Jim Hammond is an elite athlete. He works out two hours a day with a trainer, pushing himself through sprints, runs, and strength-building exercises. His resting heart rate is below 50. He’s won three gold medals and one silver in amateur competitions this year alone, running races from 100 to 800 meters. In his division, he’s broken four national racing records. But perhaps the most elite thing about Hammond is his age.
He is 93. And really, there’s nothing much wrong with him, aside from the fact that he doesn’t see very well. He takes no drugs and has no complaints, although his hair long ago turned white and his skin is no longer taut.
His secret? He doesn’t have one. Hammond never took exceptional measures during his long life to preserve his health. He did not exercise regularly until his fifties and didn’t get serious about it until his eighties, when he began training for the Georgia Golden Olympics. “I love nothing better than winning,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful thing for me.” Hammond is aging, certainly, but somehow he isn’t getting old—at least, not in the way we usually think about it.
They say aging is one of the only certain things in life. But it turns out they were wrong. In recent years, gerontologists have overturned much of the conventional wisdom about getting old. Aging is not the simple result of the passage of time. According to a provocative new view, it is actually something our own bodies create, a side effect of the essential inflammatory system that protects us against infectious disease. As we fight off invaders, we inflict massive collateral damage on ourselves, poisoning our own organs and breaking down our own tissues. We are our own worst enemy.
Some ways to reduce inflammation are elementary. It is impossible to know exactly what is going on in Jim Hammond’s body, but all the aspects of his regimen—healthy food, exercise, and a good attitude—reduce systemic inflammation. Those of us without his tenacity can turn to drug companies, which are exploring new anti-inflammatory drugs like flavonoids. Researchers are also looking at new uses for old drugs—trying to prevent Alzheimer’s using ibuprofen, for example. “The research is really to prevent the chronic debilitating diseases of aging,” says Nir Barzilai, a molecular geneticist and director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “But if I develop a drug, it will have a side effect, which is that you will live longer.”
Point in case: aging is caused by molecular mechanisms in our bodies. Mechanisms that we can understand and manipulate in the coming biotech revolution.