December 5, 2013
By José de la Isla
In Death with Interruptions, the late Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago imagined Death as a white woman who suddenly takes time off from her work. People, in the unnamed country he writes about, stop dying. The funeral industry collapses. Hospital routines are disrupted. When critically ill patients want to die, the government colludes with the mafia to take some of them across national borders, to a neighboring country, to pass away.
But it’s a novel, after all. It couldn’t really happen. Death never takes a holiday, right? Well, don’t bet on it.
A similar, albeit less outlandish, scenario was presented at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) meeting that took place here on November 22nd. The meetings posed as a scientific possibility -- and a probability if public and private support comes through – that life can be extended, as a means to prevent chronic disease that causes death.
Fifty scientists met previously in October at a National Institute of Health (NIH) summit, to present research on the drivers of aging and chronic disease.
The research presented at both meetings comprised key aspects of a radical new paradigm shift. Previously, health had been thought about as a struggle against diseases that brings about death later in life, as people age. That idea has now given way to viewing aging itself as the driving, chronic disease that brings death. Therefore, if the cause of aging were to be discovered, it would help to prevent disease.
Boston University’s Robert B. Hudson, editor of GSA’s Public Policy & Aging Report, puts forth this perspective in the latest issue of the journal. “Attacking aging [as a reversible condition],” he explains, is a viable and efficient approach “to reducing the risk of all fatal and disabling diseases, and improving well-being.”
S. Jay Olshansky, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, School of Public Health, writes in the same report that the theory challenges the belief “that aging is a product of time passing.”
“Science,” he says, “has now demonstrated that aging is inherently modifiable.”
This new “geroscience,” according to Felipe Sierra, director of the National Institute on Aging biology division, has identified the underpinnings of aging. Scientists now know life spans are influenced by genetics, and how long one lives may be altered pharmacologically.
Another tentative scientific “observation” is that increased life expectancy appears to coincide with improved health.
Special Interest for Latinos
These developments should be of particular interest to Latinos.
After analyzing research about average life expectancy and causes of death, Hispanic Link correspondent Jim Lamare reported on the “Hispanic paradox”: the fact that Latinos generally live longer than the rest of the United States population, yet their longer lives are accompanied by higher rates of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
It’s also been observed that in the general population, a person’s education level can help determine how long they live, and this is especially the case for Hispanic men.
In addition, in California, where some of the more extensive studies have been conducted concerning socioeconomic status and aging, living in low, middle or high-income neighborhoods is associated with how long a person lives. That is less true for Latinos, where socioeconomic status appears to not make much of a difference.
It could be that the primary determining factors in aging are genes and healthy living. If those are naturally occurring with more frequency for a segment of the Latino population, researchers could hope to study Latino life expectancy further in order to help the general population attain similar life expectancies.
If so, the “Hispanic paradox” may in fact offer a model for U.S. society in general. Could it be that in terms of defying death, the rest of society should strive toward a Latino standard?
At the end of Saramago’s novel, Lady Death falls in love with a terminally ill cellist. “Will death succumb to human love?” asked Publishers Weekly in its book review.
Similarly, geroscience researchers could ask themselves, as a novelist might, whether death’s fury can be tamed by a cellist, playing a Latin tune.
Source: New America Media