We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rewriting Life

Be Sane about Antiaging Science

Each readme is an executive summary of a fatter story in the magazine, stripped to its logical bones. Each concludes with a call to action.

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.

This story is part of our February 2005 Issue
See the rest of the issue

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.

Get stories like this before anyone else with First Look.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.