Feature Archive

Battling Nature (Part 2): Human Potential

Science and Aging

WebMD Feature

This is the second in a three-part series on what scientific discoveries are revealing about the aging process and how the findings will change the way people age.

Not many folks can claim to be the oldest guinea pig. But Ernest Umberger can -- the 90-year-old retired pharmacologist has been participating in the country's longest-running study of human aging since it began in 1958.

Umberger is a living experiment, a testament to what scientists are saying is a combination of good genetics and advances in medicine that have enabled him to live so long and in great shape. Among his many activities, he starts the morning with a 30-minute walk, reserves every afternoon for golf and tops the day off with a 20-minute stroll.

Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Aging

To track his progress, scientists at the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging invite the Rockville, Maryland resident to the study center, at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, every two years to find out exactly what keeps him ticking.

But the study isn't likely to result in helping people live longer, said Jerome Fleg, interim director of the study. To these scientists, finding ways to help older people live more healthfully, not necessarily longer, is the more realistic goal.

"You can't prevent the aging process itself," Fleg said. "You can do things to not accelerate it."

Nearly 1,300 people like Umberger are helping researchers discover the keys to healthy aging. Every year or two the study participants, ranging in age from 18 to 90 years, complete a battery of tests that measure everything from how well their brains function to how fast their hearts beat.

Not surprisingly, the scientists are finding that a major key to healthy aging is lifestyle. Smokers, couch potatoes and people who subsist on fast food will age faster and fall ill sooner.