Live Long, Live Strong

Modern biomedical researchers have made great progress in cracking the mystery of aging

Husband and wife living strong and healthy

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying," Woody Allen once wrote in his inimitable purple prose.

The point is: obstacles to youthful longevity are not just biological, but also political. Also, a majority of our celebrated thinkers are at odds with the idea of long, healthy lives.

Optimistic resolve

As Leon Kass, a leading bioethicist, puts it: "The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether s/he knows it or not."

What's more, as author Francis Fukuyama emphasises, many people will soon "refuse to get out of the way; not just of their children, but their grandchildren and great grandchildren."

Adds Daniel Callahan, another bioethics scholar: "There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death." He concludes: "The worst possible way to resolve this issue is to leave it up to individual choice."

Yet, there's good reason to being optimistic from a scientific standpoint. "The prospects of dramatically increasing human longevity are excellent," says Steven Austad, a biologist.

In addition, many researchers themselves foresee the human race being placed at the intersection of the Second Longevity Revolution. They say that the First Longevity Revolution occurred in the early 20th century, as infant mortality declined, and infectious diseases were conquered. As a result, they note, more young people now enjoy the opportunity to become old.

The Next Longevity Revolution, by contrast, they visualise, will actually put off old age.

From nature's perspective, evolution in human beings has "picked" a set of genes that keeps our bodies in good shape long enough to mature sexually, yield progeny, and raise them to maturity. All this happens in 40 years of one's lifespan. However, if the body produces a lot of energy in repairing itself, it will reduce the amount it can dedicate to reproduction. While this may be good for individual bodies, your germ cells - cells that give rise to sperms - have no interest in keeping you young forever!

A case in point. Michael Rose, a biologist, has firmly established the evolutionary connection between sex and death by breeding fruit flies. Only those flies that reproduced late in life and bred them with one another were selected in the study. Result: the longer it took the insects to reproduce, the longer they lived. Rose's lab has flies that live 130 instead of the customary 40 days.

Paradoxically, researchers have found that the genes that are helpful in promising healthy youth are also "damaging" down the line. The tumour-suppressing p53 gene, for instance, keeps us away from developing cancer in early life. However, it does this at the price of stimulating our immune system to destroy the reserve of rapidly dividing stem cells that inflate our tissues over time. It is a simple hypothesis: as our stem cells are "destroyed," our tissues deteriorate. The result is aging, or "antagonistic pleiotropy," in medical parlance.

Life expanded

Says the respected magazine, Science: "Life expectancy has been increasing at about two-and-a-half years per decade for the last 150 years." The one, big human lifespan was 122 years achieved by a nicotine-smoking French citizen, of all people, who died some years ago.

To go back to Vedic thought, it is said that the average lifespan of an individual is 120 years!

Think of the present. The Washington Post predicts that it will be possible for us to "re-seed the body with our own cells that are made more potent and younger, so we can repopulate the body."

There's more than a ray of hope for healthy longevity, than we think at the moment, and in the not-so-distant future!

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