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10/16/2003

Living Long

Last week I mentioned the 2003 Nobel Prize in medicine
awarded to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield for their
contributions toward the invention and development of magnetic
resonance imaging, MRI. It turns out that this year’s Nobel
awards are generating rather negative reactions in some quarters.
For example, the Nobel Peace Prize to an Iranian woman has
prompted protests from Iranian hard-liners. Now I find in a
Reuters dispatch posted on AOL a violent reaction to the prize in
medicine by Dr. Raymond Damadian.

I mentioned Damadian in the column last week as one of those
who performed the first MRI on a human patient. I haven’t seen
either ad but it seems that Damadian took out full page ads in
both the New York Times and the Washington Post describing
the prize as “The Shameful Wrong That Must be Righted”.
Estimates in the Reuters dispatch indicate a total cost of these
two ads in the ballpark of $200,000! Damadian obviously feels
strongly about the subject. He apparently has a patent on MRI,
based on his discovery in 1970 that cancerous tissue can be
differentiated from normal tissue using nuclear magnetic
resonance, the basic technique used in MRI. He feels that he
should have shared in the prize and that the Nobel committee
deliberately excluded him. I’m not touching this controversy but
felt I should call it to your attention.

Wherever the proper credit should go, the MRI remains a
valuable tool that can save or prolong lives by detecting
problems that need attention. Speaking of living long, you may
have read of the recent passing of Elena Slough, a resident of our
state of New Jersey. Slough’s daughter had died just three days
earlier at the age of 90. As you might expect from the age of the
daughter, Elena must have lived a long life herself. In fact, she
was either 114 0r 115 years old and was the nation’s oldest living
American.

Wilbur Snapp of Florida didn’t live as long; he was only 83
when he died last month. Snapp was the organist at a minor
league baseball park when he may have been the only organist
ever to be ejected from a game by the umpire. After a call by the
ump that Snapp thought to be erroneous, he launched onto the
tune “Three Blind Mice”. The ump responded by giving him the
thumb! I found this item in K. M. Reese’s column in the
September 22 issue of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN).

In the October 6 issue of C&EN, Reese followed up on a subject
about which I had written not too long ago. You may recall the
problem that a Japanese railway had with collisions with deer
crossing the tracks. One method that seemed to shoo away the
deer was to hang pieces of white Styrofoam along the tracks, the
rationale being that deer dislike the color white. It was thought
that this was the reason hunters avoid wearing white. However,
Reese received a letter from a Pennsylvania hunter, Edward
Felon, who demurs. Ed says that his father taught him to avoid
wearing white but for a different reason, self-preservation. Dad
told Ed that, when a whitetail deer runs, its tail points up and
waves. If you wear white, other hunters seeing the white in the
brush might think you were a deer and shoot! Ed suggests the
Japanese need to do more controlled experiments with Styrofoam
of different colors to make sure it’s not just the Styrofoam
scaring away the deer.

This example of how a hunter might prolong his life fits into the
general theme of living long or put another way, “Staying
Alive”, the title of an article by Karen Wright in the November
2003 issue of Discover magazine. The article deals with the
increasing numbers of centenarians in the U.S. and other
industrialized countries and the outlook for the future. In 1950
there were some 2,300 people in the U.S. that were 100 years old
or older. Today, there are over 40,000 centenarians and Willard
Scott is having trouble keeping up with those Smucker’s jars.

That the average lifespan has increased substantially over the
past century or two is well known. However, James Vaupel, of
the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany,
has come up with a finding that has surprised researchers in the
demographic field. Vaupel found that in many industrialized
countries the average lifespan has shown a remarkably linear
increase of more than two years each decade since 1840. If this
linear growth in lifespan is extrapolated out to the year 2150, the
average lifespan will be 122.5 years! The feasibility of living to
122 has been demonstrated by the oldest documented human
being, Louise Calment of France, who died several years ago at
that age.

With an average age of 122 years, there should be some outliers
who are 150! That means that someone living today will still be
around in the year 2150. I don’t know about you but I’m just a
tad skeptical about this conclusion, which was voiced by
gerontologist Steve Austad of the University of Idaho. Equally
skeptical was Austad’s friend Jay Olshansky, a biodemographer
at the University of Illinois. When Olshansky called Austad to
question whether he had been properly quoted, Austad replied
that he was so confident of his statement that he would be willing
to bet on it.

