America has the highest health-care costs in the world. But are we really living better as a consequence of this massive cost? The January 2011 issue of the Journals of Gerontology says maybe not (1). There is no question that Americans are living longer, but our years of disease-free and functional living are declining faster. In particular, the chances of someone age 65 reaching age 85 have doubled from (from 20 percent to 40 percent), but a longer life is coming with more chronic disease and an increasing inability to function normally. In other words, the number of healthy years we can expect to have has actually decreased over the last decade.
So where are all our health-care dollars going? They appear to be keeping us alive. We are delaying death at the price of decreased quality of life as we age. As the lead author stated, “Longer life is what we want. But we’re going to have to pay for it with more treatment of diseases and accommodations for disability.” Since 40 percent of our health-care costs come after age 65, we can expect that Medicare costs will rise even faster than expected as an increasingly sicker baby-boomer population begins to enter Medicare starting this year.
But what about all the news we hear about “anti-aging” research where we can just inject “youth hormones,” like growth hormone, to reverse the aging process? It turns out that there may be trouble brewing in that area also. These hormones are growth factors. This means they turn on DNA synthesis that leads to a shortening of telomeres at the end of a DNA strand. When these telomeres become short enough, any future DNA turnover stops, and the cell dies. This has been demonstrated to occur in mice in which you can increase the levels of growth hormone. When you do so, the animals die prematurely, and there appears to be an acceleration of aging in many organs, including the brain (2).
This potential side effect of increased growth hormone is further confirmed in another recent study (3). This particular study demonstrated that giving mice inhibitors of the release of growth hormone increased their longevity. What was unique in this study was that they used specially bred mice that age prematurely. So if you want to speed up the aging process by taking growth hormone injections, you might look great in the process, but don’t count on an extended lifetime.
Of course, there is another way of looking better and living a longer, healthier life: Calorie restriction without hunger or deprivation. This is the foundation of the anti inflammatory diet. By maintaining the appropriate balance of protein to carbohydrate at every meal and snack, you are able to maintain satiety (i.e. absence of hunger). If you aren’t hungry, then you don’t eat as many calories. This automatically slows down the aging process as long as you are getting adequate protein and supplying necessary micronutrients (4). Not surprisingly, this is also how you squeeze out more quality years as you age.
- Crimmins EM and Beltran-Sanchez H. “Mortality and morbidity trends: Is there a compression of morbidity?” Journals of Gerontology Series B 66B: 75-86 (2011).
- Bartke A. “Can growth hormone accelerate aging?” Neuroendocrinology 78: 210-216 (2003).
- Banks WA, Morely JE, Farr SA, Price TO, Ercal N, Vidaurre I, and Schally AV. “Effect of a growth hormone-releasing hormone antagonist on teleomerase activity, oxidative, stress, longevity, and aging in mice.” Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 107: 22272-22277 (2010).
- Sears B. “The Anti-Aging Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (1999).