Skip to comments.I'm going to live forever
Posted on 03/13/2005 4:25:11 PM PST by saquin
Some scientists predict that today's children will be able to live for more than 1,000 years. Is immortality just around the corner? Bryan Appleyard peers into a hair-raising future without death
Somewhere in the world today lives a child who will change everything. Imagine this child is called Sally. Today is her 11th birthday. She lives in Esher in Surrey. Her parents are happy and wealthy. All her grandparents are old, alive and well.
Ive given her this background for specific reasons. Sally is a girl because women live about five years longer than men. She is 11 because, at that age, she has successfully navigated the diseases of childhood and her body has yet to endure the effects of ageing. She lives in Esher because it is one of the high life expectancy areas of one of the richest countries in the world.
Her parents are happy so they are less likely to divorce and cause life-threatening stress to Sally. They are wealthy because that means they can afford private medical care and Sally will not have to take the appalling risk of attending an NHS hospital. Finally, her grandparents lived a long time so the family has a history of longevity.
In short, Sallys life prospects are optimum for a human child in 2005. According to current projections, she can expect to live well into her eighties. But its not going to be like that, because Sally is not going to die until 3194.
Hundreds of thousands of people die in the world every day, two-thirds of them from ageing. Is this just life, the way things must be, or is it a problem to be solved? If, as the western tradition teaches, every human life is valuable in and of itself, shouldnt we be doing more to stop this appalling carnage? Or should we, as the eastern tradition teaches, accept it as the eternal becoming, samsara, or the veil of Maya, the illusion of existence?
Forget all that. This is what will happen to Sally. When she is at university in about 2013 she will hear news of an astonishing experiment performed on a mouse. A healthy two-year-old mouse will have been subjected to numerous protocols to suppress the division of cells and clean them of debris. In critical areas of cell depletion such as the brain and heart, stem cell therapy will have been used to rejuvenate the organs. Mitochondrial and chromosomal DNA will have been manipulated to stop damaging mutations.
The experiment began in 2010. The mouse is now five. Being an average mouse it should have died at three, almost certainly of cancer. At the genetic level, mice are surprisingly like humans.
Society is transformed by the news. In response to public demand, medical researchers are flooded with government money in the expectation that science is on the verge of delivering massive human life extension if not the holy grail itself immortality. People begin to look after themselves fanatically, cutting out dangerous sports, smoking, excessive drinking, all sugar and red meat, and exercising daily. Everybody wants to live long enough to live for ever.
And sure enough in 2035, when Sally is 41 and beginning to feel the effects of ageing that humans have lamented throughout history, human rejuvenation becomes available. Privileged Sally is the first in the queue. Soon she looks and feels no more than 30 and, as the years pass, continued therapy ensures that she never ages. She has become, in fact, the first immortal.
But not, in the event, invulnerable. Accidents can still happen. Back in the early years of the third millennium an American biologist, Professor Steven Austad, studied death rates among 11-year-olds, the age at which disease is the least likely killer. On the basis of these figures, which included death by accidents of varying degrees of improbability, Austad calculated an immortal human was likely to live an average of 1,200 years.
And so, in 3194, blooming, youthful, beautiful, 1,200-year-old Sally is strolling along Esher High Street. A piano falls from a sixth-floor window and kills her. Sad, but never mind, she had a good innings.
All of this well, not the piano is exactly what Aubrey de Grey and an increasing number of scientists around the world expect to happen. De Grey is a brilliant, self-taught gerontologist at Cambridge. He is a 41-year-old cyclist with a 2ft beard, enormous whiskers and a rapid, high-pitched voice that on first contact is frankly terrifying.
He is in excellent health. He knows this because he has had one of the most rigorous medicals in the world at Kronos, an anti-ageing research institute in Phoenix, Arizona. But, in case it all goes wrong and he dies, he has arranged for his head to be frozen and stored by the Alcor cryonics facility in nearby Scottsdale. It will be revived when the technology becomes available so that Aubrey can go on talking.
He is generally regarded as the leading theorist of anti-ageing technologies or, as he calls them, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. He is convinced the first thousand-year-old human has already been born. He is convinced because of his theory of escape velocity which, he says, almost nobody has taken into account.
