By Clark Peters
Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to go now. —Kenny Chesney
Is lengthening the human life span possible? Probable? Desirable? This article will be a little different from what I usually offer, but it includes some interesting information, and I hope it raises some thought-provoking issues. Some of these issues are potentially controversial, and the reader should know that the opinions contained here are mine, and they are only that—opinions.
The logical extension of the study of antiaging is, of course, preventing aging altogether, i.e., avoiding death due to aging. Just to be clear, we are not talking about superpowers. Humans are mortal, so they are susceptible to accident, murder, suicide, force majeure (e.g., tornado, earthquake) or war, but there are ways to prevent dying from the ravages of time, which will (at present) eventually get us all. Aging is now the primary cause of death for humans.
As a species, we have, of course, made enormous progress in extending life expectancy. While data about life expectancy in the distant past is inexact, we know that life expectancy for Stone Age humans was probably not much more than twenty years. Many mothers and babies did not survive the birthing experience, which caused a huge decline in the averages. However, even at the time of the Roman Empire (around 100 A.D.), life expectancy had improved to only about twenty-five years. In the early 12th century, during the Middle Ages, most humans reached the age of thirty years, and by the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries), the average age at death was thirty-three years. By 1900, at least in the developed countries of the world, life expectancy rose to about forty-seven years, and babies born at the turn of the millennium could expect to live seventy-six years. In effect, life expectancy almost doubled in the twentieth century (adding about thirty years). Now, roughly eighty years is a reasonable target for those born in developed countries.
Extending life expectancy has apparently been a desirable goal throughout our history. Most of our progress to date has been through improved childbirth survival rates, nutritional availability, safety from predators, protection from the elements, and medical care. How much further might we lengthen our lives? Currently, science offers some very promising results.
Despite an eight-year hiatus in the U.S., thanks to President George W. Bush, who objected to stem cell research on religious grounds and would not permit it to be part of his strategy, progress continued elsewhere, but the U.S. is catching up quickly. In the field of medicine, stem cell manipulation is considered one of the most promising developments. Here’s why. Using stem cells (an amazingly elastic cell form), it is possible to grow human tissue (inside or outside the body) in any form. So if your kidney, liver, or heart breaks down, it is possible to grow a replacement for the old organ or part, and there is no chance the body will reject it. Damage to virtually any body part can be repaired by attaching stem cells that assume the form of the damaged part and “fill in.” I am using massive simplification here. Indeed, most of these new technologies are very complicated, so I can only paint a picture with a broad brush. Allow me to use the analogy of a car. As parts (carburetor, brakes, oil filter, etc.) wear down, you simply go to the shop (surgery center) and replace the part. It’s not commonplace now, but this is not far from becoming a fairly routine occurrence. As we currently do with cars, this capability will extend the life of the body considerably.
“Nano” means small—and you need to think very small or the atomic level. Science has created organisms called “nanobots” that can be programmed to travel through your body to problem spots and “fix” a problem. One example might be programming the nanobots to find and destroy cancer cells (and only cancer cells), thus ridding the body of these “maverick” cells and tumors without harming the healthy cells and tissue around the problem area. Current cancer “cures” are not very efficacious (usually around 3–5 percent) and are massively destructive to surrounding tissue as technicians make an effort to “get it all.” Similarly, a nanobot might be programmed to enlarge a clogged artery or eat scar tissue that is interfering with the operation of a joint or organ. Again, as problems can be fixed with almost no invasive damage, the body will soldier on for more years. As with stem cells, we are close to being able to use this capability routinely.
We are all products of our parents’ genetic combination. While that makes each of us unique, it also means some genetic predispositions to particular illnesses, malfunctions or diseases. As we come to understand our genomes better (no small task since there are thirty billion paired chromosomes per individual), it is becoming clear that we may be able to tweak our DNA strands to eliminate undesirable combinations and/or enhance the DNA formulas. If, for example, your family history on both sides has been replete with heart disease, it’s likely that you also carry a genetic predisposition to experience the same condition. It may soon be possible to change that genetic sequence to reduce the likelihood that you will also be afflicted. This idea puts us on a slippery slope because, with a little imagination, you will recognize the danger of designer genetics leading to eugenics. What parents wouldn’t want their offspring to be smarter, taller, better looking, and so on? I have no idea how this will play out among members of our society, but I remind you that prior efforts to create a “superrace” have had horrific consequences. In any case, there is undoubtedly a gene or, more probably, genes that improve longevity. Again, the possibility to enhance life expectancy is clear.
