. He worked in his uncle’s hardware store, and their wedding day is one of her fondest memories.
After having four children, Bugna decided to fulfill her dream of law school, attending Berkeley’s Boalt Hall with the late California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird.
“I said I’m going to go even if it’s only one semester,” Bugna recalls. “I was in my 40s. I said if I can graduate and pass the bar by age 50 I can work for 10 years. At that time I thought 60 was old. I worked until I was 90 and did pro bono until just a short time ago.”
Bugna and her family moved to Orange County in 1964 after a vacation when they fell in love with the waterfront homes being built in Dover Shores. She and her husband, who had gone into apartment construction, traveled the world. Pins on a map in her bedroom mark destinations as varied as Russia and India.
She was married 56 years before Charles died in 1996. She still sleeps with his pillow and has turned down would-be suitors, although she enjoys going out dancing on New Year’s Eve. “I cannot imagine crawling in bed with another man. He was the only one,” she says.
In 1999, Bugna buried one of her sons, who died of esophageal cancer in his 50s. Outliving multiple loved ones is a pain shared by super agers. “One of the things that all of them seem to really struggle with is everyone they know dying or in some other way becoming sick, and it’s really very devastating,” UCI researcher Kawas says.
Even with Bugna’s losses, she has kept her sense of humor. Had she known she would have lived so long, she says, she would have sought cosmetic surgery for a youthful appearance to match how she feels. “How can I have fears about getting older when I’m already there? I’m on the house’s money and I can’t lose.”