With a simple blog post or news exclusive, Google can instantly glamorize any field of research, whether it’s teaching cars to drive themselves, sending robotic rovers to the Moon, blanketing Earth with wireless data from balloons, or—this week—helping people live longer. The airiest of promises from the company evokes the world’s awe and admiration, and raises our expectations enormously.
After all, we nod, why shouldn’t the same “10x thinking” that helped Google tame the Web, earn a vast fortune on keyword-based ads, and build the world’s leading mobile operating system allow it to solve other pressing problems, like, say, death? “Oh great, Google is on the case!” we say. “I guess we can just sit back and wait for those robot chauffeurs and longevity pills.”
I certainly applaud Google’s boldness—at least they’re using their billions for something other than just making more billions. But Calico, the Google-founded company that will reportedly develop new technologies to tackle aging and age-related illness, already shows hallmarks of what scholar Evgeny Morozov has called “technological solutionism”—the idea that there’s no problem so large that it can’t be solved with enough data and processors.
“I have some knowledge of [anti-aging technology], just being in Silicon Valley,” Google CEO Larry Page told Time in an exclusive interview published this week. Curing cancer, Page said, is “not as big an advance as you might think”—the implication being that Calico means to think even bigger.
What worries me every time I hear about another “moon shot” project like Calico is that the resulting media coverage will reinforce the hero worship that already surrounds companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, and make us complacent about the future. Too often, the fixation on what’s coming next from these companies draws our attention away from the simpler things that can be done to make the world better right now.
Did you know, for example, that an inexpensive blue-LED phototherapy light developed by a San Francisco non-profit called D-Rev has been used to treat more than 7,000 infants born with jaundice, saving 142 babies from death or disability? That’s Silicon Valley innovation at work too—but because it’s not about apps or big data, you aren’t going to read about it in TechCrunch.
The truth is that if we want to live longer as individuals, or improve life expectancy across the human population, there are plenty of low-tech, low-cost health strategies that yield big rewards. We don’t need to wait years while Arthur Levinson, the chairman of Genentech and Apple and now the CEO of Calico, starts putting Google’s money to work. Here are 10 things consumers, citizens, elected leaders, and medical providers can do right now to boost life expectancy:
1. Support Improvements in Maternal and Prenatal Care
The absolute best way to raise the average lifespan of a country’s population is to reduce the number of infants who die from preventable causes. That’s a complex problem, but two good ways to fix high infant mortality rates in the U.S. (we’re a shocking 27th in the world rankings) would be to improve overall care for women, especially those with chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity, and expand access to prenatal care for pregnant women. More smoking-cessation programs for pregnant moms would be another big boost. There’s also some research showing that scheduling C-sections later, when possible, would reduce the rate of complications due to pre-term birth.
2. Vaccinate Yourself and Your Children
It’s a crime that Jenny McCarthy has been allowed to continue her ill-informed crusade to warn parents about a non-existent link between vaccines and autism. (And shame on ABC for giving her an even louder megaphone.) The truth is that the declining rate of death from infectious disease—almost entirely due to the arrival of vaccinations and better sanitation in the 20th century—is one of the biggest contributors to growing lifespans globally. The risk of side effects from vaccinations is tiny compared to the risks of catching a condition like measles, which killed 2.6 million children every year before vaccination became routine.
3. Stay Out of the Hospital
I’m not joking. The gruesome truth is that 1 in 10 people admitted to U.S. hospitals get a new infection while they’re there; these nasty, often antibiotic-resistant bugs kill 100,000 hospital patients every year. If you have to go to a hospital, it pays to look for one with low infection rates (25 states now require hospitals to report rates of common infections). Smart hospitals are fighting bacteria like staph and C. difficile by doing basic things like cleaning rooms more carefully, following checklists, and enforcing hygiene standards like hand-washing.
