July 20, 2010

To Age or Not to Age

By Shannon Gramas

[Originally posted on (where snobbery and trash collide) on July 19, 2010.  Click here for original article]

Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Robert Kane Pappas

In the series of Future History stories written by the science fiction author Robert Heinlein, mankind has developed the technological capability to arbitrarily extend the human lifespan. Repeated applications of the so-called “rejuvenation” process can allow a person to enjoy thousands upon thousands of years of healthful, youthful existence. Reading these books as a teenager, I thought the idea sounded absolutely wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to live forever? Looking at the question now though, I’m not so sure. Call it maturity, call it “wisdom,” but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to the realization that death is the only thing that gives life meaning. To eradicate death would be a grave error (pardon the pun). Without the aging process, human beings would never mature. Time etches wisdom in the body itself, and to take that process away would suffer us to the unimaginable fate of being teenagers forever.

Luckily this idea has always stayed within the realm of science fiction. That is until now, if you are to believe Robert Kane Pappas. In his new documentary, To Age or Not to Age, Pappas interviews several scientists at the forefront of the life-extension revolution. While most are typically conservative in their predictions, at least one of those interviewed believes that it is well within our capacity as a species to completely eliminate aging and disease as a cause of death. This is Dr. Aubrey de Grey, an ebullient and extravagantly-bearded Brit whose radical predictions cause a degree of consternation amongst his more soberly-minded fellows.

For example, de Grey believes that the first person to live to see 1000 years will be only 10 years younger than the first person to reach 150. In other words, in only a decade the technology will have advanced to the point where a lifespan of 150 will seem like an early death. And both of these people are potentially alive today. He figures that with constant, incremental advances in technology, the first procedure to modestly extend life spans will soon be supplanted by a more robust procedure that can then be re-applied before the original, less efficient application has worn off. On and on we go in an ever-increasing exponential explosion of technological advancement that will end in humankind becoming functionally immortal.

Let’s suppose you do an experiment on the effects of an extremely low calorie diet on mice and find that compared to a control group, the calorically restricted mice have significantly extended life spans. Upwards of 20-40 percent longer, in fact. And let’s further suppose that with a little digging you discover that a certain gene, dubbed “SIRT1″ is responsible for this effect. It is what is known as a “regulator gene,” and increasing its activity in a yeast sample will also slow the aging process in that species. This is what Dr. Leonard Guarente discovered in the late ’90s. One of his students, Dr. David Sinclair, made the further discovery that a certain molecule found in the skin of grapes, resveratrol, can activate this and other similar genes, mimicking the effects of caloric restriction. Soon a field of study is born, scientists making similar discoveries left and right.

Intrigued by these findings, Pappas decided to make a movie about the phenomenon of artificially-induced life extension. Over a three year period he interviewed Guarente, Sinclair and other leading scientists in the field and came away with this thoughtful, information-dense documentary that left me with a feeling of awe at the many ingenuities of the human mind, when it wasn’t totally scaring the pants off me.

Interspersed between the fascinating interviews are a series of vignettes wherein Pappas attempts to tackle some of the wider, philosophical implications of this research. He set up a number of dinner parties where groups of similarly-aged people (“30-somethings,” “50-somethings,” etc.) discuss the issue of life-extension amongst themselves. I was gratified to hear that most were not in favor of the prospect, or were at least greatly skeptical of the supposed benefits. Many were quick to point out the inevitable social inequities that would arise when such life-extending procedures became available. Only the rich, white, Western world would reap the benefits, they argue, thereby exacerbating the already sizable gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” And what about overpopulation? What about the environment? Our planet is already taxed to the utmost in trying to support six billion people who will live a century, at the most. What will happen when that number doubles? Trebles? Quintuples? The mind staggers.

I wish that Pappas had gone further in this direction. Much of the documentary comes off as a commercial of sorts for the technology, and for one company in particular, Sirtris. Founded by Dr. Sinclair, the company was eventually absorbed by pharmaceutical giant Glasko Smith Klein, adding a much-needed sense of legitimacy to the endeavor. The only thing standing in the way of further research was money, and once GSK finds a way to monetize life-extension, the sky’s the limit.

To Age or Not to Age makes a persuasive argument that the era of greatly increased life spans is soon to be upon us. It has left the pages of science fiction novels and become reality. The only question is whether that reality will be a fulfillment of all our fondest dreams or of our most hidden nightmares.

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