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.”