We can live forever – but we need to talk about it

Throughout our entire lives we are told that aging is a completely natural and unavoidable part of life, one that should even be appreciated despite its shortcomings. The idea of biological immortality seems distant to most, and even a thing of fantasy stories, but it is widely unknown that it is already present in nature in many different forms. Creatures like mole rats, lobsters, crocodiles and many others do not show any signs of aging, meeting their ends through other means, such as predators, disease or even simply growing too large to self-sustain. In the seas of japan, the famous immortal jellyfish  Turritopsis dohrnii behaves much like a phoenix, turning back its biological clock to a newborn whenever it’s faced with a dangerous wound. With these examples in mind, one can say that immortality is as natural as mortality itself, neither inevitable nor universal. Perhaps aging should not be seen among humans as an untouchable law of life, but as a major disease that we should actively fight against.

Created by nature, Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish

Aging, biologically speaking, is nothing but the accumulation of damage in one’s body over time. In the first decades of our lives, it plays like a beautiful symphony, with all cognitive and physical indicators showing constant improvement. But as the years progress, the melody begins to change. Wrong notes are cast as we start to descend from order into chaos, giving way to a gradual biological deterioration that takes decades to unfold. By the end of our lives, our DNA looks very different from the way it looked before  – genes that are supposed to be off find themselves active, the body is riddled with malfunctioning old cells and our number of active neurons are in a steep decline. We become weak, both physically and mentally, more prone than ever to age-related diseases such as cancer,  cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. Aging is a slow-but-violent disease that has killed all of our ancestors in the past.

However, mortality has played a huge role in Earth’s history – in many ways, it is one of nature’s best inventions. By cleaning out the old and leaving space for the new, countless species were able to rapidly evolve throughout the eons. And since throughout most of Earth’s history living things have died mostly due to predation, disease and injury rather than old age, natural selection has always favoured genes that are beneficial at the early stages of life, keeping creatures alive for just enough time for them to reproduce. Evolution hasn’t addressed aging in humans because it never really had to.  But in the modern human world, natural selection does not play the role it used to any longer. We’ve become good at staying alive collectively – we reinforce our immune system with vaccines, help our disabled carry on healthy lives and constantly create new treatments to conditions that would easily be considered a death sentence for most of human history. All evidence points to the fact that, for the most part, we have countered the role of natural selection as a species and have taken the process into our own hands (unless a new worldwide epidemic decides to clear out a large chunk of the human population, which is definitely a possibility). With that in mind, can something as monumental as aging be slowed down and even cured by scientists?

The short answer is, theoretically yes. As we exposed earlier, aging is a biological problem, not a natural constant. Although research in this area (known as gerontology – the study of aging) is relatively poorly funded due to cultural, traditional and moral reasons more than technological, many scientists have been making significant progress in aging-related research through a variety of distinct approaches. Dr. David Sinclair, for example, conducts research at Harvard Medical School and proposes tackling this issue by narrowing down the genes associated with aging and reverting what was mistakenly switched on/off through our lifetime. By the end of 2014, he was able to accelerate aging in mice by 300% by editing one single gene that’s also present in the human genome. These significant results prove that small genetic changes can have tremendous impact over the lifespan of an animal, knowledge that certainly can be used in people as we gradually increase our understanding of genetics.

Two mice, both with just one year of age. The difference between the two? A single gene.

Two mice, both with just one year of age. The difference between the two? A single gene.

Another pioneer scientist in this area is Dr. Aubrey de Grey (University of Cambridge), that besides rocking an awesome beard is pursuing the development of an “anti-aging therapy”, aiming to clear out all age-related damage from a patient’s body throughout a series of procedures, returning them to an earlier biological state. Dr. De Grey has received the financial backing of many industry leaders like Elon Musk and expects to begin human trials in the upcoming two decades. Dr. Tony Wyss-Coray (Stanford University) is also known for his age-related work, proving in 2015 that regularly transfusing blood plasma from young mice into old mice not only partially rejuvenates the organs, but also strongly increases their neurological response, showing improvement in cognitive function, memory and problem solving skills. Clinical trials are now being performed on humans with Alzheimer’s in hope of achieving similar results.

With all the progress being made on this front, giants like Google have also entered the race for immortality, investing $1.5 billion dollars in their new company Calico in 2013. Most scientists in this field firmly believe that the first forms of treatment for aging will be available to the public within this century, and with each passing day it seems to be clearer that curing aging is not a matter of if, but a matter of when. While we shouldn’t expect for a permanent solution for biological immortality to pop out out of the blue, it is all but unreasonable to expect that we’ll have access to basic forms of treatment within the next 80 years — and perhaps that’s all we need to call it a victory. If patients have access to medication that rejuvenates the body 10 years, for example, one can assume (giving the rate at which technology and medical science evolves) that 10 years later patients will have access to improved versions of said medication that warrant them even more years of rejuvenation. Once there is more supply for lifetime than there is demand, the battle is officially won, and we will finally have access to the most important resource of all: time.

But it doesn’t come without its challenges. It is almost a certainty that to tackle aging fully we’ll need to edit our DNA, which brings up the unresolved ethical debates around genetic engineering. Ridding ourselves of all genetic diseases sounds like an easy choice, but should we make ourselves more intelligent? What about removing undesired physical features? Or designing how we want or children to look? Do we lose a part of ourselves in the process, or will it all be for our own betterment? Those questions remain largely unsolved, although it’s likely that the technology will be accepted by society – the benefits and opportunities are too grand to pass up – the question is, how do we approach it?

