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Saturday, July 20th, 2024

Someone please return my past days… why does everyone want the past to come back

Koi lauta de mere woh beete hue din, beete hue din mere pyare woh palchin… This song sung by Kishore Kumar is apt for everyone. When a quiet lonely person thinks about his/her happy moments, he/she remembers all those times when life was very easy for him/her. Everyone wishes that his/her past would come back. The people who parted from him/her, those who left him/her, all of them should come together again, so that he/she can live those moments again. The desire to stay ‘forever young’ has never been so popular among people that they start trying everything. From ozone therapy and fasting to cold plunges and collagen powders, celery juice to supergummies, whether science supports it or not. But can there really be a cheat code to avoid old age and death? It turns out that the answer doesn’t matter because people won’t stop trying.

Scientists are putting their big brains to work, while tech billionaires are spending big bucks on projects that could hack the code of age and keep the good times going a little while longer, after shaping everything from the cars people drive to the phones they use. By one estimate, the longevity market is expected to be worth $44 billion by 2030.

Somebody is doing something
These ultra-wealthy longevity evangelists include people like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alphabet’s Larry Page, OpenAI’s Sam Altman, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and PayPal’s Peter Thiel who are investing in slowing down aging at the cellular level. Others like Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and later Facebook’s first president, are putting their money into developing revolutionary immune therapies for diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s. Then there are people like Brian Johnson who are investing in nutrition, exercise and health plans that could break the status quo of the normal aging process.

What is the Longevity India initiative?
But using technology and science to beat death is no longer just a Silicon Valley obsession. Even in India, where growing old is considered a luxury, there is renewed interest in longevity research. Last month, the geriatric medicine department of AIIMS launched Project Longevity to identify the mechanisms of ageing and ageing patterns across multiple generations in the same family. The project, funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research, will run for 36 months. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru launched the Longevity India initiative in April to study the mysteries of ageing. The project will explore factors such as genetics, environment, lifestyle and culture to develop ways to improve Indians’ ‘healthspan’ – the length of time a person is healthy, alive.

Now old age is the next big challenge

Deepak Saini, convener of the Longevity India initiative and professor of developmental biology and genetics at IISc, says it was high time we did so. Unlike the rest of the world, ageing was never a focus area in India for a long time. Our primary health concerns were related to poor nutrition and hygiene. Ageing was considered inevitable and the common perception was ‘so what, everyone ages’. However, times have changed with better hygiene, vaccines, antibiotics and other medical advancements. “We have learnt to deal with many diseases that cause premature death, so now ageing is the next big challenge,” says Saini.

How does ageing affect Indians?
The project is currently in its first phase and the team is conducting a large-scale clinical study involving people from different disciplines, such as physicians, bioengineers, data scientists, mathematicians, physicists and others. “Our goal is to sample 2,000 Indians aged 18 years and above at different scales in the next two years to identify biomarkers and organ specific signs of ageing in Indians,” says Saini. This exploratory phase also involves challenging Western knowledge and understanding how ageing has a unique impact on Indians, he/she adds. “For example, high cholesterol is seen as a problem in Western countries. But if we use their standards, most Indians would be considered unhealthy because we generally have high cholesterol. Similarly, low levels of vitamin D are common in Indians. Is this a disease or is it part of our biology? And should we take medicine like them? These are important questions,” he/she adds.

The Longevity India project has received initial funding from Prashant Prakash, founding partner of Excel India, along with interest from individuals, companies through their CSR donations and as part of lifestyle and healthcare chains. “To truly do justice to the project and ensure that it achieves its objective, we are looking at a funding of over Rs 100 crore to continue the operations successfully,” says Saini. So, what is the plan? “Once we identify the markers, the next step will be to develop cost-effective tests. Creating these panels of tests will help clinicians predict a person’s health, prescribe maintenance protocols and keep them out of the hospital.”

Biological research takes time
While finance is important, he/she says the real investment needed is time and patience. “It is not like developing an app where you research today and launch tomorrow. Biological research takes time, and more so in a physiological context.” Also, Dr Peter Attia, a cancer surgeon turned longevity expert who recently wrote the bestselling ‘Outlive’, says the wealthy should turn to prevention rather than waiting for ageing to stop them. “We already have the tools,” he/she had earlier said in an interview to TOI.

If you do this, your life will be better
‘Currently, almost all investments in this problem are focused on molecules, which I believe are only a fraction of the tools we have available to live longer and, more importantly, better lives,’ says Attia, whose anti-aging prescription seems simple enough. If people want to ‘walk a mile and a half, or carry their own groceries, or pick up their great-grandchildren, or get up if they fall, they should take a walk, exercise, eat healthy, get a good night’s sleep and maintain social relationships.’

Aging is not about adapting to the clock, says Saini. “Have you not met people who look much older than their age? They may attribute it to a medical event, infection, disease or surgery, but it’s all about how we use or abuse our bodies over time that changes the rate of ageing.” “Look, genetics is something that is deeply embedded in your cells. But the body code changes on a daily basis based on how you eat, sleep or handle stress. That’s what we are trying to deal with.”

may everyone have a healthy and long life
People are actually already abandoning bar-hopping foreign vacations for ‘longevity vacations’ at emerging ‘anti-aging’ centers in places ranging from Hawaii and British Columbia to Spain and Greece. These retreats come at a hefty price tag – $1,000 to $100,000 for a program – that is mostly accessible to wealthy people who prefer to spend a few days taking slow walks, forest bathing, taking IV drips and listening to the sounds of crystal singing-bowls, rather than going on a heady jaunt that might make their clock go faster. However, IISc’s longevity mission ensures that everyone gets a long and healthy life, not just a privileged few. IISc aims to reach out to the general public, so that a lot of our data findings are in the public domain and can be accessed by anyone who wants to use the knowledge we generate. The idea is to decentralize information for the benefit of all.

Can anyone live for 122 years?
One thing became clear from the conversations held in a small poll campaign organised by the Longevity team. Most people are not obsessed with living forever, Saini explains. They want to live a healthy life. However, there were a few ‘odd people’ who wished for immortality. The current lifespan of a human being is 122 years – that is the age at which the world’s longest-living man died. So, if everything goes right – from science to revolutionary changes in lifestyle – can anyone live that long? “No, because everyone’s lifespan is affected by various factors,” says Saini.

And while some superagers may be genetically lucky, the focus of India’s Longevity Project is clear. Helping people achieve their potential lifespan in as healthy a shape as possible. It’s not just about living long, but about living healthy,’ he/she says, quoting a dialogue from the film ‘Anand’ in which Rajesh Khanna’s terminally ill character famously said: ‘Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahi,’ (Life should be luxurious, not long.

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