Scientists on the brink of ‘ageing cure’
Would you want to live forever? In a new book, one scientist argues that we need to find a “cure” for the ageing process – but some think it would be a mistake to meddle with nature.
In November, a laboratory in Israel achieved something that had never been done before: it reversed the ageing process. By hooking up test subjects to a supply of pure oxygen for ninety minutes a day, researchers found they could reduce their patients’ biological age.
Now, Andrew Steele, an expert in gerontology, thinks we should be rolling out this kind of treatment to everyone. He argues that ageing causes terrible human suffering – and that we should do everything we can to prevent it.
This may soon be a reality. In the last few years, there has been an explosion in treatments that claim to slow down, stop or even reverse the ageing process.
We tend to think of ageing as a fact of life. But many animals do not age at all. The Galapagos giant tortoise can live up to 170 years, and a 160-year-old tortoise is just as healthy as a 20-year-old one. Unlike human beings, they do not weaken as they grow older.
The key to human ageing lies in telomeres, strings of DNA that act like caps on the end of DNA strands. They play a vital role in human health, protecting DNA strands and preventing cells from multiplying uncontrollably and turning into cancerous tumours.
But they are also responsible for our ageing. Each time a cell reproduces, its telomere is slightly shortened. As telomeres shrink, our vital functions start to slow down and eventually stop. But by applying a natural enzyme, telomerase, it is theoretically possible to maintain telomeres and slow down the ageing process.
Human beings have been “curing” the ageing process for centuries simply by improving nutrition, healthcare and working conditions. A 40-year-old industrial labourer in the 19th Century would look like a 60-year-old today, their body worn down by long, gruelling shifts operating heavy machinery.
But modern de-ageing techniques go much further than a good diet and regular exercise. Most rely on drugs known as senolytics, which kill degraded cells, leaving the young ones in place.
Some of these treatments raise important ethical questions. In one experimental procedure known as heterochronic parabiosis, blood is taken from a young body and transfused into an old one. This could open the door to exploitation of poor donors, who would give up their own blood for payment to keep richer old people alive.
Some think that we should not be trying to halt the ageing process at all. They warn that by fixating on living forever, we risk stripping life of all its meaning.
French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir thought that our sense of meaning comes from our knowledge that we will die. When we know our time on earth is limited, she argued, we can find meaning in the smallest things we do.
Meanwhile, someone who knew they would live forever could not possibly find any interest or joy in everyday life: they would feel detached from all ordinary human things. Ironically, de Beauvoir suggested, they would hardly be alive at all.
Would you want to live forever?
Yes, say some. Ageing causes enormous human suffering, both from the diseases that overwhelmingly affect older people, like cancer and dementia, and because younger relatives are forced to watch and support them as they decline. Human beings already live much longer than they used to: science is merely continuing this trend.
Not at all, say others. The promise of eternal life risks distracting us from the immense value of the limited time that we have on earth. If we never aged, never struggled through the suffering of disease and death, life would become empty and boring. We would no longer have any reason to strive to do great things since we would not need anyone to remember us when we are gone.
- Should we always try to avoid suffering, at any cost?
- Would it be fair for some people to be able to buy anti-ageing treatments? Or should they be made available to everyone?
- Draw a poster advertising your own cure for ageing.
- Write a diary entry from the perspective of a 100-year-old who suddenly finds themselves in the body of a 25-year-old.
Some People Say...
“I think of death only with tranquility, as an end. I refuse to let death hamper life. Death must enter life only to define it.”Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980), French philosopher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that ageing presents a big political challenge. Global life expectancy has increased at an astonishing rate: every year since 1840, it has gone up by three months. However, the growth in life expectancy has had unforeseen consequences. It has led to an increase in diseases associated with old age, like Azheimer’s. And a large elderly population racks up huge costs in social and healthcare, which requires higher taxes on younger people. This can cause generational conflict.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over whether or not cures for ageing are fair. Some worry that they will only ever be available to the world’s wealthiest people, who already consume an outsized proportion of our resources. They argue that if the rich also live 100 years longer than ordinary people, inequality will only grow, with fewer resources left for the poor. But others insist that all scientific advances ultimately trickle down: the rich are not the only beneficiaries of higher life expectancy.
- Biological age
- This refers to how old a person seems physically, as opposed to their chronological age, which is the number of years a person has been alive.
- The study of old age. The term comes from the ancient Greek word geron, meaning “old man”.
- Galapagos giant tortoise
- A kind of tortoise from the Galapagos Islands in South America that can be up to 1.8 metres long.
- Likened to the plastic cap on the end of a shoelace, telomeres protect DNA strands from damage and regulate their reproduction.
- Usually, cells reproduce frequently but steadily to replace cells that have died. However, sometimes a cell starts to reproduce uncontrollably, and this clump of cells becomes a tumour. If it threatens to spread throughout the body, it is known as a cancer.
- A biological catalyst that speeds up a chemical reaction taking place inside a cell.
- A kind of drug that induces death in so-called “senescent” cells; cells that show signs of ageing. The word derives from Latin senex, meaning “old man”.
- Heterochronic parabiosis
- This is not an entirely new idea: in the 1920s, Russian scientist Alexander Bogdanov claimed to have de-aged himself by injecting the blood of a younger colleague. This ultimately led to his death, when he injected himself with malaria-infected blood.
- A branch of philosophy concerned with the meaning of human existence. Existentialists tend to argue that there is no inherent meaning to life; human beings must impose their own meaning on it.
- Simone de Beauvoir
- A 20th-Century French existentialist philosopher widely regarded as one of the founders of modern feminism. She was also an accomplished novelist.