The two agreed to a most unusual bet. They each would place
$150 into an investment fund and add $10 to the pot each year.
They figure that by 2150 the fund should be worth a cool $500
million! In 2150, the amount in the fund would be distributed
among the relatives of the winner of the bet, who will be long
gone by that time. I don’t know how prolific the Austad and the
Olshansky progeny will be but I foresee quite a legal problem
trying to identify all the heirs to this half a billion after 147 more
years have passed!

What is the basis for Austad’s optimism? He points to various
animal and insect studies, some of which we’ve touched upon in
earlier columns. For example, he cites the finding that a single
mutation in a roundworm can lead to a lifespan of six times the
normal roundworm lifespan. If I apply that factor to the 122
years of Madame Calment, it would come very close to the
Biblical age claimed for Methuselah. There are all kinds of
experiments like this, such as the one by Michael Rose of the
University of California at Irvine. He culled and fertilized eggs
from only older female fruit flies. After many generations he
had managed to double the lifespan of his flies!

Closer to our own species, Austad found something interesting in
the case of the opossum during a stay in Venezuela. The
opossums there have to breed in a hurry because they’re the prey
for numerous predators ranging from parasites to cougars to
owls, etc. The opossum is slow and not well equipped to fend
off these predators. As a result, they last for one breeding
season, if they make it to that point. From the evolutionary
standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense for nature to endow them
with a great immune system to fend off diseases since they’ll be
eaten or otherwise killed off early anyway. Better to breed fast
and produce a lot of kids quickly.

To test his idea that a safe environment promotes different
behavior, Austad found a bunch of opossums that had been
isolated for thousands of years on an island with essentially no
predators. Sure enough, these possums bred more slowly, had
the luxury of two breeding seasons and lived on average 25
percent longer than their Venezuelan counterparts. The oldest
possums lived 50 percent longer. Austad postulates that safety of
the environment explains why we humans live twice as long as
captive chimpanzees, which share 99 percent of our genes. By
making things comfortable for ourselves, his theory is that a
longer lifespan eventually gets encoded in our DNA.

At age 75, I would be quite satisfied just to make it into my 80s.
I’ll leave it to any very young readers to follow whether or not
Austad wins his bet!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-10/16/2003-      
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Dr. Bortrum

10/16/2003

Living Long

Last week I mentioned the 2003 Nobel Prize in medicine
awarded to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield for their
contributions toward the invention and development of magnetic
resonance imaging, MRI. It turns out that this year’s Nobel
awards are generating rather negative reactions in some quarters.
For example, the Nobel Peace Prize to an Iranian woman has
prompted protests from Iranian hard-liners. Now I find in a
Reuters dispatch posted on AOL a violent reaction to the prize in
medicine by Dr. Raymond Damadian.

I mentioned Damadian in the column last week as one of those
who performed the first MRI on a human patient. I haven’t seen
either ad but it seems that Damadian took out full page ads in
both the New York Times and the Washington Post describing
the prize as “The Shameful Wrong That Must be Righted”.
Estimates in the Reuters dispatch indicate a total cost of these
two ads in the ballpark of $200,000! Damadian obviously feels
strongly about the subject. He apparently has a patent on MRI,
based on his discovery in 1970 that cancerous tissue can be
differentiated from normal tissue using nuclear magnetic
resonance, the basic technique used in MRI. He feels that he
should have shared in the prize and that the Nobel committee
deliberately excluded him. I’m not touching this controversy but
felt I should call it to your attention.

Wherever the proper credit should go, the MRI remains a
valuable tool that can save or prolong lives by detecting
problems that need attention. Speaking of living long, you may
have read of the recent passing of Elena Slough, a resident of our
state of New Jersey. Slough’s daughter had died just three days
earlier at the age of 90. As you might expect from the age of the
daughter, Elena must have lived a long life herself. In fact, she
was either 114 0r 115 years old and was the nation’s oldest living
American.

Wilbur Snapp of Florida didn’t live as long; he was only 83
when he died last month. Snapp was the organist at a minor
league baseball park when he may have been the only organist
ever to be ejected from a game by the umpire. After a call by the
ump that Snapp thought to be erroneous, he launched onto the
tune “Three Blind Mice”. The ump responded by giving him the
thumb! I found this item in K. M. Reese’s column in the
September 22 issue of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN).

