Magazine article The Futurist

Winning the War against Aging: Why Die? There May Soon Be Nothing Preventing Great-Grandparents from Being as Agile in Body and Mind as Their Descendants

Magazine article The Futurist

Winning the War against Aging: Why Die? There May Soon Be Nothing Preventing Great-Grandparents from Being as Agile in Body and Mind as Their Descendants

Article excerpt

Imagine your grandmother looks like a teenager, plays soccer, parties at the clubs all night, and works as a venture capitalist. Or imagine your grandfather teaching you the latest high-tech computer software in his office, which you hate to visit because of the loud heavy-metal music. Such a scenario is hard to envision because we are taught to accept aging and the resulting suffering and death as an immutable fact of life. We cannot picture our grandparents in better physical shape than we are, but aging may soon become nothing more than a scary bedtime story, perhaps one your grandfather will tell your grandson after a day of white-water rafting together.

Can Aging Be Cured?

Aging is a "barbaric phenomenon that shouldn't be tolerated in polite society," says University of Cambridge gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. However, the more than 50% increase in longevity of the past century is due mainly to advancements made in the war on infectious diseases, not to any war against aging. Present antiaging treatments do not slow aging and do not extend life span more than quitting smoking, exercising, eating vegetables, or heeding ordinary medical advice does. The only way to achieve an increase in human longevity in this century similar to that of the last is to find ways of retarding the aging process itself.

In recent years, many advances in antiaging science have been made at the cellular level. Normal human cells have a built-in program that prevents them from replicating more than a predetermined number of times. Using the enzyme telomerase, it is possible to genetically modify human cells to overcome their programming and make them divide indefinitely. But telomerase alone does not solve the aging problem: Mice do not live longer when they are genetically modified to have lots of this enzyme.

Genetic engineering can double the longevity of worms and increase by almost 50% the life span of flies. Results are also promising in mammals: Scientists have extended longevity in mice by 50% through genetic interventions. If such outcomes could be achieved in humans, then it would be normal to have grandparents more than 120 years old.

Several research groups, including Kronos Longevity Research Institute (Phoenix, Arizona), Centagenetix (Cambridge, Massachusetts), and other groups in academia, are conducting research aimed at retarding aging. If the breakthroughs of recent years are anything to go by, it is likely that we will see several-fold longevity increases in mice within the next decade or so.

Achieving similar results in humans will be harder: Scientists have already identified genes that appear to accelerate human aging, but they have yet to find genes with the opposite effect. With the sequencing of the human genome, we are now in a better position to find out more about aging in animals as well as humans. Drawing from the technological breakthroughs of the past 10 or 20 years, researchers are likely to develop methods to considerably delay human aging within the next few decades. "The prospects of dramatically increasing human longevity are excellent," declares Steven Austad, biology professor at the University of Idaho.

Although some scientists argue that aging will never be cured and our grandparents will continue to fit our stereotypes, many others remain confident that we will soon learn how to modulate the human aging process. "I believe our generation is the first to be able to map a possible route to individual immortality," says William Haseltine, CEO of Human Genome Sciences Inc. in Rockville, Maryland.

Shaping Up for Long Life

One method available today might delay human aging: caloric restriction, which means simply a diet with fewer calories. Experiments have shown longevity increases of more than 50% in certain mammals, but most people feel that the secondary effects of such a diet outweigh its benefits. After all, what is the point of living longer if you cannot enjoy life? …

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