by Gerri Miller Posted on Nov. 18, 2015 at 11:40 am

Only a fortunate few live to be 100 in good health, but researchers hope to increase that number, thanks to scientific advances in understanding why we age and how to slow the process.

This developing knowledge is the subject of “The Age of Aging,” the fourth episode of the documentary series “Breakthrough,” airing Nov. 29 at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

Directed and narrated by Ron Howard, who produced the series with Brian Grazer, the program features scientists at the forefront of longevity research such as S. Jay Olshansky, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago and researcher at its Center on Aging, and Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“We’ve added 30 years to how long we live in the last century, and we’ve traded one set of diseases for another. Instead of dying early from infectious diseases, we live longer and get cancer, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s,” Olshansky said. “The general public, physicians and public health leaders have been trained to think in a disease-specific model: Treat one disease at a time. But you get so much more bang for your buck when you slow aging instead of going after specific disease. You simultaneously influence heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s, diseases of frailty, disability and mortality, all at once.”

Toward that end, Israeli-born endocrinologist Barzilai is involved in several important research studies. The first is the Longevity Genes Project, a study of Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians that seeks to determine why some people age more slowly than others.

“We have the capacity to live between 100 and 120 [years]. What’s unique about Ashkenazi Jews from a genetic perspective is there’s less ‘noise.’ It’s a genetically homogenous population,” Barzilai said.

Of Russian-Jewish descent himself, Barzilai became interested in aging when he observed the signs of rapid decline in his grandfather. “I thought this process was really important to understand. Aging is a risk factor for so many diseases,” he said.

Barzilai, who moved to the United States in 1990 to marry the American woman he met while on a fellowship at Yale three years earlier, is also doing research on the children of Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians. Any Ashkenazi Jew who has a parent who lived to be 100 or older can be part of the research via the Longevity Genes Project website (einstein.yu.edu/centers/aging/longevity-genes-project/).

Barzilai’s other major project is the Targeting Aging With Metformin trial. A widely available drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, Metformin has slowed aging in mice, and researchers hope to study whether it can lower the risk of heart disease and cancer in people.

Studies using the organ transplant rejection drug Rapamycin in mice also have been promising. According to Brian Kennedy, CEO and president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, mice given Rapamycin lived 30 percent longer and remained healthy 30 percent longer.

Olshansky said he is concentrating on research into “how we can predict health and quality of life more efficiently than we do now. Even minor success in slowing aging would have a profound influence on all aspects of health, including health-care costs.”

A Detroit native who is Jewish, Olshansky was originally studying adolescent fertility as a grad student when he was given a book about slowing the aging process. “I wrote a paper on the demographic consequences of slowing aging that turned into a master’s thesis, and I couldn’t let go,” he said.

He’s excited about the progress being made across the board.

“We’re in the trenches now working on some extraordinarily exciting research that we think will influence the quality of life of almost everyone currently alive,” Olshansky said.

“Numerous scientists have already slowed aging in other species. Does it translate to humans? Will it extend the period of healthy life? There’s every reason to believe it will,” he said. “I think we will find the answer in our lifetime. But don’t expect us to live [a] radical life expectancy any time soon. Just because you can double the lifespan of a fruit fly doesn’t mean you can double the lifespan of a human.”

In the meantime, there are things people can do to improve their health and possibly live longer, the researchers said.

“Watch your diet, treat high cholesterol, exercise every day, have a drink of wine,” Barzilai said, advice that Olshansky echoed.

“Exercise and eat right. Take control of what you can. There’s no guarantee it will make you live long or ward off disease,” Olshansky said. “But you’ll be healthier along the way.”