The common epithet, “She died a natural death,” is meant as both clarification and consolation. A premature death is tragic, but a natural death implies a full life, a span of time to work and love limited only by the immutable breakdown of vitality that comes with age. “Every day you make progress,” Winston Churchill once said. “You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
This attitude doesn’t sit well with Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a 46 year-old Cambridge University biogerontologist. “Around 150,000 people die every day – that’s nearly two per second – and of those about two thirds die of aging,” writes Dr. de Grey in “Wake Up, Aging Kills!”, the second chapter of his 2007 book Ending Aging
. “100,000 people. That’s about thirty World Trade Centers, sixty Katrinas, every single day.” To Dr. de Grey, every death attributable to aging is as shocking as a disaster, because he believes that aging is something that, like disease, we can cure. “With adequate funding,” he says, “I think it’s quite possible we could end aging within my lifetime.”
But aren’t aging and death natural parts of our existence? “Both have a special status in medicine,” says bioethicist Daniel Callahan. “They have been seen as biological inevitabilities, a fixed part of the human condition, while particular diseases that afflict people have been understood — at least in principle — to be open to cure.” In recent years, however, a series of discoveries have begun to alter that perception within the scientific community. Last week, Harvard Medical School hosted a conference on anti-aging science and today the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to three scientists working on aging. But just because many thinkers now see the chance to end aging, it doesn’t mean they all think it’s a good idea.
Since the 1970s scientists have discussed the notion of the selfish gene, one focused on reproduction: Our bodies rush us along to sexual maturity, guaranteeing that our genes will be copied to future generations, but sacrificing longevity in the process. Metabolically speaking, we’re operating in a fast, but inefficient gear, one that leaves us with a lot of cellular damage and waste. Over the last two decades studies ascending the evolutionary chain — from fruit flies to lab rats to our closest primate relatives — have shown that it is possible to intercede on this aging process. An important part of this research is restricting calorie intake: If an animal thinks is starving - if survival in the short term suddenly seems more important to passing on genes than reaching sexual maturity - then the body shifts to a different, more efficient gear, In animal studies this shift not only increases life span, but also does so in a way that reduces the chances of age-related disease, extending the healthy years and shrinking the period of frailty.
It’s unlikely that a culture struggling with obesity is going to begin consuming 30-40% fewer calories on a daily basis, so even though calorie restriction as a means to extend life was known to exist in animals, for years it seemed a curiosity at best. But calorie restriction did highlight the flexibility of aging, and scientists have since detected changes that could be made on the genetic level to mimic the effects of such a diet. One involved manipulating genes to produce more sirtuins, a protein associated in the body with famine. Companies like Sirtris Pharmacueticals of Boston, a featured participant at the conference on anti-aging medicine at Harvard last week, are already pouring hundreds of millions into clinical trials of such sirtuin related drugs. The belief that aging is an immutable process, programmed by evolution, is now known to be wrong,” wrote Dr. Jay Olshansky from the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging.
De Grey’s views represent the logical extreme of this paradigm shift. Mankind, from the Egyptians to the Victorians, has pursued eternal life, but De Grey doesn’t claim to have found the miracle cure in calorie restriction or any other recent development in anti-aging science. In fact, he puts the possibility of success for his project, eliminating all types of cellular damage through constant upkeep and repair, at only 50-50. Rather, he insists on the necessity of trying. De Grey began his career as an engineer and computer scientist, and his plan retains the approach of a technician. “You know how you keep a vintage car running, by replacing parts. You could do that, in principle, with the human machine as well. You just have to replace smaller parts.”
It is this analogy — between human and machine — that divides many within the scientific community. “Engineers, physicists, people who come from those fields, have this notion of control, and they seem to be ones who are most intrigued by notions of eternal life” says Dr. Martin Raff, an eminent cellular biologist. “Sure, in principle you could keep a car running forever, we built it, so we know how it’s put together.” Evolution, by contrast, produced the cell through random mutation. “That makes a cell more complex than any machine we know.”
Beyond the digital divide, however, lies the ultimate generation gap, between those who want to conquer old age, and those who have already aged. “Aubrey is a charming man, and a smart one, but his ideas about aging are naïve,” says Dr. Raff, 71 and recently retired. Raff concedes that the work on caloric restriction and cellular damage has made many scientists, including himself, rethink the fundamental principle that aging cannot be altered. “But there is a point where, even if we are all beginning to agree technically, the science ends,” says Raff, “and the philosophy begins. Can you imagine an orchestra with the same conductor for that long, or a football team where the players never change? To me, that sounds like hell on earth.”
De Grey calls this mindset the death trance
. “When one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than spend the rest of one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it.”
Dr. Callahan, the bioethicist, describes a recent experience that crystallized where his colleagues stand on this issue. He was speaking at a conference on aging standing before a room of over 350 scientists who had, as their goal, the end of aging. “I looked out at this crowd of professionals from across a range of disciplines, all of them passionate about this cause of ending aging, and I saw what the similarity was.” Dr. Callahan, who is 79, asked anyone in the room over 70 to raise his hand. “Sure enough, [there was] not a single one.” Fighting against aging is a young person’s game, in large part because those who are already old have learned to look for beauty, not in the far reaches of science, but in the finitude of life.