Future life expectancies are usually calculated on the basis of extrapolations from the past. Life expectancies soared in the 20th century largely because of the reduction of infant mortality, improved sewage systems and the development of antibiotics. Clearly there cannot continue to be such huge changes, but demographers make cautious forecasts of increases in life expectancy by extrapolating underlying trends. De Grey snorts.
Extrapolation is complete nonsense. I call these demographers Extrapaholics Anonymous. They know perfectly well that its all guesswork.
Escape velocity is the opposite of extrapolation. Say, for example, we manage to extend life expectancy by 30 or 40 years. This is not inconceivable even within the limitations of present medical knowledge. Increasing numbers of people in the developed world are living to 100 and beyond. If we simply improve peoples behaviour and treatment consistently, many more will live to about 120, the age generally accepted as the maximum for humans beings. And if stem cell therapy works, they will live clear-headed, without the effects of Parkinsons or Alzheimers.
At that point de Greys theory kicks in because, if you do live that long and scientific knowledge continues to expand at its present rate, then you will almost certainly live a lot longer. In other words, the first 150-year-old is quite likely also to be the first 1,000-year-old.
So how will this happen? De Grey has seven strategies of Engineered Negligible Senescence replacing cells that are lost, for example, through Alzheimers or Parkinsons, stopping cells that multiply as in cancer, preventing mutations in chromosomes and mitochondria, the cells power plants, removing junk from inside cells and from outside and, finally, getting rid of extracellular protein crosslinks which cause hardening of the arteries. Find ways of doing all seven and nobody need ever die again.
We have a pretty good idea of how to fix all of them, says de Grey, and some of the fixes are already in clinical trials. The beauty of it is that we dont have to fix all of them completely. For example, we dont have to clear all the junk out of the cells, just enough to stop its ageing effects.
Cancer, he admits, is the tough one. Even if we cured all other diseases of ageing, life expectancy would not increase radically simply because cancer would strike us down in the end. De Grey has a complex anti-cancer strategy that is now being studied around the world.
The central conceptual element in this approach is that the human body is a machine which can be fixed. This was not, until recently, widely accepted. Either the body was not viewed as a machine or it was seen as a particular type of machine that was programmed to fail. The physicist Geoffrey West, for example, calculates that 120 is the maximum age for a human being by comparing us with other creatures. Biological systems simply cannot sustain themselves beyond a certain point.
But then along comes Tom Kirkwood, professor of medicine at Newcastle University and a Reith lecturer. Kirkwood produced the disposable soma theory. As far as the genes are concerned, our sole function is to reproduce. Our bodies put so much energy into this that, once our reproductive years are behind us, there is nothing left to keep us going.
The genes that specify maintenance functions DNA repair, antioxidant enzymes, stress proteins weaken in their effects. Disease finally strikes us down. The soma the body is disposable. But the point is we do not die, we are killed.
There is no in principle reason why we should die, says John Harris, professor of bioethics at Manchester University. Tom Kirkwood was largely responsible for changing our view that ageing and dying were programmed into us as part of the evolutionary process.
As Kirkwood puts it: Maximum lifespan is not clock-driven but malleable, eg through modifying exposure to damage or enhancing somatic maintenance functions. The body, in short, can be fixed.
The idea is, in medical terms, revolutionary; in social, political, psychological, philosophical, economic and even aesthetic terms it is earth-shaking, transformative, unimaginable in its implications. In a nutshell, it signals the end of the human.
Death has always defined us. The first creatures to laugh, said Vladimir Nabokov, were also the first creatures that knew they were to die. Self-awareness means, above all, awareness of ones own ultimate extinction. But, as La Rochefoucauld pointed out in the 17th century, looking directly at death is like staring at the sun. It cannot be done.
And so conscious creatures have always embarked on elaborate programmes of death denial or death justification. Even the Neanderthals decorated their graves and positioned the corpses as if for another life. The great religions promised immortality in another realm or as part of the great wheel of existence. In fact, as the philosopher Roger Scruton has pointed out, all human civilisation might be defined as an attempt to give meaning to death.
In our day, civilisation might be defined not as giving meaning to death but as a desperate attempt to defer it. Staying young is our religion, and every health, cosmetic or diet fad offers just that. The rise of individual, as opposed to collective thinking, has inspired the conviction that the extinction of the individual is the only conceivable evil.
