Can we end aging?

Peter Pan
Symbol of everlasting life Peter Pan
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There are many reasons to envy the fictional character of Peter Pan. He can fly, he's friends with a band of orphan boys who indulge his every whim and he calls a magical island home. He hangs out with fairies, mermaids and adorable British children, and even the local pirates are no match for Peter's sword fighting skills. Most notably, Peter Pan never grows up, thus escaping the indignities of wrinkles, wheelchairs and widowerhood.

While we don't necessarily want to remain children forever, like Peter, many of us would like to stay young as long as possible. We seek out plastic surgeons and hair dye to keep our external appearance from changing, and we use crossword puzzles and card games to keep our minds at peak performance. We may rage against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas once so famously urged, but, in the end, we find that aging is inevitable.


Or is it? Researchers known as biomedical gerontologists are searching for ways to end aging. By understanding how we age, these researchers believe we can learn how to slow or stop the process, much like how we'd treat a disease. This endeavor is particularly impressive if you consider how new a phenomenon old age is. At the turn of the 20th century, people living in the United States could expect to live approximately 45 years; just 100 years later, the life expectancy in the U.S. had risen to about 78 years [source: Olshansky].

Much of the leap in this statistic is due to better sanitation practices and medical advances like vaccinations and antibiotics that improved the infant mortality rate. With a greater likelihood that children would make it through their first years, the average life expectancy skyrocketed. But as more people lived longer, they didn't like what they saw. Aging-related conditions such as dementia, stroke and heart disease became more common. And while some scientists have dedicated themselves to curing those ills, others see those individual problems as part of a bigger picture. If they treating aging like a disease that can be cured, the thinking goes, then the troubles that go along with it will also disappear.

By curing aging, scientists believe we can create another huge increase in the average life expectancy. Some believe that we'll eventually reach a maximum life expectancy of about 120 years, while others believe that there's no limit on how many years a person can age, leaving the possibility of immortality on the table. On the next page, we'll investigate the progress that has been made on living longer.


Life Extension Methods

french fries under lock and key
Fries are a big no-no if you've adopted calorie restriction.
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Though elixirs of eternal youth have long been peddled by hucksters, scientists have come such a long way in understanding how the human body ages that they see it as completely possible that an anti-aging pill is in our foreseeable future. By taking such a pill, humans would not only live longer lives, they would live healthier lives.

What might this anti-aging pill do in our bodies? That depends who you ask, and how that person views the aging process. According to the free radical theory of aging, our bodies age because damage done by free radicals, or molecules with an unpaired electron. Free radicals are created as byproducts of essential tasks, including respiration and metabolism. As we get older, though, our bodies lose the ability to control these molecules, which go on to wreak havoc in other cells. Antioxidants fight free radicals to some extent, but finding a better way to slow production or the progress of free radicals in the body could slow or end the aging process.


Rather than protecting cells from free radicals, some say it's more important to protect cells from themselves. As cells age, they divide, but this causes a tip of a chromosome, known as a telomere, to shrink a little bit. When the telomere is gone, then it can no longer protect the rest of the cell, and the cell dies. Telomerase, an enzyme that repairs telomeres, could be the key to longevity, if scientists could determine how to boost its production.

Calorie restriction, a diet that involves consuming 30 percent fewer calories, has been shown to dramatically increase the life span of organisms and animals in the laboratory. However, such a diet has proven near-impossible for humans to adopt, so scientists are working at determining exactly why this diet might slow aging so they can find a substance that mimics the effect. One theory is that calorie restriction activates a gene, known as SIRT1 in humans, that suppresses dangerous genes that can cause malfunction in the body. SIRT1 might also be activated by resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine, though humans would have to consume several hundred bottles a day to see any effect.

If anti-aging can be tied to a mere gene or two, then genetic tinkering or engineering could be possible. Some people already pay $20,000 a year for regular injections of human growth hormone, which is believed to keep the human body in a youthful state that includes little body fat and increased lean muscles.