4. Take Your Medicines As Directed
Deaths from coronary artery disease, stroke, and diabetes could be cut drastically if people were better at managing their blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And there are good medications to control all these conditions; the real problem is that half of all drugs dispensed in the U.S. every year aren’t taken as prescribed. So, take your medicine on schedule. If you or a loved one need some help with that, check out companies like MedMinder that offer automatic pill dispensers. Researchers say increasing medication adherence on a truly large scale will take better coaching by doctors and pharmacists, as well as price breaks for people who can’t afford maintenance medications.
5. Get Rid of Your Gun, or Lock It Away
Having a gun in your home drastically increases the risk that someone in your family will be die in a gun-related accident, suicide, or homicide. The position of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that the best way to protect kids from gun violence is to remove guns from homes altogether. But if you must exercise your Second Amendment rights, lock your gun away in a safe. That way, anyone who’s feeling suicidal or murderous will be forced to turn to less lethal means.
6. Don’t Drive
After the four big “natural” causes of death—heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and stroke—the most common way to die in this country is to get into an automobile accident. So getting rid of your car is a hugely healthy step. But unfortunately it only eliminates half of your risk, given that half of all traffic fatalities involve pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. Until those infallible robot cars come along, we all need to wear seat belts and look both ways when crossing the street.
7. Eat Like a Vegetarian
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” That’s author Michael Pollan’s seven-word summary of the best nutritional strategy for avoiding major killers like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Eating less red meat can lower your risk of heart disease, and foods like berries, broccoli, and tomatoes contain antioxidants that neutralize the free radicals thought to damage cells. Limiting your overall food intake—leaving the table before you’re full—is also an excellent idea. Not so much because of the studies linking caloric restriction to increased lifespan in mammals (that scientific fad seems to be passing), but because it will help you sidestep obesity and all of its attendant health problems.
8. Exercise 20 to 30 Minutes a Day
Yes, this is a no-brainer, but it’s one you can’t afford to dismiss. A recent study from the National Cancer Institute showed that adults who exercise moderately to vigorously for at least 150 minutes per week live 3.4 to 4.5 years longer than those who don’t exercise. If you need a better reason than that, consider that exercise also improves your mood, energy level, sleep quality, and sex life.
9. Be Social and Beat Stress
One key to successful aging may be controlling inflammation, which contributes to atherosclerosis, diabetes, and dementia. And one way to control inflammation is to reduce stress. Hanging out with your friends or loved ones turns out to be a big stress reducer and life-extender. That may be because people who feel connected to groups have a sense of purpose and take better care of themselves, according to one group of researchers at Brigham Young University. The converse also seems to be true—a lack of social interaction is as damaging to health as smoking, being an alcoholic, or never exercising.
10. Get a Cat
The day may come when physicians prescribe a pet as a way to increase life expectancy. A 10-year study of 4,300 U.S. residents by the Minnesota Stroke Institute found that the risk of death from a heart attack was 30 percent lower among study participants who currently owned—or had ever owned—a cat. Alas, there weren’t enough dog owners in the group to reveal whether canines have a similar effect.
I could have listed plenty of other longevity tips. Don’t smoke, obviously. Get your vitamins—including Vitamin D, which is best obtained spending 15 minutes a day outdoors in the sun. Limit your alcohol intake. Floss daily—it not only slows tooth decay and gum disease, but lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease. See your doctor regularly and get all the usual health screenings, in order to catch real problems early.
The point is that we don’t need to wait for some amazing Google-funded medical advance in order to start improving our own chances of living to 100 or beyond. In fact, modernity itself is adding to our lifespans even as we go about our daily tasks. In high-income countries, average life expectancy has been increasing at the rate of 2.0 to 2.5 years every decade since 1900, and there’s no sign that those gains are tailing off.
That means more people are avoiding early death from malnutrition and infectious disease, and living to an age when heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s start to be bigger problems. So if Google and Calico can make progress toward curing those conditions, more power to them. But personally, I’m not going to trust my future to the “I’m feeling lucky” button.
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