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What if You Live to 100?

Blessing or Burden: UML Researchers Weigh In on What’s at Stake in the Longevity Boom

Illustration of a white-haired nonagenarian in a suit zooming on a red scooter

11/21/2017
By Karen Angelo, Ed Brennen, Geoffrey Douglas and Jill Gambon

The next time your birthday rolls around, pause a second before you blow out the candles and consider this: The odds have never been better that you will live to be 100.

Since 2000, the number of Americans who hit the century mark has grown by 44 percent. Nonagenarians and centenarians are no longer the outliers. By some estimates, more than half of all babies born in industrialized nations since the year 2000 can be expected to live into the triple digits.

Advances in health care, nutrition and technology are contributors to longer living. But does living longer mean living better? Beyond quantity, this new longevity raises a host of questions about the quality of life: How healthy and independent can we expect to be in our ninth, 10th or 11th decades? Will living more than 100 years force to us to redefine the meaning of “a life well-lived”?

“If we take care of ourselves through nutrition, socialization and intellectual stimulation, we can hold back the decline. -Prof. Thomas Shea, Biological Sciences Department
And what about the broader implications for society? What does it mean for the economy and how will it affect the environment?

Researchers at UMass Lowell are tackling some of these very issues—from the use of smart technologies for improved home health care, to high-resolution imaging for better Alzheimer’s detection, to the economic and environmental challenges related to a rapidly aging population. We asked them to help us understand why we’re living longer, and what’s at stake.



HEALTH: WE'LL STAY HEALTHIER LONGER

Deaths from most major causes have decreased significantly. Heart disease—the leading cause of death among older Americans—has claimed 14 percent fewer lives since 2000. The only top-10 cause of death that is going in the opposite direction is Alzheimer's disease. Between 2000 and 2014, deaths from Alzheimer's increased by 89 percent. And as the U.S. population rapidly ages, Alzheimer's is expected to skyrocket, with as many as 16 million Americans living with the disease by 2050, up from 5.5 million today.

If UMass Lowell researchers have their way, that trend will eventually reverse itself. UML faculty in sciences and engineering are on the front lines developing tools and therapies to improve diagnosis and treatment of the progressive disease, for which there is currently no cure.

Closeup of person riding bike wearing smart watch
Forget the Apple Watch. Soon, you'll be able to monitor your health with sensors embedded in everything from your shirt to your contact lenses.
Assist. Prof. Joyita Dutta of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is using high-resolution imaging to develop biomarkers to quantify abnormal proteins in the brain that indicate the presence of Alzheimer's. Dutta says the biomarkers could lead to earlier diagnosis and be used to establish baseline measures of the disease, which would in turn help monitor its progress and the effectiveness of any treatment.

Early diagnosis and intervention are key to stemming the disease's progress, says Dutta, whose research is funded through a five-year $603,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging.

"This is a disease where the symptoms appear somewhat late. It's important to intervene early," she says.

While the research continues, there are steps people can take to boost brain health, says Prof. Thomas Shea of the Biological Sciences Department.

"If we take care of ourselves through nutrition, socialization and intellectual stimulation, we can hold back the decline," says Shea, who has spent more than three decades researching Alzheimer's treatment. "We can't cure Alzheimer's right now, but we can stave it off."

Shea says a Mediterranean diet, rich in fresh vegetables and fruit, fish and whole grains and with limited unhealthy fats and processed sugars, is a good start because the antioxidants promote brain health. Staying connected socially and engaged mentally through activities like reading or learning a language are also important, he says.

Shea's research led to the development of PERCEPTIV, an over-the-counter supplement marketed by Sevo Nutraceuticals that protects against cognitive decline.

"With cardiovascular disease, you can modify your behavior and outlive the disease. The same is true of our brain," Shea says.

Many advances in health care will help us modify our behavior and live longer, say UML researchers. Here are a handful:


illustration of medical bag on yellow background with bubbles showing pills, test tubes, and thermometers

CUT AND PASTE: EDITING GENES TO ELIMINATE DISEASE.

The recent development of a new gene-editing technique will make huge improvements in treating diseases like cancer, says Lecturer Brenda Geiger, graduate coordinator of the pharmaceutical sciences program. In the near future, scientists will be able to cut out genes linked to the origination of the disease and replace them with new ones that destroy cancerous cells. She also expects that with the drug companies working to take advantage of advances in areas like nanotechnology and immune-based targeting, patients will take drugs that are delivered where they are needed, which will minimize unwanted side effects. Both areas of discovery move treatment from "one size fits all" to personalized medicine.


TAKING IT PERSONALLY: CUSTOMIZED RX

Sometime in the next decade or two, annual physicals will include full DNA workups for individualized diet prescriptions, a customized mix of medicines and a personal plan for every health trajectory, says Katy Tucker, professor of nutritional epidemiology in the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences. "Within the next 20 years, every primary care physician will be able to conduct a complete DNA analysis, and then compare the results to the research on how complex interactions between genes and diet affect health and risks of future illnesses and conditions," says Tucker, who is editor in chief of "Advances in Nutrition," the journal of the American Society for Nutrition.


illustration of senior couple jogging on trail

NURSES WILL NAVIGATE CARE.

Nurses will be the glue that ensures safe and effective care across the continuum of services as patients age, says Dean Karen Devereaux Melillo '78 of the Solomont School of Nursing. An emerging trend of nurses helping to navigate care across inpatient, community and home settings will expand as more people use digital applications to connect with health professionals. "Nurses will connect the dots to make sure that consumers of health care take the right medications, feel safe and know where to go to prevent something from going wrong," says Melillo.


MAKING SENSE.

Soon, you will be able to constantly monitor your health with sensors—embedded in everything from your shirts to your contact lenses, says computer science Prof. Benyuan Liu, whose research focuses on digital health and mobile technologies. "They'll monitor your breathing, your blood pressure, your blood sugar levels," he says. "Eventually, we'll probably even have sensors in our scalps, which can read the brain and control movement of arms and legs—which will have significant impact for people with disabilities."


THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT.

Using applications to measure heart rate and count steps is just the tip of the iceberg, says Deirdra Murphy '00, associate professor of physical therapy and associate dean of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences. "In the near future, if you can't make it to a physical therapist's office," she says, "you'll be treated remotely using robotics, sensors and communications devices." The physical therapist will increase and decrease resistance depending on the data received in real time from your movements. If you're elderly, you may be wearing a bracelet or interacting with a robot that monitors the risk factors that we know lead to falls—medication, environment and decreased strength and balance.

Why are we living longer and what is at stake?

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INDEPENDENCE

Technology will give us more autonomy.

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FINANCES

Will we be able to afford being 100? 

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CAREER

What will we do with all the extra time? 

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SUSTAINABILITY

Can the planet survive us all living to 100?