This cutting-edge science will undoubtedly add more life to our years and more years to our lives—perhaps decades more. But that isn’t immortality, is it? Rather, we will merely enjoy more years of healthy life before the inevitable slide into senescence and death.
“Clean-up on Aisle Seven”
One of the latest and perhaps most promising of the antiaging theories goes like this. Humans (indeed all life forms) are basically cell-replicating machines. Each of us will grow trillions of cells. Each of these cells has a “shelf life” ranging from minutes to years. Over a seven-year period, every cell in your body is replaced. At the end of its shelf life, the cell must replicate to carry on. This is accomplished by cloning the DNA sequences into the newborn cell. But, as with a copy machine, sometimes the copies will be slightly irregular or imprecise. These slight misfires are both infrequent and small. However, since there are trillions of cells continuously replicating, the irregularities add up. The result is debris, detritus, junk, scrap, rust—call it what you will. The accumulation, though tiny, can and does eventually lead to problems. Kidney stones and macular degeneration are two familiar examples of sufficient debris accumulation to cause a problem. Those examples are not fatal but give you an idea of how the same process in a vital organ (brain, heart, lung, etc.) could cause your death.
Currently, experts are targeting protecting the genome (DNA strand) and especially the tips of the double helix (called telomeres), since that is the “original” from which copies will be made. They are also focusing on cleaning up the scrap, trash, detritus, etc., that is infrequently created in minuscule amounts when misfires do occur. If that’s possible (and I believe it will be; science is quite brilliant at solving a problem once the parameters can be defined), then virtual immortality, i.e., a nonaging body, may well be possible.
Is this a good thing?
I found it surprising that three out of four respondents to a statistically significant survey said “no, thanks” to the offer of an ageless body, meaning they did not want to live forever (or at least indefinitely longer). What follows is an informal and anecdotal summary of conversations I have had with friends, family members, and strangers (everyone is willing to talk theoretically, it seems) about why the dissenting 75 percent felt that way;
- Population explosion/ecology: The planet’s resources are already stressed with a currently estimated seven billion people. The growth in population is a function of the birthrate minus the death rate. It is not difficult to imagine major dislocations if the growth rate accelerates dramatically, which would happen if the death rate is eliminated or significantly reduced. China’s one-child policy is perhaps the first example of public policy to address this potential.
- Boredom: Some people fear becoming (remaining?) bored if life continued indefinitely.
- Overwhelmed: Many cited the ever-increasing complexity of technology and a fear of being unable to keep up and cope.
- Too hard: Some have had a “tough existence” so far and see no evidence that their struggles will lessen in the near or distant future.
- Sacrilegious: One of the “carrots” offered by the major organized religions in return for faith is the promise of eternal paradise alongside one’s deity (providing, of course, that you pick the correct one), so the idea of eternity on this plane is viewed as not “what God intended.”
Well, you will draw your own conclusions about the desirability of immortality, but I would suggest that it is not too early to start thinking about immortality’s implications for us, individually and as a species. I agree with highly respected scientists and doctors who say it will be an option in the not-too-distant future. What do you think? Blessing or curse?
May you live long and prosper.
— V —
The Health Nut
Clark Peters has spent much of his time since his retirement in 1997 researching health and longevity. His purpose in writing these columns is to share his findings with readers in plain English and assist them in making accurate and informed lifestyle choices. The columns are based on the premise that we all want to live a long, vigorous life and are striving to make healthy choices.
While Mr. Peters believes these recommendations will result in better health and longevity for almost everyone, the reader is advised to consult with his or her physician before making any major lifestyle changes. You may e-mail Mr. Peters at: firstname.lastname@example.org.