Can aging be “solved” — and should it be?

I’ve been steering clear of the Methuselah-minded crowd for whom the grail is the extension of the human lifespan. For one thing, the science is muddy. Secondly (and very scientifically), they give me the creeps. Thirdly, the more important  question, it seems to me, is how to improve the quality of the additional 30 years of life that refrigeration and clean water have so recently delivered to us.  

There’s an interesting interview in today’s Technology Review with pioneering geronotologist Leonard Hayflick, which describes him as “well known for his skepticism toward claims that human longevity can be significantly lengthened through science.” (As opposed to prayer or time travel?) According to Hayflick, “we do understand the biological cause of aging, which is the same as the cause of nonbiological aging. It’s the second law of thermodynamics.” Over time molecules dissipate energy and function less well, and disrepair accumulates. It’s the same reason a car will eventually fall apart even if it never leaves the garage.

Hayflick believes that extending the human lifespan is not only scientifically improbable but socially undesirable, thinking that puts him somewhat at odds with a number of colleagues, including Jay Olshansky (quoted at length in this post) and Steven Austad of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, who also spoke at the 2009 Age Boom Academy. Pointing out that we’re discovering more species all the time that surpass humans in their ability to combat aging, Austad predicted that, “We’re going to find therapies that we can use on humans.”

But all agree that there are limits to what we can accomplish by studying the major diseases of old age. This research, Hayflick points out, “tells us nothing about the fundamental biology of aging, just as the resolution of childhood diseases, such as polio and childhood anemia, did not tell us one iota about childhood development.” Much remains unknown, such as why old cells are more vulnerable to disease. Yet research into the basic biology of aging consumes less than 3% of the budget of the National Institute on Aging, while half of every dollar goes to Alzheimer’s Disease. While not suggesting we quit studying dementia, Hayflick noted that, “If you cured Alzheimer’s tomorrow, it would add about three weeks on to the average life expectancy in this country.”

2 thoughts on “Can aging be “solved” — and should it be?

  1. “they give me the creeps.”

    Haven’t you, with that statement, accurately reflected your irrational bias regarding the topic of life extension? Presumably someone might have said the same thing back before refigeration and clean water: “you’re going to nearly double human life expectancy? Right, get away from me, you creep.”

    You are of course welcome to your opinion, but such dismissals detract from genuine analysis of the topic and the best avenues for research. And you’re wrong about the science being muddy. We have proven, through the very technologies you mention, that it is possible to drastically increase human lifespan. For most of human prehistory and history, setpugenarians and octogenarians were exceedingly rare.

    What, exactly, is it that gives you the creeps about people who propose to do the same thing with emerging technologies? I think more likely what is happening is that the idea itself conflicts with assumptions you cling to about the world and your place in it, and rather than attack those assumptions you prefer to deny out-of-hand any evidence that contradicts certain of those assumptions.

    Historically, it seems to me, the technologies we’ve developed that have extended our lifespans are the same technologies that have made our un-extended lifespans more pleasant. I see no reason why this won’t continue. The methuselah crowd are basically proposing to find ways to cure disease. Why, exactly, do you find this creepy? Perhaps it seems rooted in self-interest. But all invention is rooted in self-interest. Self-interest and benevolence are not inherently mutually exclusive.

    I see plenty of methuselah-skeptics out there, and I consider myself agnostic regarding the predictions of Kurzweil and others on this topic. But I never see the skeptics providing any DATA to contradict the bountiful evidence at the heart of Kurzweil’s claims: that information technologies increase in capacity and capability, and decrease in cost, in an exponential fashion. This is clearly evidenced in Moore’s law and in the gobs of charts that Kurzweil never leaves home without.

    There is nothing particularly shocking in the notion that computers will continue to grow more powerful in an exponential fashion as they have, demonstrably, since their invention. So, even just taking this one technology into account, it is not a great leap to say that the computing power of an iPhone will in 25 years be contained in a package the size of a blood cell, and that will have a profound impact on our medical abilities. We have already created propulsion and other robotic systems at nanoscale, so it is not a great leap of faith to think that these techniques will be rapidly refined and improved over the next decade or two.

    It is equally clear that our understanding of the megabytes of data that make up the DNA blueprint of our cells is growing rapidly – exponentially – as the amount of such data begins to soar (thus allowing for exponential gains in analysis). We are rapidly gaining understanding of the properties of these cells (helped a great deal by our exponentially growing ability to see very very small things in real time, and to simulate them to a finer and finer degree).

    And yet you dismiss all this as unimportant, and worse, hubristic.

    I would rather see the methuselah critics actually put in something close to the thought and effort that the proponents have, as that’s the only way there will be an informed debate. Kurzweil and others like him are no doubt wrong about some things, but reactions like yours shed no light on what they might be.

    “Steering clear” of uncomfortable ideas is a recipe for getting locked into wrong ideas.

  2. The impact Alzheimer’s has on life expectancy is moot. However, the impact it has on the quality of life of those living and suffering from it is a lot more significant. Just seems like a really pointless statistic for Hayflick to mention.

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