THE BLOG

The Longevity Paradox: Healthy Bodies, Fragile Minds

03/25/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Whether Methuselah or Dorian Gray, long lives and the idea of human immortality have always captured public imagination, inspiring countless works of art, religious dialogue and scientific innovation. And as I look across today's medical landscape, and see so many promising breakthroughs for chronic illnesses on the horizon -- such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes -- I can't help but project into the future.

According to a report from the United Nations, a woman's life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 81 years, while men come in at 76 years. Just 50 years ago, by contrast, the average woman in the U.S. lived just 73 years, while men lived 66 years. That's quite a striking contrast: we've added nearly a decade in life span in recent generations.

Though life expectancy figures are no longer climbing at quite the same pace that they used to, it's not unreasonable to think that Americans will one day live to be 85 or 90 years old on average. And if this does occur, if we can develop cures for the diseases that ravage the body, will our minds be left behind? As our lives extend, will our brains be doomed to increased rates of Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other neuro-degenerative diseases?

"The exact opposite is actually true," says Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Many of the mechanisms central to the aging process affect the body and mind equally -- they're connected. So, as the body becomes healthier, and stays vibrant longer, research suggests that the mind stays healthier, as well."

Barzilai would know. His landmark longevity studies on New York's Ashkenazi Jews were the centerpiece of a major story from New York Magazine and demonstrated that, in the end, it's our own genes that most determine our propensity to live long lives. Stated simply, if we possess a range of genes that protect against the "big four" -- cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and cognitive decline -- we might very well live to 100.

In the face of genetic realities, however, major pharmaceutical companies and biotechs are seeking to develop a range of therapies that either supplant or support genetic weaknesses, or, as in the case of cellular therapies, actually seek to rejuvenate our cells, returning our bodies, and minds, to a more youthful state. The idea here is quite simple: Stem cells help repair and heal the body, but diminish in numbers and vitality as we age; thus, if we were to supercharge the body with new cells, we could, in theory, "turn back the biological clock."

The greatest ideas are often the simplest ones, and cellular rejuvenation strikes me as a viable approach to organ viability and longevity. Fortunately, there are a broad range of life science companies probing these new frontiers with credible science, while following established regulatory pathways. In the years ahead, it will be vital that this important research be separated from the rising tide of "off the grid" stem cell clinics, peddling potentially dangerous cellular treatments, built around anecdotal evidence and false promises.

In the meantime, I think we should heed the words of Dr. Barzilai -- "The best advice I could offer is to keep your body as healthy as possible. It's the best defense against a declining mind."