Tinkering with Mortality

By Drevitch, Gary | Psychology Today, March/April 2015 | Go to article overview

Tinkering with Mortality


Drevitch, Gary, Psychology Today


FROM MIT TO Silicon Valley, prominent thinkers are working ferverishly to beat aging once and for all, and each has a pressing personal deadline for finding a solution.

For the new breed of anti-aging researchers, the holy grail is not necessarily a lorger 11 fespan but a longer healthspan. The longer we can delay the typical diseases of aging, the greater "compression of morbidity," we'll achiver, not only forestalling the onset of cancer, heart disease, and dementia, but also lessening how long we'd have to live with them, Bill Giffors, author of SpringChicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) rightlyly argues that no one wants to be like Jonathan Swift's long-suffering Strudldbrugs, cursed by immortality without eternal youth. Far better, he believes, to live unti 185 in good health, "and then go out quickly-preferably, while riding a motorcycle, or maybe BASE jumping."

We've extended our lives before: American life expectancy rose nearly 30 years from 1900 to 2000, thanks to better public sanitation, advances in neonatal care that drastically reduced infant-mortality rates, and improvements in senior care that extended life for adults with diseases that were once certain death sentences. But those were top-down solutions. Today, our healthspan is largely in our own hands, and that's a problem.

While we'd all embrace cures for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, University of Chicago professor of public health- and life-extension skeptic-S. Jay Olshansky explains to Gifford, they would only increase average life expectancy by about 10 years, still well short of 100, because most of us wouldn't make the lifestyle changes to effectively ward off diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and other conditions for which our physical and mental fitness are at least partially responsible. Ironically, the reason we wouldn't may be that most of us feel too young. Surveys conducted by the MetLife Mature Market Institute find that no matter how old people are, they think that "old age" is still 10 or 15 years away. This may be psychologically healthy, but to the extent that it keeps us from taking action to preserve our health, it's a disaster.

And so, short of a collective increase in willpower, we'll continue the search for anti-aging magic bullets.

In a California lab, Gifford witnesses a parabiosis experiment, in which old and young mice are opened up and sutured together, allowing the junior rodent's blood to course through the veins of the senior. The older mice, once conjoined, go on to live four to five months longer than nonrejuvenated contemporaries, an increase comparable to an additional 20 years of life in humans, along with marked improvements in cognition. "Youth is contagious," he concludes, and while he raises the possibility of a rising vampire class, with Donald Trump and his cronies paying impoverished young people for plasma transfusions, Gifford assures us that researchers are instead working to determine exactly what components of younger blood can be replicated as a potential cure for aging.

ANEWBREEDOF"MILLENNIALS"

The prospect of such treatments has energized a more radical group of thinkers, including Aubrey de Grey, controversial chief science officer of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), who has suggested that, as we engineer aging out of our very cells, some people born today may live 1,000 years. Such claims have drawn intense interest from certain Silicon Valley magnates who have made the war on aging a near obsession.

In 2013, Google invested in Calico, the California Life Company, hoping that its application of"moonshot thinking" to biotechnology could cure aging once and for all. (Google and pharmaceutical giant AbbVie have since pledged up to $1.5 billion to Calico.)

Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, is counting on artificialintelligence advances that will enable the brain to be downloaded to a computer, bringing about effective immortality, especially if and when that consciousness is uploaded into a fresh bio-robotic husk. …

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