In the October 6 issue of C&EN, Reese followed up on a subject
about which I had written not too long ago. You may recall the
problem that a Japanese railway had with collisions with deer
crossing the tracks. One method that seemed to shoo away the
deer was to hang pieces of white Styrofoam along the tracks, the
rationale being that deer dislike the color white. It was thought
that this was the reason hunters avoid wearing white. However,
Reese received a letter from a Pennsylvania hunter, Edward
Felon, who demurs. Ed says that his father taught him to avoid
wearing white but for a different reason, self-preservation. Dad
told Ed that, when a whitetail deer runs, its tail points up and
waves. If you wear white, other hunters seeing the white in the
brush might think you were a deer and shoot! Ed suggests the
Japanese need to do more controlled experiments with Styrofoam
of different colors to make sure it’s not just the Styrofoam
scaring away the deer.

This example of how a hunter might prolong his life fits into the
general theme of living long or put another way, “Staying
Alive”, the title of an article by Karen Wright in the November
2003 issue of Discover magazine. The article deals with the
increasing numbers of centenarians in the U.S. and other
industrialized countries and the outlook for the future. In 1950
there were some 2,300 people in the U.S. that were 100 years old
or older. Today, there are over 40,000 centenarians and Willard
Scott is having trouble keeping up with those Smucker’s jars.

That the average lifespan has increased substantially over the
past century or two is well known. However, James Vaupel, of
the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany,
has come up with a finding that has surprised researchers in the
demographic field. Vaupel found that in many industrialized
countries the average lifespan has shown a remarkably linear
increase of more than two years each decade since 1840. If this
linear growth in lifespan is extrapolated out to the year 2150, the
average lifespan will be 122.5 years! The feasibility of living to
122 has been demonstrated by the oldest documented human
being, Louise Calment of France, who died several years ago at
that age.

With an average age of 122 years, there should be some outliers
who are 150! That means that someone living today will still be
around in the year 2150. I don’t know about you but I’m just a
tad skeptical about this conclusion, which was voiced by
gerontologist Steve Austad of the University of Idaho. Equally
skeptical was Austad’s friend Jay Olshansky, a biodemographer
at the University of Illinois. When Olshansky called Austad to
question whether he had been properly quoted, Austad replied
that he was so confident of his statement that he would be willing
to bet on it.

The two agreed to a most unusual bet. They each would place
$150 into an investment fund and add $10 to the pot each year.
They figure that by 2150 the fund should be worth a cool $500
million! In 2150, the amount in the fund would be distributed
among the relatives of the winner of the bet, who will be long
gone by that time. I don’t know how prolific the Austad and the
Olshansky progeny will be but I foresee quite a legal problem
trying to identify all the heirs to this half a billion after 147 more
years have passed!

What is the basis for Austad’s optimism? He points to various
animal and insect studies, some of which we’ve touched upon in
earlier columns. For example, he cites the finding that a single
mutation in a roundworm can lead to a lifespan of six times the
normal roundworm lifespan. If I apply that factor to the 122
years of Madame Calment, it would come very close to the
Biblical age claimed for Methuselah. There are all kinds of
experiments like this, such as the one by Michael Rose of the
University of California at Irvine. He culled and fertilized eggs
from only older female fruit flies. After many generations he
had managed to double the lifespan of his flies!

Closer to our own species, Austad found something interesting in
the case of the opossum during a stay in Venezuela. The
opossums there have to breed in a hurry because they’re the prey
for numerous predators ranging from parasites to cougars to
owls, etc. The opossum is slow and not well equipped to fend
off these predators. As a result, they last for one breeding
season, if they make it to that point. From the evolutionary
standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense for nature to endow them
with a great immune system to fend off diseases since they’ll be
eaten or otherwise killed off early anyway. Better to breed fast
and produce a lot of kids quickly.

To test his idea that a safe environment promotes different
behavior, Austad found a bunch of opossums that had been
isolated for thousands of years on an island with essentially no
predators. Sure enough, these possums bred more slowly, had
the luxury of two breeding seasons and lived on average 25
percent longer than their Venezuelan counterparts. The oldest
possums lived 50 percent longer. Austad postulates that safety of
the environment explains why we humans live twice as long as
captive chimpanzees, which share 99 percent of our genes. By
making things comfortable for ourselves, his theory is that a
longer lifespan eventually gets encoded in our DNA.

At age 75, I would be quite satisfied just to make it into my 80s.
I’ll leave it to any very young readers to follow whether or not
Austad wins his bet!

Allen F. Bortrum