The caption by the side of his photograph in the latest issue of the National Geographic magazine begins as follows: ‘Caruso walks on his own, does not need glasses, recites Dante aloud, and enjoys singing with his grandsons.’ If scientists have it their way, and if people accept to alter their lifestyle in ways that will benefit them – the hardest thing that doctors and other health professionals are struggling to do – then in a foreseeable future there should be hordes of Carusos going about in the world.
Under the title ‘On beyond 100’ and with the cover featuring the cute face of a baby by the side of which we read ‘This baby will live to be 100,’ the author John Talcott, jr. gives an account of some of the latest research in longevity and the findings that could alter the demographic landscape of the future. As far as Caruso is concerned, ‘he recalled the death of his father in 1913 when he was a schoolboy; how his mother and brother had nearly died during the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19; how he’d been dismissed from his army unit in 1925 after accidentally falling and breaking his leg in two places.’ Despite which he has participated throughout his life in the production of olive oil from the family plantations in Calabria, Southern Italy.
When he was asked by two visiting doctors, his geriatrician and a geneticist, what was the secret of his longevity, his reply was: ‘No bacco, no tobacco, no Venere’ – No drinking, no smoking, no women. This compared to 104-year old Domenico Romeo, whose formula had been ‘poco, ma tutto’ – a little bit, but of everything. I wondered whether it’s a coincidence that his name is Romeo, and recalled in my turn a joke about this 65-year old guy who went to see his general practitioner in the UK, expressing a wish to live to 100. The GP asked him whether he drank, smoked or womanized and, upon getting ‘no’ as answer from the fellow, shot at him, ‘Then why the hell do you want to live to 100!’
Good question I would think, but probably not so the suggested ‘prescription’!
In recent years, especially after the mapping of the human genome, the subject of longevity has been studied with great interest by teams of scientists and doctors in different laboratories and field settings around the world. There have been concrete demonstrations of significant enhancement of longevity at the laboratory level in different experimental subjects, such as yeast, some bacteria, a minute worm called C. elegans and mice. They are chosen for experimentation because they multiply rapidly, and thus the changes that they undergo can be observed across several generations in a short period of time, which in the case of bacteria means only hours. Study models based on them therefore constitute a very valuable tool for the researchers.
One of the most well established facts is that severe restriction of food – what is known in the jargon as severe calorie restriction – can increase lifespan several-fold, and this has been estimated to be potentially 800 years in humans.
Now pause for a moment and ask yourself whether you would like to live to 800?
However, a more realistic figure might be 120, as the title cover of the magazine seems to suggest by an asterisked ‘It’s not just hype.’ What has happened is that researchers have supplemented their laboratory work, which uses genomic technologies and basic molecular research, by collecting data in populations. As the author points out, this is ‘historically a field marred by exaggerated claims and dubious entrepreneurs hawking unproven elixirs.’ And thus the need for a more focused, scientific approach. So the researchers have been surveying and studying ‘small, genetically isolated communities of people’ – such as the village of Caruso, Molochio, which has 200 inhabitants, among whom there are four centenarians and four 99-year olds – to gain useful insights into their modes of living as well as in the diseases of old age and their prevention.
The findings point to changes in the genes – what are known as mutations – and in chemical pathways that either are associated with conditions that may shorten lifespan, such as cancer, heart disease and hypertension amongst others. On the other hand, some of these mutations may also allow repair molecules in the cells of the body that are damaged by disease, or minimize damage to them by chemicals known as oxidants.
Of course, it is still a far cry from the identification of mutant genes and changes in chemical pathways to devising, testing and commercialising ‘longevity drugs.’ Until that happens, our best intervention for the moment should probably be either Caruso’s ‘No bacco, no tobacco, no Venere’ or Romeo’s ‘poco, ma tutto’.
However, since in general women have a longer average lifespan than men, perhaps menfolk who are planning for the future might get some advice from them before choosing their preferred intervention of the two above…
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2013