I have been overwhelmed by the flood of conflicting articles on the possible impacts of extending our life spans. When I turned to Google to see what has been written recently, it came up with 245,000,000 items… quite a bit more than the few dozen articles in my files. Admittedly the subject covers multiple spheres: The genetic and bio-science challenges are enormous (even today I hear on the radio that we may be transplanting pig kidneys and hearts in three years). How to resolve the possible consequences of these fast moving developments? What is best for humans? There is strong resistance to life extension from different religious, social and political groups. The push for high profits on minor extensions by the pharmaceutical industry make controls almost unstoppable. Then there are a number of billionaires who are so concerned about the vision of being kept alive until they are decrepit, that they have launched foundations to explore more promising alternatives.
How to keep active and alert until our 90s is becoming a popular challenge which is also disputed. Ross Andersen wrote quite directly in the Atlantic: “We’ve already tacked three decades onto the average lifespan of an American, so what’s wrong with adding another few decades? So far as we know, the last hundred years have been the most radical period of life extension in all of human history. At the turn of the twentieth century, life expectancy for Americans was just over 49 years; by 2010, that number had risen to 78.5 years, mostly on account of improved sanitation and basic medicine. But life extension doesn’t always increase our well-being, especially when all that’s being extended is decrepitude. There’s a reason that Ponce de Leon went searching for the fountain of youth — if it were the fountain of prolonged dementia and arthritis he may not have bothered.1
Many articles question whether we really need the anti-ageing elixirs being offered by the pharmaceutical industry? As the population already is growing older while the global birth-rate is going down in economically advanced nations, do we really need life extension? Would we not be better focusing on youth extension medicare? Many see life extension as irresponsible, dangerous, harmful and against both nature and creation itself. And then there are critics who see anyone who opposes life extension as taking on the role of judge, jury and executioner all at the same time.
Andersen pointed out that as funding for anti-aging research has boomed over the past few decades bioethicists have expressed alarm. They contend that such longevity could have disastrous social effects. Others suggest that longer life spans will mean stiffer competition for basic resources such as water and food as well as creating a wider gap between rich and poor. However, many of those advancing life extension are also focused on improving the quality and not the quantity of life.
Another commentator, James S. Goodwin, wrote that around the year 2000, a commandment came down from the very heights of the Geriatric Olympus: “Thou Shalt Not Study Life Extension. Nay, nor shall thou speak wistfully of such a prospect. For it is written that life extension scares the bejesus out of the gods of policy.”2 The fear is that medical progress will result in longer lives without better health. A spectre haunts us with millions of empty shells in wheelchairs populating ever-expanding nursing homes.
Living longer does not necessarily mean that the fundamental process of aging has been slowed down. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, a Professor at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Ageing & Clinical Diseases, contends that living a healthy life will lower your mortality across the entire lifespan, even if there is no impact on aging and age-related changes.3 For example, longevity increased roughly 50% over the last hundred years and yet there is no evidence people age more slowly. We live longer now mostly because deaths caused by infectious diseases have diminished. This important distinction holds true for some animal studies as well. Royal jelly and fish oil can significantly increase the average lifespan of mice, but that does not mean that aging has been delayed by such treatments for humans. All it suggests is that some nutrients promote health. Therefore, an interpretation of the results is essential when examining life extension studies and this also results in controversy over what may represent “delayed aging.”
Prof Magalhaes, who also created and directs Senescence.info, points out that the levels of many hormones go down with age. Some of the oldest and still most popular anti-aging treatments are consequently based on the premise that hormonal changes contribute to aging and therefore reversing age-related hormonal changes could be beneficial. I remember hearing about the demand for monkey testicles in the late 1930s when it was believed in Europe that this would extend virility. I was more impressed how outraged my father was by the experimental cruelty to monkeys.
The most famous of such anti-age treatments now involves human growth hormone (hGH) injections. Some results suggest hGH can have beneficial effects in the elderly. Supplements of hGH may increase muscle mass, strengthen the immune system, increase libido and even make the elderly feel younger. While hGH was hailed as a major breakthrough a few decades ago, like many other anti-aging products it failed to live up to expectations. This was because its negative side-effects might include weight gain, high blood pressure and diabetes. While hGH stimulates growth, Magalhaes points out that concerns have also been raised as to whether hGH also could stimulate cancer growth and whether it would contribute to cancer development in patients with existing malignant or pre-malignant tumors.
While there is general agreement that everyone deserves to live a more fulfilling life, how are we to decide how long humans should live? Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist now 67, takes about 100 pills a day to ward off further ageing. His ultimate goal is to live forever. To do so he must stay healthy until scientists get us to Bridge Two when the biotechnology revolution will reprogram our inherited biology. This would in turn be superseded by molecular nanotechnology which would enable the full reconstruction of our bodies. This could put a welcome end to death suggests Kurzweil.4
What is now accepted is that we are heading towards dramatic increases in the over 80s who are plagued by the loss of memory, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. The cost of their treatment is fast becoming a serious economic problem as well as a political issue. The WHO (World Health Organization) has just revealed that global obesity also has almost tripled since 1975. Feeding billions naturally has been feeding troubles. This could result in the younger generations coalescing as they became pitched against the slowly ageing who will increasingly demand care and whose needs will drain the resources of the young. This challenge will mount especially if the world’s population rises to an estimate of 9 billion by 2050.
