Customs of an Earlier Age

Extending the Human Lifespan

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This post is wonkier than you usually find on TGB but I think it is remarkable that in a short period of time new research has shot down three venerable areas of longevity research – something that should be noted, I think, on a blog about aging. Maybe you will find it as interesting as I do.]

Rumors of fountains of youth go back as least as far as 500 BCE and the notion of eternal life is a staple of literature.

For many years, decades in fact, scientists have been spending millions of research dollars – make that billions over time – looking for a modern fountain of youth. One of the most well-known, Aubrey deGray, believes humans can be made to live for as long as 200 years.

Back in 2008, I was privileged to interview respected geriatrician Robert N. Butler, the man who coined the term “ageism” and who devoted his career to improving the lives and health of elders. I asked him about these research efforts:

RB: What is your view of Aubrey deGray and others who believe human life can be extended for up to 200 years. Is this a worthwhile goal?

RNB: I think the extravagant claims for longer life by people like deGray are questionable, indeed. We do know that it is increasingly likely that we will be able to slow aging while at the same time delay the onset of diseases. This means that we should devote new financial resources to understanding the basic biology of aging, but we should not get carried away.

Yes, indeedy and some are doing as the late Dr. Butler advised while others continue to follow in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon, as we shall see.

But first, here is a nifty little video posted late last year explaining some of the biology of aging (hint: we don't know much about it at all) and how lifespans might be increased.

Integrative Biologist Joao Pedro de Magalhaes is the narrator. It is produced by +Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD Comics) in partnership with the Integrative Genomics of Ageing Group at the University of Liverpool Liverpool.

Did you notice all the “probably” statements in that video? More interesting is the assertion that “we know” calorie restriction extends lifespans in rodents by 50 percent.

Uh, not so fast. Although you should go read the full report for more nuanced details, those claims for mouse caloric restriction as possibly applied to humans ran into contradictions two years ago:

”...there is a dearth of evidence that caloric restriction slows ageing in humans. Observational studies have found that people of average weight tend to live longest.

“Nir Barzilai, a gerontologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says that the centenarians he studies have led him to believe that genetics is more important than diet and lifestyle. 'They’re a chubby bunch,' he says.”

You might have caught a reference to resveratrol in the video. It is a compound that occurs in red wine, peanuts, some berries and dark chocolate which researchers have spent years hoping to show that it helps prevent cancers, heart disease and, most exciting to the researchers, extends lifespan.

As it turns out, however. probably not - as the journal JAMA Internal Medicine reported when it published the results of a study at Johns Hopkins partially funded by the U.S. National Institute of Aging:

"In conclusion, this prospective study of nearly 800 older community-dwelling adults shows no association between urinary resveratrol metabolites and longevity. This study suggests that dietary resveratrol from Western diets in community-dwelling older adults does not have a substantial influence on inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer or longevity."

And then there is the free radicals crowd who have long insisted that those molecules, also known as oxidents, should be avoided because they contribute to the aging process. Now, new research from McGill University in Canada reports just the opposite:

"People believe that free radicals are damaging and cause aging,” write the researchers, “but the so-called 'free radical theory of aging' is incorrect.

“We have turned this theory on its head by proving that free radical production increases during aging because free radicals actually combat - not cause - aging. In fact, in our model organism we can elevate free radical generation and thus induce a substantially longer life (of cells)."

This may have future application with neurodegenerative diseases.

The reason for most of the increase in life expectancy during the 20th century is a question of math: science reduced and/or eliminated many of the diseases of childhood so that fewer people died within the first year or two of life skewing the statistics and lifting the apparent life expectancy.

(As Wikipedia notes: “During the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.”)

For many years, some scientists have been hard at work to accomplish similar results with the diseases of age – that is, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, etc.

If preventions or cures cannot be found, the idea is to push the onset of those diseases into latest possible years of life. It would not necessarily add years to our lives but would improve the health and wellbeing of elders for longer. There has been some progress in that direction though not nearly enough.

That is why Dr. Butler called for more research into understanding the basic biology of aging. He said he had no reason to oppose work to increase longevity but he had reservations about it too.

In his 2008 book, The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life, he seemed conflicted, dismissing longevity research in one breath while also seeing some hope for the ancient, magical idea of the fountain of youth:

”What is at issue is quality of life, especially the interrelationships of population with societal and natural resources. Until we can do better, it is probably just as well if we do not have a breakthrough in longevity.

“Or, perhaps, were we to have a breakthrough, would we move faster in making adjustments?

“...Enthusiasts over the future of cell, tissue, and organ replacement imagine successive, comprehensive reconstitutions of the body. Replacement or regenerative medicine would push death back, presumably indefinitely.

“One must not doubt the possibility of the unexpected in science and uneven evolution of knowledge.”