Though scientists have these various theories, further study is required for all of them. However, studying life extension methods in humans is extremely tricky, given that an experiment to see if a human could live to 120 years would take, well, 120 years. But scientists are hoping that once they find the true trigger of aging, they'll find a way to stop the activation of that trigger. Then, they're hoping to replicate that process in pill form. A tall order, no doubt, but let's say they manage to pull this off. What would the world be like if no one aged?


Implications of Ending Aging

grandmother and grandson watch television together
Is Earth big enough for both of them?
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Many scientists frame the race to end aging as a financial issue. By investing money in the research and development of an anti-aging pill now, then future generations will save on the cost of treating millions of individuals with cancer or Alzheimer's. This delayed benefit is sometimes referred to as the longevity dividend. But pursuing a longevity dividend would also require changing the way societies currently work. For example, if humans truly do live longer, then they'll likely be required to work longer. While this might bring them a greater amount of personal wealth and postpone the point at which they'll begin drawing from the social security system, it also presents problems for younger workers trying to get a foot in the door.

That is, if younger workers even exist. One biomedical gerontologist, Aubrey de Grey, wouldn't be surprised if, when we reach immortality, we stop having children and focus on other pursuits [source: Nuland]. Indeed, one has to wonder if there will be restrictions on having children, since these people who are living longer will have to compete for the Earth's limited resources with the young. And if extending life can also extend the time in which a woman is fertile, we may have a complete shift in the family unit. Siblings could be decades apart, and marriages may not be "til death do us part" anymore. After all, if death is a lot farther away, then you may not be as inclined to stick it out with a spouse you no longer love.


Of course, there are positive benefits to consider -- if you are truly in love, you'll have more time to spend with that spouse, and you'll be around to hold your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You'll have more time to pursue your interests and hobbies, and might even get around to writing that novel or taking up the guitar. But what if your habits are less savory? Say, for example, that someone as evil as Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden had the means to extend life -- what would we do then? Will longer-living people only hold on to the religious and political grudges that underlie so many worldwide conflicts? Is it selfish to extend our life span when so many people in other parts of the world already die from preventable causes?

These types of issues are already being debated by bioethicists, even though it seems that we're still years away from being able to consume a pill that will bring us more life. While the ethicists debate and the scientists experiment, get yourself up-to-date on life extension methods by reading the articles on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bailey, Ronald. "Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea?" Reason. Aug. 25, 2004. (May 4, 2009)
  • Boutin, Paul. "Battling Time's Ravages." Wall Street Journal. Sept. 8, 2007. (May 4, 2009)
  • Britt, Robert Roy. "Live Longer: The One Anti-Aging Trick That Works." LiveScience. July 8, 2008. (May 4, 2009)
  • DeSimone, Bonnie. "Growth Hormone: The Secret of Youth or a Cautionary Tale?" New York Times. April 11, 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Kuczynski, Alex. "Anti-Aging Potion or Poison?" New York Times. April 12, 1998. (May 4, 2009)
  • McCarthy, Susan. "On immortality." Salon. March 30, 2000. (May 4, 2009)
  • McGowan, Kathleen. "Can We Cure Aging?" Discover Magazine. Dec. 4, 2007. (May 4, 2009)
  • Nuland, Sherwin. "Do You Want to Live Forever?" Technology Review. February 2005. (May 4, 2009)
  • Olshansky, S. Jay and Bruce Carnes. "The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging." W.W. Norton and Company. 2001.
  • Olshansky, S. Jay, Daniel Perry, Richard A. Miller and Robert N. Butler. "In Pursuit of the Longevity Dividend: What Should We Be Doing to Prepare for the Unprecedented Aging of Humanity?" The Scientist. March 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Pollack, Andrew. "Forget Botox. Anti-Aging Pills May Be Next." New York Times. Sept. 21, 2003. (May 4, 2009)
  • Saletan, William. "Among the Transhumanists." Slate. June 4, 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Than, Ker. "Extending Human Life: Progress and Promises." LiveScience. May 24, 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Than, Ker. "The Ethical Dilemmas of Immortality." LiveScience. May 23, 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Than, Ker. "The Psychological Strain of Living Forever." LiveScience. May 24, 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Than, Ker. "Toward Immortality: The Social Burden of Longer Lives." LiveScience. May 22, 2006. (May 4, 2009)