Spinoza said that all things wish to continue in their own form forever: the human desire to live longer is instinctive. And we’re getting better at it. The life expectancy of a person born in the United States in 1900 was 47 years; for a baby in 2002, it was 77 years and a few months. This remarkable improvement is due to a century of medical advances, particularly those involving the treatment of severe infections, traumatic injuries, and certain contagious diseases. But average life expectancy has risen extremely gradually in the last 50 years. Using conventional medicine, human beings in wealthy nations seem to be living about as long as they can.
This is because we haven’t cured aging or the diseases of aging. Even if you stay healthy most of your life – avoiding car accidents, various fatal infections, and any number of deadly ailments – your body will age and die. But is the aging process biologically immutable? That’s the question raised in this month’s profile of Aubrey de Grey, a University of Cambridge computer scientist and self-taught biologist who loudly and angrily argues that there is nothing inevitable about aging and death (see “Do you Want to Live Forever?”). Aging, he says, is “repulsive” and death from aging “barbaric.” De Grey, who lectures and publishes widely on the topic, claims that by “perturbing” our cellular processes, we could live for thousands and thousands of years. Further, he says that we will be able to do this 25 to 100 years from now.
Is this absurd? Yes, of course it is. Yet recent breakthroughs in molecular biology and genetics have created an exciting new field called biogerontology that promises to explain why organisms age. And for the first time, serious scientists can imagine ways to actively alter this process. Physician Sherwin Nuland traveled to Cambridge, England, to see just how de Grey’s radical vision fits into this emerging field.
Sherwin Nuland would not be satisfied by anything less than rigorous scientific reasoning and evidence. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a writer more qualified to profile the eccentric de Grey. A clinical professor of surgery at Yale University’s School of Medicine, Nuland is also an expert on medical history and bioethics. He has written several books on the subject of human biology, including How We Die, which won the National Book Award in 1994. He has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Time.
What does Nuland think of the bearded de Grey’s offer of immortality? He isn’t buying it. Yet he presents de Grey as a compelling and brilliant visionary who forces listeners to reconsider what they know about aging – and what it would mean to radically extend the life span of humans. Nuland concludes that de Grey’s strategies to eliminate aging won’t work. And for social, medical, and cultural reasons, he says, that’s a good thing.
Nuland’s story on de Grey suggests it’s time to think about the medical and ethical implications of antiaging research. Those in the research and medical communities must explain to the public the priorities and goals of such research. Informed consumers of science and technology should be able to separate the hyperbole of de Grey’s claims from what the science could offer.
That’s real enough. While it is highly unlikely that aging can be permanently halted at the cellular level, antiaging science might allow doctors to “compress the morbidity” of their patients: that is, reduce the amount of time geriatric patients suffer from the chronic diseases of old age like heart disease, macular degeneration, senile diabetes, or dementia. Such therapies would also extend human life – at least a little bit, anyway. Human beings could live beyond the age of 80 or 90, and in relatively good health. And while that’s not immortality, it offers something like happiness on a reasonable, human scale.