Longevity: a Right to Be Achieved

1. Introduction

The questions of how man is born, grows and dies, are the most fascinating mysteries not only for philosophy but for all human science and above all for medicine which seeks to respond to man’s yearning to escape the natural determinist cycle, to independently determine his own health and his own survival.
At a world level the average age of man is at the most about 80 years while Maximum Lifespan Potential or MLP, which is species-specific, is about 120 years, about double that of the chimpanzee, the animal genetically most closely related to us (only 0.6% difference in the genome) (l). Only a few individuals attain the extreme age of life defined as longevity, and still fewer come close to reaching the maximum life span by becoming centenarians. Why is this the case?

Fig. 1


At birth each of us receives an inheritance of resources which constitutes the functional reserve to be used over the course of our life span and, as demonstrated in many studies, this reserve is genetically programmed. Every man is subject to an astronomical clock which will measure out his time in seconds, minutes, hours, etc., but he will also be subject to a biological clock which for every individual begins to run after conception and will differentiate development and the successive impoverishment of the initial inherited resources with the passage of time, not only of the organism but also of its organs, tissues and cells all of which can be of different biological ages. The speed of the biological clock depends on the interaction between genetic inheritance and environment. A bad interaction will lead to a premature death, a perfect one to natural death at 120 years of age. In this context we can describe growing old as a complex cascade of processes which leads to the progressive reduction of the functional reserve of the entire organism, of the single organs and systems (2).

Fig. 2
Observation of the increase in incidences of pathologies with the increase in age has erroneously supported the idea that ageing is inevitably linked to, not to say synonymous with, illness. But in our judgement old age is not a pathological state, but rather a physiological adjustment of functions.
In particular the specific determinants of longevity act by postponing and adapting the intrinsic modifications linked to ageing. Longevity is attained when ageing occurs in a uniform manner, that is when all organs and systems suffer a deterioration and a functional decrease at the same speed, preventing the collapse of a function (from wear and tear, aggression, or lack of use) from involving the entire organism. The ageing process, increasing the vulnerability of the old and causing the loss of adaptability, constitutes the substratum on which environmental factors act: if it is not we who decide our genetic inheritance, we can ensure that our genes make the most of their potential, minimizing the risk factors relating to various pathologies. Longevity is therefore a right which we can all enjoy but the achievement of which depends on us. Excluding pathogenic damage, the exogen factors commonly considered able to modify the expression of the individual genetic programme are: diet, luxury habits, physical activity and psychic factors. To study whether a ‘balanced life’ as well as an optimum genetic base is necessary for a healthy ageing we observe the lives of centenarians (3), individuals who more than anyone have come close to reaching maximum life span.

Vincenzo Marigliano, Mina Brückner, Laura Tafaro, Maria Teresa Tombolillo: Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Invecchiamento, University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’

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