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Britons could live to 120 if they just exercised more, ate healthily and took beneficial drugs such as statins, scientists say

In an era that is obsessed with youth, it is unsurprising that so much time is devoted to fighting the ravages of age.

But a new study suggests that slowing the ageing process is more achievable than people realise.

Britons could live to 120 if they just exercised more, ate healthily and took beneficial drugs such as statins, an influential panel of health experts and scientists has concluded.

Simple lifestyle changes such as walking regularly, cutting down on sugar, salt and fat, and taking advantage of drugs that already exist could extend life. Members of the Longevity Science Panel, set up to advise policymakers, predicted that if all the population followed the advice of health experts, the average life span could rise from 80 to 84.

And the healthiest individuals would live until they were 120, they predict.

In their report, What is ageing? And how do we delay it?, the panel of experts delved into the science behind growing older and looked at how it might be prevented through “wonder drugs” or behavioural changes.

Although they do not believe an “elixir of life” will be discovered in the near future, they found that drugs which already exist, or are in development, coupled with lifestyle changes, could have a big impact on life expectancy.

“The ageing process is a biologically complex thing,” said Dame Karen Dunnell, chairman of the panel.

“What we were trying to do is look into the biology of ageing and see what does really work. We found that having a long and healthy life is largely related to lifestyle and diet.”

Ageing is essentially the observation that older members of a population are more likely to get sick and die than younger members. It is not an inevitable part of life because all cells contain a DNA blueprint which could keep a body functioning correctly forever. Some marine creatures do not age at all.

The ageing that we experience happens because of problems in cell division. Cell division is an essential function that leads to growth, organ development and the replacement of damaged cells.

Many billions of cell divisions occur in a lifetime and errors creep into the process. As well as the random errors, lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking increase mutations. Over-eating is thought to increase mutations because it speeds up cell division.

Each times a cell divides it also shortens the protective caps on DNA, known as telomeres. It is thought that once the telomeres reach a minimum size they stop the cell dividing at all, a process known as senescence.

The build-up of senescent cells in an organ prevents the body’s ability to repair damage. It is what causes wrinkles and age spots.

However the process can be slowed down by eating well, exercising and taking drugs which switch off damaging biological pathways in the body, the panel found.

Experiments have shown that a calorie-restricted diet, such as fasting on alternative days, can increase the lifespan of animals by up to 65 per cent. A Mediterranean diet lowers the incidence of age related disease.

Even as early as 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates realised that walking was good for health and recent research suggests that burning an extra 1,000 to 2,000 calories a week may be enough to reduce mortality by up to 30 per cent.

Drugs can also help. Statins are known to reduce cholesterol and so prevent heart disease, but they also have anti-inflammatory powers which lower mortality risk. The drug Rapymicin is also known to regulate cell division and has been shown to increase the lifespan of mice by up to 26 per cent, while Resveratol, which is found in red wine, has been shown to extend lifespan in simple animals.

A baby girl born today is now expected to life to an average age of 82.8 years and a boy to 78.8 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. But the authors claim that if all the anti-ageing interventions were used, some Britons could reach 120.

Richard Faragher, professor of Biogerontology at the University of Brighton, said living healthier for longer was more important than increasing lifespan.

“Ageing occurs because the mechanisms which keep us in good health fail over time. After a variable number of divisions, cells will stop dividing and start to do bad stuff. So, in effect, all age related diseases are being driven by a few mechanisms which if you could control them, could be the difference between somebody hobbling down the street, or jogging past you.”

However trying to persuade people to do what is good for them has proved tricky, as Cardiff University found.

In 1979, 2,500 men were asked to follow five simple rules – eat well, work out, drink less, keep their weight down and never smoke.

Four decades on, just 25 pensioners managed to stick to the plan. But they are all far fitter and healthier than those who gave up.