Undoubtedly so. But for now, that kind of progress appears to be repeatedly thwarted.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Richard Wiesenthal: Simplicity


The only problem I have with living to 200 is, who is going to pay for it. I'm approaching 69 and most of my money has been spent on medical and living expenses. This is something we should think of before we create a race of "Super Seniors". As for now, I am not as concerned about how long I will live but how well will I live. What good is living to 90 or 100 if those years are spent in pain, misery or worse, not knowing where you are who who is around you.

I'm more interested in the quality of my late life than I am in extending it. What if I outlive my money, or worse yet my brain. Ack! I think we have other issues to solve first.

Let's find a way to cure Alzheimer's and other age-related dementias before we work on extending the lifespan.

What about the population of the Earth if they double the lifespan of elders? Can the Earth provide enough food for so many people? I fully agree that science should stop wasting time on increasing longevity and spend it on curing the debilitating diseases that increase with age. Quality, not quantity.

We seem to be on the cusp of both promising and terrifying events. Even without a significant extension of human life, the population of the earth is projected to increase by more than 25% in the next 30 years. And we keep hearing about the looming threat of inadequate water, food, unpolluted air and the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. I'm having difficulty reconciling all of this with the idea that greatly extended age would be a good thing. It simply does not compute.

As I've told anybody foolish enough to listen tome, "I don't care that much of living long but I do want to live well"
Now starting my eightieth summer, I cherish the health, strength and stamina that I still have and work to preserve it for as long as I can. Yet I can't help but notice how much all og these qualities have been reduced in the last decade. So I live, love and try to be happy every day that I live.

I'm glad Darlene and Cathy raised the issue of over-population because if they hadn't I would have. There are already too many of us for the planet to sustain and many of us who are alive today have already taken more than our fair share of its resources.

“Nir Barzilai, a gerontologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says that the centenarians he studies have led him to believe that genetics is more important than diet and lifestyle. 'They’re a chubby bunch,' he says.”

You can't imagine how pleased I was to hear this comment from Dr. Barzilai, because I am pleasingly plump myself.....

Why would anyone who was not quite wealthy want to live long past the time their money gave out? Many seniors at this moment are trying to balance paying the heating bill and eating. Many a senior at this moment is trying to deal with medical problems that will only get worse over time.
And the beat goes on.
Why would anyone want to live to a very, very old age unless they could be given a positive guarantee that they would not outlive their money, could maintain the best of health, and all their friends and loved old ones would not die and leave them alone.

An informed voice of reason is good to hear. It's impossible to keep up with all the research on the aging front. I'm disappointed chocolate isn't going to help me live longer but I'm going to enjoy it anyway. And I'm downright delighted that the caloric restriction promise isn't true because food is wonderful stuff. Most of all, it's a gift to all of us to read your post with it's sensible information. Thank you.

This post is excellent; I especially liked the "What is Aging" video.

In terms of the comments, I don't agree that over-
population, as predicted by Malthus, would be a concern if our life-span could be extended.

Birth rates have been dropping markedly in many countries in Central and South America. In the US, the birthrate has been just below replacement rate (although possibly it's increasing with demographic shifts).

Attempts to control population, such as China's one-child policy, has resulted in far too many male children. Presumably, female children were aborted or killed in infancy. The population is down, but the social impacts are disastrous.

My sister & I just buried our dear mother today at age 99. The last 2 years were awful even tho' she was clear almost to the very end. Aging is ok, but there comes a point when someone cannot do for themselves. Then it gets tricky. I'll spare the details, but the last 6 months were not good for mom or for us. And the indignity of it all is heartbreaking. Dee

A transfusion may be all we need to keep going.

The latest research (on mice, of course) involves blood transfusions - from young mice to old mice. Simple as that, and the elderly mice were youthful and frisky again.

I saw it in the N.Y. Times. Must be true.

There is no rationale for living longer if it is not matched with a quality of life that makes such endurance worthwhile, IMO.

I'm going to mess this up, but the story/plot of an old Japanese fairy tale goes something like this: A man wants to live forever. He's granted his wish and is whisked away to a far off island where nobody dies. The entire population is desperately trying to kill themselves - jumping off cliffs, ingesting poison, slitting their throats. But everything miraculously heals. If you've fallen, you just get up. All are trying to relieve the unrelenting boredom after thousands of years.

That's all I remember - and I'm sure I botched it a bit.

I wrote something similar but haven't 'published' it anywhere.


Got it. Now I need some coffee before I can think of anything else to say.


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A transfusion may be all we need to keep
The latest research (on mice, of course)
involves blood transfusions - from young
mice to old mice. Simple as that, and
the elderly mice were youthful and
frisky again.
I saw it in the N.Y. Times. Must be

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