What disease kills 100,000 people every day (usually after a prolonged period of pain and illness), affects nearly everyone, and kills about 90% of people in the industrialized world?
Aubrey de Grey, a renowned gerontologist, is on a quest to eliminate aging. The search for the fountain of youth has confounded humanity for millennia, but de Grey is on more solid scientific ground than most of his predecessors in this field. He has identified what he believes are the seven causes of biological aging – a list which has remained unchanged for the past 30 years – as well as the solutions for dealing with each cause. These solutions are not merely theoretical; they have all been demonstrated in labs, although most of them are many years away from being generally available.
Some casual observers may conclude that it is physically impossible to prevent aging since people have been trying and failing to do so for millennia. But the fact is that there are naturally-occurring examples of cells that do not age. Unfortunately, they’re called cancer cells, and tend to have the nasty side effect of killing people. Nevertheless, they do demonstrate the reality of cells that do not age.
Each cell in our body normally has an hourglass in it; the cell replicates as many times as it can, then commits suicide when the hourglass runs out of sand. But scientists have discovered how to add more sand to the hourglass. It’s an enzyme called telomerase that occurs at the end of DNA strands. Each time our cells divide, the DNA strands become frayed at the end, until eventually they are too unstable and self-destruct. For the discovery of telomerase in 1984 and subsequent analysis of how it relates to aging, three scientists were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
There is still a lot of research that needs to be done before it is possible to halt or reverse the aging process in humans. De Grey’s organizations, the SENS Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation, are currently testing life-extension therapies on mice. The Methuselah Foundation offers the MPrize: a reward of up to $4 million to anyone who can extend the lifespan of mice to record-breaking lengths. The goal is to eventually apply this knowledge to increase the human lifespan.
De Grey is not interested in extending the portion of life in which people are old, frail, and sick. His goal is to extend the healthy portion of life, and ultimately to prevent people from ever growing old at all…and reversing the aging process for those who are already elderly. This is not pie-in-the-sky immortality, as it won’t eliminate all causes of death. It would, however, offer the possibility of lifespans of indefinite length. De Grey has explained the concept as the “Longevity Escape Velocity.” Over the past century, medicine has done an excellent job preventing people from dying at young ages, but very little to prevent aging or increase the maximum human lifespan. At the present, medicine is progressing relatively slowly, adding a few weeks to our lifespan every year. When the Genomic Revolution picks up pace within the next few years, it is likely that this will be increased to a few months every year. De Grey hopes that eventually we can attack the root causes of aging itself to add more than one year to the human lifespan every year. He believes that the first person to reach age 1,000 is alive today…and is probably only about ten years younger than the first person to live to age 150.
The concepts of aging and old age are so ingrained in our mindset that we tend to not even think about them. Like anything that is both horrifying and seemingly inevitable, we have a remarkable ability to push aging out of our minds, or even to go through mental contortions to rationalize it as a good thing. Virtually all major life decisions we make – what career to pursue, how much of our money to save, how much risk to take, who to marry, how many children to have, when to retire, what our religious beliefs are, if or when we should go to college – are ultimately premised on the assumption that we will grow old and die, probably between ages 70 and 100. But what if this ceases to be the case? There is almost nothing that would alter our lifestyles, worldviews, beliefs, and culture as profoundly as the end of aging and the mindset that accompanies it.
Modern biology has already discovered theoretical solutions to all of the causes of aging; it is now a matter of applying them and developing solutions that work for human beings.
(The SENS Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation are non-profit organizations under US law. All donations are tax-deductible. If you have some money to donate, these organizations are helping to solve the single worst disease threatening humanity.)
By 2045 – The aging process has been halted, for all intents and purposes. People no longer grow old beyond their peak healthy age, between 18 and 25.
By 2060 – It is possible to reverse existing damage from the aging process. It is no longer possible to estimate an adult’s chronological age merely by looking at them. Diseases of old age have, for the most part, ceased to be a problem.