So now that we’ve established that aging is a biological and technological issue that can be solved, we arrive to the big question: Should we cure aging? I will answer this by addressing some of the most common myths regarding life-extension.

 

1) Curing aging is morally wrong

According to the principles of bioethics, like the principle of beneficence, since curing aging would benefit people, not harm them, it is not ethically wrong. If a cure is available, individuals should be able to choose whether they want to pursue treatment or not, in accordance with the principle of respect for autonomy. Forcing them to the inverse option is the same as putting them to death against their will.

 

2) It would only be available to the richest elites

The issue of justice and equity is commonly raised when arguing against life-extension. Of course it is impossible to predict the price a fictitious cure for aging would have. From experience, we know that a number of medical breakthroughs are not immediately available to everyone. The early antibiotics were initially available only to a small elite (now present at the shelves of pretty much all pharmacies) and a number of present technologies, such as CAT scans and heart transplants, are not available to everyone. That, however, is not a reason for us to ban pacemakers or regenerative medicine. We do not deny heart transplants just because they are not accessible to everyone, just as we cannot deny health and life just because some people lack healthcare. Besides, even if curing aging is truly initially expensive, one can speculate that it will eventually be available to everyone at affordable prices, following the trend seen in all medical breakthroughs of widespread appeal. Like it or not, anti-aging medicine has the potential to be the biggest pharmaceutical market in history, an opportunity that will certainly not be ignored by all businesses. It is also important to keep in mind that the cure of aging will likely be incremental instead of surrounding a single breakthrough.

 

3) Aging is natural and we should not fight it

As described in the first paragraph, aging is by no means a prerequisite to life and biological immortality is actually quite prevalent in nature. Also, there’s the fact that we are already fighting against aging by fighting age-related diseases. Remember that aging entails a number of pathologies, like cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases – and for most, the cure for these is widely seen as desirable. While fighting the individual components of aging raises little opposition, fighting aging as a whole (even though it would consequently cure all of the pathologies described) is seen as unnatural and morally questionable, which should not be the case. Humankind is in a constant struggle against Nature. We have developed vaccines and antibiotics to prevent a number of undesired “natural outcomes” (such as sickness and death), and today we persistently attempt to achieve the same in our fights against Cancer, Zika, AIDS, Ebola and many other diseases.  Smallpox, for example, was one of the greatest killers in human history and was eliminated by modern technology – with it,  we have reverted what was considered the natural outcome, and many of us exist purely because of it. Challenging Nature and death is a fundamental part of being human, as well as Nature itself.

 

4) Curing aging is environmentally unsustainable and will lead to overpopulation

While it’s true that today we’re taking resources from the Earth at an alarming rate, the cure for aging will be a gradual and incremental process that will span several decades, allowing for more than enough time for us to prepare for this new set of challenges. Throughout the upcoming decades we’ll continue to develop solutions in agriculture, energy, biotechnology, urban design, architecture and so much more, creating new pathways for our population to grow and expand efficiently and responsibly. When thinking about the future it is important not to simply imagine one extraordinary tech in a present day context, and take into account how everything else will also change until that point in time. It is also arguable that life-extension solutions could actually represent a huge push toward sustainability, as our increasingly aging population would be suddenly rejuvenated, and millions of elders could start to contribute into the economy. Curing aging is an ambitious goal that will definitely give birth to a new array of opportunities as well as challenges – but that’s inherent to any meaningful human breakthrough, and we should not shy away from the possibility because of it.

 

5) I don’t want to be old forever

When talking about life-extension, it is common to imagine that we would simply extend our lifespan and remain old for eternity. However, all the physical deterioration associated with old age is a byproduct of the damage accumulated in our body – if the damage is fixed, those byproducts also disappear. The pursuit of solutions for aging goes well beyond just living more – it is also inherently associated with rejuvenation.

 

6) Life would have no meaning

Now that’s an interesting assumption.

It is beyond a doubt that the end of aging would be a radical paradigm shift to humanity as a whole – cultures and religions would face unparalleled changes – governments, companies and people from all over will have to rethink the role they play in the world, and while that may sound scary, it is not a bad thing. “Meaning” isn’t a static concept – it’s ever changing and entirely based on society’s current context and values. We might have the impression that life could have no meaning in a radically different future, but it would simply have a different type of meaning. It’s no surprise that it’s hard for us to imagine how we would fit in such a completely unknown Earth, as we haven’t lived it, or even fully transitioned into it. As culture and self-perception changes, the concept of meaning will too, and it’s a certainty that an ageless future would cause radical changes to both.

The reason I have written this article is simple: the discussion of aging as a disease is an important one, and today’s biggest challenge for gerontology is not the state of our technology, but the lack of public awareness. Aging is not recognized as an illness by the World Health Organization, which imposes a number of roadblocks when obtaining investments for proper Research & Development efforts. For our understanding of aging to rapidly advance, it is essential that we, the people, start to look at it more objectively and recognize the damage it represents to human lifeform. In doing so, we could not only be securing our children’s future, but also our own. Time is humanity’s most valuable resource – and for our entire history as a species we have been unable to replenish it. The search for a reliable life-extension technique is still in its infancy, but significant progress is being made by the day. With the continued rise of technologies such as genome editing, artificial intelligence, computer simulations and 3D printing, scientists will have access to more tools than ever to tackle humanity’s most complex problems. Aging is natural, but so is not aging – and while there’s no telling what being alive will mean in an ageless future, perhaps that’s precisely what makes it a future worth seeing. 

Leave a Comment

Start typing and press Enter to search