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Living longer, better is theme of lectures at MIT AgeLab

Some 140 people gathered at the MIT Faculty Club last week to hear several talks about an issue we're all personally involved in: aging.

Thanks to modern medicine, the human lifespan has increased an average of 30 years, said Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT's AgeLab. "Living longer is one of the greatest successes of humankind. The challenge now is quality of life."

That was the theme of the inaugural Horace B. Deets Lecture Series sponsored by the AgeLab and The Hartford Financial Services Group. Speakers at "Aging: Looking to the Future" included Thomas Perls, M.D., author of "Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age," and Deets, who recently stepped down as executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons after 26 years. Richard Weinshilboum, M.D., of the Mayo Medical School and Mayo Clinic presented his vision of how advances in biotechnology may also increase our quality of life.


Perls began his talk by noting that "it's not how long you live, but how well." No one wants to live an extra 30 years with dementia. Fortunately, "there's a tremendous amount that informed people can do to affect their ... health span, or how long they are healthy."

Perls, who is director of the New England Centenarian Study, went on to note that 90 percent of the participants in his study "were completely cognitively intact at an average age of 92."

What is their secret? Genes play an important role, Perls said. "Thirty percent of getting to your mid to late 80s is genetics." What does that mean for those of us without such a heritage? Maintain a healthy lifestyle. "Exercise, don't smoke, eat well ... there's a lot we can do to live longer." He noted that there are "hugely dangerous" trends in our country that will keep the average age stagnant. Prime among them: obesity. "It could be much worse than smoking."

Perls went on to say that a different way to think about aging is "the older you get the healthier you've been," rather than "the older you get the sicker you get." He has coined an acronym--AGEING--that describes the elements that go into living longer and better. "A" equals attitude. "Centenarians are quite an optimistic group. Managing stress well is very important for decelerating aging."

"G" is for genes; "E" is for exercise. "I am a huge proponent of strength-training exercises as you get older. They're the number one intervention to frailty." "I" is for interests. "Almost all centenarians will tell you that having a cause to get up in the morning is incredibly important." "N" is for nutrition, and the second "G" is for "get rid of smoking," Perls said with a smile.

Weinshilboum noted the vast progress medicine has made even since 1941, when the leading "pharmacological textbook had basically nothing in it. Virtually everything our [medical] students use today was not available then."

The convergence of that "therapeutic revolution" with the genomic revolution we're currently in could ultimately result in "the right drug at the right dose for every patient," he said. We aren't there yet, but "we are moving toward a world of understanding the genetic variations in how we respond to drugs."

MIT's AgeLab was established in 1999 to develop new technologies promoting healthy, independent living throughout the human lifespan with research in engineering, computer science, human factors, health and medical sciences, management, marketing, and the social and behavioral sciences. Click here for more information.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 15, 2002.

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