Furthermore, science has relativised death. Death used to be defined as the moment the heartbeat and breathing stopped. But then it was found that people could be revived from this condition, so the concept of brain-stem death was introduced. Now even this turns out to have uncertainties. Death, apparently, is no more than the moment when current medical competencies expire. Perhaps, in fact, death is optional.
Oddly, men fight for this idea more than women. Research by the psychologist Professor Sarah Hampson has shown that, in extremis, men are the sex that most clings on to life. Only 25% of women say they want radical interventions resuscitation, ventilation, tube-feeding to save their lives; 75% of men demand such actions as their right. Perhaps this is why men are the leaders in immortality research. But what will it all mean?
Lord, what fools these mortals be! cries Puck in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Mortals just means people. Thats what we are, things that die.
But if we dont die, what are we? Not human. Thinkers like Francis Fukuyama have argued that the destruction of human nature would be a catastrophe. Medical interventions aimed at immortality are, therefore, a potential source of evil. Others, like John Harris, argue that there is nothing so great about being human.
I dont think its important to be human. I have no attachment to my species membership. We know were descended from a small number of apes. If theyd got together and decided not to evolve into us, wed not be here talking about this. Theres no reason why we should not evolve into something else.
And yet some argue that the pursuit of immortality is deeply irrational. Leon Kass, an American biochemist and philosopher, points out that even if our bodies last for a thousand years or more our memories wont. There will be no psychological continuity. We will still, in a sense, suffer extinction because our first self will change into a second and so on.
But Harris says: suppose we go through three selves A, B and C. C cant remember being A but can remember being B just as B can remember being A. There is a continuity, therefore, and it is much the same as the one in our lives now. We cannot remember being, say, three with any accuracy, but we know we were three and we have evidence photographs, the memories of others to prove it. Immortality may be strange, but not necessarily that much stranger than the lives we now live.
All of which is in the distant future. Closer at hand is the immediate impact of these new technologies on individuals and society.
It will be total mayhem, says de Grey of the moment when people realise that mouse experiments suggest immortality may soon be available.
It will cease to be just me saying this sort of thing: all my colleagues will be agreeing that serious extension of the human healthy lifespan is foreseeable. No one will want to stay in risky jobs. But the biggest thing of all is that people will behave as in wartime. It will be a true war on ageing with everyones first priority being to end the slaughter.
It will mean voting huge expenditure to expedite the remaining science to translate the technology from mice to humans, but also voting even bigger expenditure to train the staggering number of medical personnel to administer the therapy when it arrives. Thats why there will be no expense problems; the money will have already been spent, by governments, before the treatments are even developed.
In other words, de Grey thinks most of the social problems will be solved by the time the technology arrives. He also thinks that at that point people will have to choose between living for ever and having children. Clearly they cant do both as the population explosion would be huge.
He regards the imposition of such choices as reasonable. Others, however, believe the impact of immortality therapies would be to widen the gap between rich and poor and create intolerable global frictions. We are already facing the possibility of resource wars over water and oil; imagine the ferocity of the conflict if the resource in question was immortality.
On a lighter but no less gripping note, de Greys timescale presents a nice problem for a very spoilt generation, the babyboomers. This population bulge, caused by the increasing number of births after the second world war, covers people aged roughly between 50 and 60. If it is to be 30 years before immortality technology becomes available, this most pampered generation in human history might also be the last generation to die. They got their decaff lattes but they didnt get eternal life. It is hard not to laugh.
Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman are babyboomers in their mid-fifties and both have decided they want to live for ever. Their book describing how to do it Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever is to be published here in May. A three-step process is involved. The last step will be the advent of nanotechnology, when molecular-sized robots will run and repair our bodies continuously. The second step will be biotechnology for example, the benefits of stem cell research, which are currently at least a decade away. But the first step is what you have to do now to stay alive.
It doesnt sound like a barrel of laughs. Kurzweil takes 250 supplements a day and spend one whole day a week at a clinic.
Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace ageing gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view. It may be natural, but I dont see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability. I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome. Until recently there was relatively little that could be done about our short lifespan other than to rationalise this tragedy as actually a good thing.
