For as long as I remember, I’ve had an active lifestyle – a choice I made almost subconsciously. In fact, I hadn’t put much thought into the implications of pursuing a healthy lifestyle, until 2006, when I read a book that changed my mindset forever. I picked up Ray Kurzweil’s book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, out of casual curiosity, little knowing that it would profoundly alter my perception of the human lifespan and the idea of ageing. I knew Kurzweil as a well-respected scientist and inventor with a phenomenal track record, but reading his book was truly an eye-opening moment for me.
I was deeply struck by the idea that ageing could be viewed as a disease – one that many leading scientists in the field of longevity research were working to cure. The possibility of a dramatic extension in the human lifespan piqued my interest, and from that moment on, I began to follow the exciting developments in the field.
When I first heard of Human Longevity Inc, co-founded by one of the leaders of the first human genome draft sequencing project, I was excited by the enormous potential being unlocked by global organisations. In 2015, I had the opportunity to visit the Human Longevity Inc (HLI) centre in San Diego, something I had only dreamt of. Through their platform “Health Nucleus,” they offer personalised and comprehensive healthcare, and I signed up for a day of rigorous testing.
I arrived at the ultramodern, glass fronted building that houses Health Nucleus, as well as its parent company, HLI, situated on a sunny campus lined with palm trees. After being welcomed into a beautifully lit reception – not unlike that of a luxury spa – I was escorted to my personal suite, where I was given a set of soft cotton clothes and socks to wear for the day. I had to keep reminding myself that I hadn’t just checked into a beach resort! After my vitals were measured, I had my blood drawn, followed by a consultation with a doctor about my health history. Each room I was guided into seemed more high-tech than the next, and the experience had a touch of the futuristic.
While my samples were drawn for full genome and microbiome sequencing, I spent almost an hour and a half doing a full body MRI. Fortunately, I got to choose music and visuals to keep me calm and relaxed as I lay inside the giant machine. After a few more scans and tests, I was done for the day, and checked out of the Health Nucleus clinic. The process offered me an extraordinarily detailed picture of what exactly was going on in my body at that point of time. In addition, I was able to get an incredible insight into my risk for certain illnesses, and what I could do to minimise that risk.
To have a dashboard of sorts for your body has profound implications for your life and your health choices, making the sort of testing done by HLI a truly powerful exercise. At the time I visited the Health Nucleus, it was an expensive proposition. Now, however, much of this technology – while still cutting-edge – has become a lot more affordable.
For example, you can get your genome and microbiome sequenced for around Rs 10,000, a number that is still coming down. What was on the fringe just five or six years ago is now coming into the mainstream. Longevity has started to become a solution that companies are offering, and it really is an exciting time to be alive.
It is said that the day we are born, we begin to die. This might sound like a somewhat pessimistic outlook on life, but the truth is that ageing and eventual death from old age have always been viewed as inevitable. So deeply entrenched is our fear of this unavoidable fate, that old age has often been considered a time of weakness, powerlessness and vulnerability, even in mythology.
Geras is the personification of old age in the Greek myths, and he was a frail, shrivelled up old man. From Homeric Hymn 51 to Aphrodite, these lines reveal the suspicion, fear and hatred of old age: “Harsh old age (Geras) will soon enshroud you – ruthless age which stands someday at the side of every man, deadly, wearying, dreaded even by the gods.” The modern theories of ageing have presented us with a revolutionary new idea – that ageing is not inevitable. It is becoming increasingly clear that the decline and disease that accompany old age can be postponed, avoided, and perhaps even reversed. And instead, we can enjoy energy, good health, and vigour, well into our later years.
It’s also important to acknowledge the positive side of ageing. It is believed that due to the deactivation of the amygdala, old people experience less fear, while discovering an emotional balance. A big part of how we age depends on genetics, environment, personality and even how we view ageing itself. In almost every culture of the world, the wisdom of the elderly is considered a constant.
Think of the many folk tales and myths that feature a wise old woman or a knowledgeable grandfather figure. To what does age owe its wisdom? Studies have found that as people age, they become better at pattern recognition and abstraction. They might forget many of the minor details of everyday life, like where they left the TV remote or their neighbour’s name, but they are more likely to have a better sense of the “bigger picture.” This could be because they have a wealth of experience to turn back to, and neural pathways forged by those experiences.
However, having certain neural connections ingrained in their brains does not mean that older people are too set in their ways to learn something new. The brain is incredibly malleable, even in later years. Just look at Colonel Sanders who founded KFC at the age of 62! Or the artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses, often referred to as Grandma Moses, who started painting at the age of 78 and went on to have her works displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
While ageing and death are very much a part of human life, we are now in a position to craft a plan to considerably slow down the process and reduce the chances of developing the debilitating diseases of old age that are often taken for granted. If we can find a way of thriving even in old age, the possibilities become endless.
Excerpted with permission from Hacking Health: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Live Your Healthiest Life, Mukesh Bansal, Penguin.