I must admit that most adults in the 21st century now seek out aspects of that mystical Fountain of Youth. A steady flow of new treatments intended to slow the process of ageing are continually being tested. Collagen is promoted as the key to anti-ageing because by the time we have reached middle age our bodies produce half the collagen we had in our youth and now produce less with each passing year.
This debate concerning what anti-aging means is a major source of confusion often used by pharmaceutical companies, and even by a few scientists, to mislead the public. Certainly, some products pitched as anti-aging may be healthy and/or may soften the effects of aging. For example, a given anti-wrinkle cream may ameliorate one particular effect of aging (wrinkles), but it will not impact on any other aging sign. Importantly, an anti-wrinkle cream will not increase longevity much less delay the mortality acceleration with age and hence its effects on aging will be so superficial that scientifically I do not think it can be considered as anti-aging.
Today the diet of “life extensionists” often includes daily handfuls of pills directed to slow down the ageing process. Hormones and anti-ageing agents, pushed by the pharmaceutical industry, are often included without having been rigorously tested. Jim Mellon, a British extensionist millionaire, supplements his diet with masses of nootropics, or “smart drugs.” He contends “If you can stay alive for another 10 to 20 years, if you aren’t yet over 75 and if you remain in reasonable health for your age, you have an excellent chance of living to more than 110.”5
Ironically, the most praised “anti-aging” drugs, such as resveratrol, rapamycin, and metformin, are believed to mimic the effects of shifting body energy balance from storage, growth, and self-reproduction simply to self-maintenance. “Enabling women to prolong their fertility would be a scientific advance worth celebrating” writes Sonia Sodha. ”Imagine how liberating it would be to know you have 15 years of fertility left, just as many men of your age do.” Sodha concludes that we might need to use science to rethink some aspects of our biology.6
James Strole, a real-estate investor who founded the nonprofit group Coalition for Radical Life Extension, supports those sciences which may significantly prolong human life. The Coalition’s website states: ”It’s time to look beyond the past of dying to a future of unlimited living.” Strole, who is an evangelist of immortality, desires extending life by decades and even centuries so that mortality becomes optional or an end to The End.7
Aubrey de Grey, yet another British gerontologist, regards life extension as a health issue not a matter of ending death. “We’re interested in people getting sick when they get old.” Gerontologists are keen to reduce such causes of death as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.8
The opening of regenerative medicines, stem cell research, and mitochondrial electron adjustments are all, amongst others, opening up new potentials in life extensions. The biogerontologist Joao Pedro de Magalhaes explained in an interview that “my work integrates different strategies, its focal point is developing and applying experimental and computational methods to help decipher the genome and how it regulates complex processes like ageing. In practice, that means developing and employing modern methods for genome sequencing and also bioinformatics to analyze large amounts of data, for example networks with hundreds of genes. We now know that aging and longevity, like many other biological processes, derive from many genes interacting with each other and with the environment.”
Ending this broadly inconclusive survey of these purveyors of life extension, I must assert my fears are magnified by the threat of our ever increasing population. Areas without adequate water will slow down ageing, but that is not a humane solution. Those without adequate medical treatment or healthy food, are also unlikely to pass their sixties. Politically this could never be openly accepted.
Commentators have made it clear that ageing is so biologically complex that it encompasses innumerable different and contentious processes. Even with gene editing it is unlikely that any single technique or “breakthrough” will add decades of lives to our children. What we can strive for is to work towards a slow, incremental lengthening of our current “teen-age stage“ which has encompassed “the best years of our lives.”
The gerontocrats may be out to “cheat the reaper” but the truth is that radical life extension could produce extremely negative effects on our social structures affecting childbirth, marriage, and the ever greater burden of caring for the increasing numbers of the elderly. As it is, the extravagant consumption in the narrow areas of wealth may radically reduce this planet’s capacity for 9 billion to eat, drink and BREATHE!
1Ross Andersen, The Atlantic, May 21, 2012
2James S. Goodwin, The Fear of Life Extension, 2017
3Joao Pedro de Magahlaes, an interview by Nicola Bagala, July 30, 2018
4Ray Kurzweil, “We’re going to overcome ageing,” The Financial Times, April 11, 2015
5Jim Mellon, Juvenescence, Investing in the age of longevity , 2016
6Sonia Sodha,”…postponing the menopause,” The Observer, August 11, 2019
7Alex Moshakis, “We want to live forever,” The Observer, June 2019
8Aubrey de Grey, Ending Aging, 2007