NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – When the end comes, LaVerne Bugna, 96, will reunite with her beloved husband in a single plot at Pacific View Memorial Park, where she’s instructed their children to place her coffin face down over his, as if poised for an eternal kiss.
Bugna, a recently retired attorney who lives by herself in Newport Beach, Calif., and still drives, has attended too many funerals not to think about her own. Her biggest grievance with aging isn’t any particular ailment but rather that she’s outlasted most of her friends.
But in the future, isolation may not be an inevitable side effect of a long life.
Researchers are pursuing genetic discoveries and pharmacological interventions to stall the aging process at the cellular level. So-called super agers like Bugna, who live far beyond their expected life spans while maintaining physical health and mental acuity, could become the norm instead of the sometimes lonely outliers.
Longevity researchers at UC Irvine are learning from Bugna and roughly 400 other still-living participants enrolled in the 90+ Study.
Elsewhere, scientists in laboratories across the world work to push the limits of the life span and human body. Rather than seek to eradicate any particular disease, their goal is to prevent chronic conditions caused by growing older.
“We really do need a revolution to change the mechanisms by which we go about trying to keep people healthy,” says Brian Kennedy, chief executive of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. “Right now, we wait until people get sick and we spend a fortune trying to keep them alive. I view aging research as trying to keep people healthy longer,” or giving them a longer “health span.”
Since 2003, UCI has examined the lifestyles of elderly participants, with detailed surveys on everything from vitamin usage to time spent volunteering. Currently, the oldest member is 110. Out of 1,736 to join, 293 have reached or passed the century mark. Participants undergo one-time brain imaging followed by memory tests every six months to catch any cognitive decline. Once they die, their brains are autopsied to look for evidence of memory loss.
Dr. Claudia Kawas, a geriatric neurologist and co-principal investigator, said “people wouldn’t mind being 100 if they could walk and talk and think.”
While genetics and lifestyle certainly play a role in life span, some anti-aging researchers say science could drive this century’s big longevity booster, serving as the equivalent of clean drinking water and vaccination against infectious diseases that prevented premature death.