Immortality or even just extreme longevity is, in this context, such a supreme goal that babyboomers in the dangerous fifties may be willing to pay for it by the extreme measures taken by Kurzweil and Grossman. After all, if the alternative is mere extinction, what choice do these secular, materialist individualists have?
It is a hard question to answer. Almost any of the traditional answers would be dismissed as deluded mythologies attempts to rationalise this tragedy as a good thing constructed in the face of what we took to be the inevitability of death. If death is not inevitable, all such mythologies becomes meaningless. We will no longer be foolish mortals, but wise immortals. We will no longer be human, we will have become the gods we have aspired to be ever since 1609 when Galileo proved the churchs astronomy wrong and human reason right. Only accidents the falling piano, the hurtling asteroid will remain to thwart our pretensions.
Welcome to immortality, the last consumer good, available soon at your local pharmacy.
HOW TO LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO LIVE FOREVER: THE 13-STEP APPLEYARD PROGRAMME
1 Dont even think about smoking and, preferably, dont hang glide.
2 Eliminate sugar to lower blood insulin levels. Use stevia as a sweetener. It is a South American plant that is both very sweet and good for you.
3 Dont eat any animal fats. Government guidelies tend to say cut these down, but they probably only say this because they think its the best people can manage. No saturated fat at all is probably best.
4 Eat lots of vegetables that grow above ground. Those below ground are heavy in carbohydrates that turn into sugar and raise insulin levels.
5 Dont overdo the fruit. Contrary to popular wisdom its not unconditionally good as it contains sugar. Non-drinking Arabs and Indians who sit around sipping orange juice all day end up with diabetes.
6 Eat nuts. For incompletely understood reasons, people who eat nuts live longer. Not salted peanuts, however (see 7).
7 Dont salt things. Salt raises blood pressure and will kill you through a stroke or heart attack. For this reason, dont touch processed food.
8 Dont have heart bypass surgery or have a stent installed to hold a blocked artery open. Latest figures suggest neither works. People who live longer after them probably do so because the shock made them eat better and exercise more.
9 Have a massive medical assessment, preferably at Kronos in Phoenix, Arizona, to establish what you are doing wrong and, if possible, what genetic weaknesses you have. Continue these assessments throughout your life and adjust supplements accordingly. Read all the latest medical journals to keep up.
10 Exercise vigorously and daily but dont run. Running is bad for your skeleton.
11 Take a childs aspirin once a day to thin your blood and a much larger dose before you get on a plane. Ideally, dont get on a plane.
12 Eat very little. Rats on restricted diets live longer but it is not known if this would damage humans particularly their brains. So if you forget what 2+2 equals, eat more.
13 Ignore all of the above. They may be wrong and, if a piano falls on you, pointless.
Only the good die young. I'll be around for awhile.
On the other hand, Psalms 90:10 rather casually puts the normal lifespan at 70-80 years, just about where it is now. So if medicine is doing us so much good, howcome people aren't living any longer (or at least, dying of old age later) than they did in biblical times?
People in ancient times lived to be near 1000 years old.
That's scary. Imagine having someone like Hitler or Saddam or Osama bin Ladden around for 1000 years.
Blech. This life going on forever would be hideous ... and I have a comfortable and happy life.
Good grief...I will have to print this article out for my husband...he also thinks like this and has for a long time...he is just an average guy, no scientific training of any sort...but he has always believed that the human body, is like a car, and that it can always be fixed...he does believe that we should be able to live at least a couple of hundred years, and in relatively good health...
Yes, I am married to and live with a whacko....he has a lot of odd beliefs...its never dull around here, thats for sure...
Nothing wrong with dying...I just want to die last.
Seems like Castro has been around that long.
I would be bored silly after the first couple hundred years.
The day people can live to be 1000 is the day I put a gun to my head. 5 minutes of Hitlery Rodaham in my face is already pushing that, but 1000 years? I`ll take a pass on that hell.
(Not to mention the trouble Social Security will be having!)
I'd love to spend some time with my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great gandchildren. All 600 of them.
I may be wrong, but I think the calendar used in Biblical dates is different from the one we use today. We hear about people living to be 900 and something years old...but that probably translates to, oh, I don't know...50? Less?
People living to the age of 1000 years?
This is NOT to be desired.
Because "Thy Word is Truth."