Can aging be done backwards?

"Joy of life is crucial"

06/01/2014 Positions magazine
Interview with James W. Vaupel

The clock in James W. Vaupel's office is ticking backwards. A colored quarter symbolizes the time that is given to us every hour. Life expectancy is increasing, we are getting old later and later. The 68-year-old shows us that vividly. For the director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock and the Max Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging in Odense / Denmark, his work is the elixir of life. He is far from thinking about retirement.

Live twelve months and you get three more - life expectancy is increasing continuously. Is there a biological limit?
James W. Vaupel:A limit is currently not known. Maybe we will live to be 200 years old.

Why is it that we age more slowly?
JWV:
We do not age more slowly, but the aging process begins later. A 70-year-old today feels like a 60-year-old 50 years ago. In every phase of life, people today are on average physically and mentally healthier. This is mainly due to the improvement in living conditions: we eat more balanced food, do more sport, smoke less, have an isolated apartment and warm clothing, better medical care and a higher education. We live healthier.

Giant tortoises can live to be over 180 years old, sequoias can live more than 3,000. What can we learn about aging from other living things?
JWV:
For a number of years we have been observing freshwater polyps, which have the fascinating property of completely renewing all of their cells in a few days. The life of this hydra may be unlimited under optimal environmental conditions. Our body can also repair a large part of the damage itself. If we break a leg, for example, the bones heal again; if we are exposed to radiation, our cells can eliminate changes in the DNA structure. But not everything is repaired. Small damage remains and accumulates. Perhaps we can learn from the hydra how to completely repair ourselves.

"Those who work longer stay healthy longer."

Polyps are very simple organisms. Is this vision really realistic?
JWV:
Yes. Step by step, evolution will ensure that the human repair system improves.

What makes you so optimistic about that?
JWV:
For evolution, it is only relevant to ensure survival and reproduction. For this, the body has to manage the limited resources in the best possible way. Humans were built in such a way that they could put a lot of energy into reproduction - after all, we used to have a dozen children. Evolution has invested comparatively less in the repair system. Today people in industrialized nations have fewer children and enough to eat. If we could say to our body: "Reproduction is assured, do not put what extra food you get in the fat store, but in the repair system", we could one day completely repair damage.

122 years - the highest documented human age to date. You met the oldest lady in the world. Did Jeanne Calment tell you something about the secret of long life?
JWV:
Joie de vivre is crucial. All centenarians I have met have a great joy in life, including Madame Calment. She consciously enjoyed every day and, well into old age, indulged in a cigarette and a glass of port wine after every meal. When she later sat in a wheelchair, I asked her: “You don't have as much contact with other people as you used to, what do you do all the time?” And she said: “I remember all the wonderful experiences that I was allowed to do. ”She loved life.

So, as long as we enjoy working, should we also be able to do so instead of being retired?
JWV:
Absolutely. Those who work longer stay healthy longer.

Indeed?
JWV:
Yes, because we are happy to make an active contribution to society and do not feel like a burden. In addition, we exchange ideas with others, learn new things and move to get to work - all of this contributes to health.

The native New Yorker is one of the most renowned aging researchers. He is currently commuting by ferry between Rostock and Denmark, where his wife and daughters live.

Basically we have no choice but to work longer: the older we get, the more money we need to be able to finance this life.
JWV:
That's why we should rethink. By the way: if seniors only work a few hours a day for a few years longer, demographic change will also lose its horror.

Half of all German children will celebrate their 100th birthday. Should we generally rearrange our lifetimes?
JWV:
I think it makes sense that we work more years but fewer hours per week. This would give us more time for family and friends when we were young. We'd be happier in the long run.

How long do you actually want to work?
JWV:
Like other directors of the Max Planck Institute, I should have retired at the age of 65, but I have agreed an exception: My contract will run until the end of 2017, when I will be 72 years and eight months old.

And what's next?
JWV:
After that I will work full time as a professor in Denmark. There is no age limit there. As long as I am healthy, I want to work. When I'm 80 years old, maybe I'll step less. Ten or 20 hours a week should be enough.

Photo: Gregor Lengler
Text: Sabine Schlosser