“The God Pill,” by Tad Friend. The New Yorker, 4/3/2017.
When I was in my early 20s, the teenaged son of friends of my parents suddenly died of a stroke. Everyone was shocked when the autopsy revealed the arteries in his brain resembled those of an 80-year-old man.
Uh-oh, I’m 80 now.
The search for a medical treatment that will preserve life indefinitely is now centered in Silicon Valley, primarily because that is where the money is (and the chutzpah). The common complaint of the very rich has always been, “I have all this money, so why should I have to die like everyone else?”
Friend’s article covers the approaches being tried, but almost all end with the hope that results may be found in 10–20 years when technology improves. Not much can be expected soon. The approaches that initially seemed so promising have turned out to be far more complex than anyone thought.
Google’s anti-aging research is one of the leaders and led to the more-hope-than-substance comment that “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional.” But that thought is in the minority. Most feel the goal should be to improving the quality of life, rather than simply extending it. Ideally, we should live to something like 85 in full health and vitality, then totally break down like the perfectly built “one-hoss shay,” described by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and quickly die.
The problem, most feel, is the slow dysfunction of everything as we age. Our sight and hearing and strength diminish, our arteries clog, our brains fog until we finally falter, seize, and fail. There’s got to be a better way.
Back in the 1990s, the problem seemed simple. Studies on tiny nematode worms showed a single gene mutation extended their life as much as ten-fold, while another gene mutation blocked the extension. Simple. We need to create more of the former and less of the later. But the celebration was premature. There are now known to be 550 genes in the worm that modulate life span, and the suspicion is that 10,000 more are involved. All of this in the simple life-form of tiny worm.
Now, the excitement is about telomers, DNA buffers that protect the ends of chromosomes. They shorten as we age, and once they are gone, cells stop dividing. But lab rats have lots of telomers, and they don’t live especially long. And an enzyme that promotes telomer growth is found in almost all cancer cells.
Looking at evolution, it is surprising we live as long as we do. Very few animals live much past their reproductive age, yet we live to be grandparents. The thought is that grandparents add significantly to the survival of their grandchildren.
The scientists who are looking for healthier aging are “healthspanners.” Those looking for a longer life are “immortalists.” Healthspanners ask why 2-year-olds almost never get heart disease and cancer. Why can’t we just continue what they have? Of course, we all want to live a little longer, but when is enough enough? And what are the consequences of living forever? No death requires no reproduction: no sex, no birth, no first birthdays, no childhood, no first love.
That’s too much to give up. I vote for you to die. I want to live just a little longer. Ask me again next month.