I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
- Woody Allen
Over the next 25 years, the number of Americans over 65 is expected to explode, growing from just over 35 million to nearly 80 million, as a tidal wave of baby boomers moves into senior status.
The health of those added seniors has enormous potential social and economic consequences, and the outlook isn't good.
It isn't that we aren't living longer - at age 65, we can expect to live another 20 years, according to the latest projections from the National Center for Health Statistics. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, that's nearly five years longer than in 1950.
But those extra five years come with a healthy price tag.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that health care will cost us $3.4 billion in 2013 - about 18.5 percent of the nation's output of goods and services, compared with 12 percent in 1990. This means that in just eight years, nearly one out of every five dollars we spend will go to pay for health care. Most of that money will be consumed in the last years and months of life, experts say.
Is it worth it? That's not just a dollars-and-cents question; what's the point of living five more years if they are going to be miserable years?
A growing epidemic of obesity and inactivity is seriously degrading the quality of life of many seniors, not only in their final decline but in the decades preceding it.
This grim scenario has not been lost on America's aging baby boomers. After a lifetime of worshipping youth, growing numbers are in hot pursuit of a cure for the downward arc that marks the last third of most of our lives.
Much of what has been offered appears to be as much about marketing as improving senior health. The low-carb Atkins diet fad appears to be fading with the same lightning speed at which it arrived.
A newer array of cures that promise and demand more is attracting attention. Some appear more useful than others.
"What if I were to tell you that we are on the threshold of a revolution that can reverse the signs of aging?" asks Dr. Nicholas Perricone in the first sentence of The Perricone Promise, currently high on the Amazon list of self-help best-sellers.
What Perricone is selling is a youthful lifestyle featuring a diet of superfoods, nutritional supplements and something called "neuropeptide-based creams."
You might be surprised to learn that neuropeptides are, as Perricone explains, nature's "cell" phones, which can be used to transmit healing messages from the skin to the brain.
You might not be surprised to learn that, in addition to several books, Perricone is selling an array of diet and beauty aides on his Web site and at a flagship store on Madison Avenue in New York. A sampler kit of his healing products packaged in a spiffy-looking doctor's bag is available for $130.
Perricone's message of graceful aging has been hot on television. Oprah Winfrey had him on her show last fall. He appeared on the PBS Healthy Aging show last month and on NBC's Today show the week after Christmas. He has also been featured in more than a dozen health and lifestyle magazines in recent months.
Quantity and quality
A more down-to-earth team - Chris Crowley, a 70-year-old retired litigator, and his physician, Dr. Henry S. Lodge - offer a more startling enticement. They say that if you follow their advice, you have a good chance to reverse the effects of aging and party til you drop. They say you aren't likely to live much longer, but you will live much better, enjoying the years that you have, not just suffering through them.
The hitch is that their advice isn't easy. "Harry's Rules," published in their new Amazon best-seller Younger Next Year, include a mandate to exercise six days a week for the rest of your life, to quit eating junk food, to care, connect and commit - and to spend less money than you make.
When challenged on the reality of such high goals, Crowley and Lodge are unapologetic. The challenges might be difficult, but the potential rewards are enormous, they say.
Lodge says that over 50 percent of all illnesses and injuries in the last third of your life can be eliminated by changing your lifestyle in the way they suggest: "Not delayed until you're a little older. Eliminated! Along with all the misery, expense and lost joy that goes with being seriously sick or badly hurt."
If you are too busy, Crowley says, consider the exercise, change in diet and social habits as another job that you have to do. Your pay? Extra years of quality life.
The pair are hopeful that growing numbers of Americans are going to sign on to some version of their tough-love formula. Crowley notes that most of us have already kicked a powerful addiction - we aren't smoking anymore.
"Our lifestyle is incredibly toxic," Lodge said in an interview last week.
He says he believes that America will struggle to pay to treat the coming flood of disease if middle-aged baby boomers don't change their habits.
"Somebody has to say the emperor is naked," he said.
Underlying the Crowley and Lodge program is science that says exercise can promote healthy cellular growth, that what we eat is important and that reducing stress and building social relationships are important as foundations for a healthy life.
They say there is lots of room for individuality in choices of diet, exercise or socialization.
Crowley sees himself as living proof that their program works. At 70, he says he can bike 100 miles at 15 miles an hour without feeling winded. "I'm heading into my seventies, and my dominant mood is optimism about the next decade and, if I have a touch of luck, the ones after that," he said.
Lodge says Crowley's last stress test and physical exam make him the equivalent of "a healthy 50-year-old today."
While Lodge and Crowley offer a higher-quality retirement, Ray Kurzweil, a frighteningly intelligent tech genius, is ready to trump them with the promise of radical life extension.
In his new book Fantastic Voyage, written with an expert on aging, Dr. Terry Grossman, Kurzweil lays out a three-stage life-extension strategy that he argues could leave readers who follow his advice literally immortal.
Not surprisingly, Fantastic Voyage is also among the leaders in the Amazon self-help sweepstakes.
Putting brakes on aging
As Kurzweil sees it, if we take better care of ourselves for the next 20 to 30 years, we'll be around to take advantage of a powerful new generation of designer drugs that will stop disease and reverse aging. Later, he says, nanotechnology will enable us to vastly expand our physical and mental capabilities by linking our bodies with human-created technology.
Those tempted to dismiss Kurzweil's predictions as outrageous should be warned that he is a serious man - an MIT graduate who invented the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind and the first flatbed scanner.
Hit with Type II diabetes in his 30s, he devised a program to overcome the diabetes and wrote a best-selling book about the experience. Now, at 56, he has no symptoms of diabetes and an apparent biological age of about 40.
Kurzweil and Grossman say they believe the pace of change in medical and technological research is accelerating. Within a decade, they predict, science will be adding more than a year to human expectancy every year.
In the meantime, Kurzweil says, we can slow down our aging right now with an array of dietary supplements intended to "reprogram our biochemistry." Kurzweil takes 250 supplements a day.
Kurzweil says his book differs from other self-help guides because it doesn't offer a single, one-size-fits--all prescription.
"The unique aspect of our book is that we tried to provide a comprehensive guide," he said in an interview last week. "There is no silver bullet."
There are a dozen important aging and disease processes, Kurzweil says, and "we provide programs to address each one."
In general, he recommends eating foods that slow down aging and disease processes and reduce inflammation. You should stay away from sugar and starchy foods and eat foods that contain anti-inflammatory fats such as fish, nuts and extra virgin olive oil.
Kurzweil was impatient when asked whether his book, with its 60-page section of agate-type source notes at the end, might be too complicated for many would-be immortals.
"Its not that complicated," he said. "People say they don't have time to stay healthy, but they do have time to get sick, and that's a lot more trouble than staying healthy."
"People need to take more responsibility for taking care of themselves," he noted. "Its far better for society and the individual to deal with these problems before they occur."
And what will the world do with all of those extra people if his bold predictions turn out to be true? No problem, says Kurzweil. The same technological revolution that could allow us to live forever will lead to radical wealth creation, he explains. "Dramatic increases in productivity," he says, "will enable us to provide for all of our physical needs."
1. Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life.
2. Do serious aerobic exercise four days a week for the rest of your life.
3. Do serious strength training, with weights, two days a week for the rest of your life.
4. Spend less than you make.
5. Quit eating crap!
7. Connect and commit.
Source: Younger Next Year