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An Old Woman's “Runner's High”

Is a Breakthrough in Longevity at Hand?

At least as early as Herodotus's era in the 5th century BCE, there have been tales of a fountain of youth. If only we could find it.

Now there is a group of scientists who are convinced they are tantalizingly close to doing so or, at least, slowing down aging enough that mankind would have many more years of healthy life than we have now.

...we have a really solid science,” says one of those researchers, “ uncovering mechanisms which modulate aging. We know it is possible, at least in mice, and so that means it should be possible in humans if we put our minds to it...

“Enough advances have been made in aging science to lead us to believe it is plausible, it's possible, it's been done for other species and there's every reason to believe it can be done for us.”

The National Geographic Channel is currently broadcasting a six-part documentary series titled “Breakthroughs,” each one of the six individual episodes exploring remarkable scientific discoveries. There is one on brain science, another about water, along with energy, pandemics, cyborg technology and – smack, dab in my public bailiwick of interest – longevity.

The quotation above is from that episode, The Age of Aging, which is directed and narrated by a person National Geo identifies as a “Hollywood visionary” - in this case, actor/director Ron Howard. Here he is describing his longevity documentary:

The program shows us half a dozen or so research projects that mostly share the goal of making us less sick at the end of life. One of the scientists, S. Jay Olshansky, labels their discoveries “a public health revolution.” He says there is now proof that the aging process can be modified so that humans can have a longer and healthier old age.

One of the projects has been studying certain centenarians who apparently carry a gene mutation that allows them to age more slowly than the rest of us in spite of some poor health habits. Here is a clip about that from the show:

Other researchers are working on designing medications that can disrupt the effects of aging.

For the past hundred years or so, we have been relatively successful in treating such diseases as influenza, tuberculosis and a few others. Science has not been as successful with the “big” diseases – cancer, heart attack, stroke, dementia, etc. But if instead, as Olshansky explains, aging itself can be slowed, all those diseases can be delayed simultaneously.

The idea is to create drugs that interrupt the aging processes and they have shown this to be possible in mice. Now the scientists are ready for human trials and the only barrier to that is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which traditionally has not seen aging as something that can be addressed with drugs.

To try to get the FDA on board to approve the trials they want, the researchers have enlisted the help of Senator Claire McCaskill who heads the Senate Committee on Aging and she has become an enthusiastic supporter, easily seeing the economic advantages to individuals, to the nation and to the government.

It is understandable how giddy the researchers are shown to be. In the history of the world, this is the closest anyone has gotten to a fountain of youth and if they are on the right track, the results will truly be revolutionary.

However, as breathtaking as the possibility is, there is nary a mention in the entire hour of the problems that became apparent to me immediately – issues at least as important as the discoveries themselves.

Who will get these drugs? Who will decide who gets them? What will the criteria be? What will they cost? And the biggest question of all?

There are already more people than planet Earth can sustain and nothing is being done to curb further growth.

It is one thing to bestow on humanity the miracle of a predictably healthy old age and I welcome it. But it is quite another to further increase the population of Earth by extending healthy life spans (of everyone? for how else could it be decided?) beyond current limits. This is anything but a trivial consideration and no one, not a single person in this documentary, mentions it.

Even if the "population bomb" it would create were not terrifying enough, I haven't even gotten to the difficulty we discussed here last week about the widespread ageist contradiction of shoving people out of the workforce before their time while simultaneously delaying retirement benefits.

These are only a few of the important questions for what is a potentially world-changing event. The Age of Aging will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, 29 November at 9PM eastern, 8PM central time. It is definitely worth your time.

Hat tip to Chuck Nyren who blogs these days at Huffington Post


While I find the science behind these hypothesized changes (I hesitate to refer to them all as "advances") sort of morbidly fascinating, I share your questions and concerns about the implications that are largely left unaddressed. I think we know who would get most of the benefits -- the same people who have the means and clout to get the benefits of whatever improvements are available.

I love the idea of easing the aging process, cognitively and physically, but all those other things that need to be considered are so daunting. It seems that we may not be looking for a single gene mutation, but several things that converge in an individual. Some of this is already at play, through the things you mention, including the means to overcome many diseases and conditions, yet the average age of death is not much beyond what it's been for decades. Research on telomeres has been conducted for some time now, but answers still seem pretty evasive, and maybe for good reason. I'm not sure Mother Nature and the Earth would appreciate hosting billions more people (and with China's recent relaxation of its one child policy and rapid economic changes, this could happen much sooner rather than later), with each generation in pursuit of a better lifestyle. It seems to me that quite a mess has been created in this pursuit of more grandiose styles of living for the past 50-60 years, even with the limited number of developed countries involved. I'm not sure I would look forward to sticking around for another 35+ years to see how this all plays out. But then again, ask me a few more years down the road and I may have had a change of heart.

Bill Thomas speaks really well to this in his truly excellent book 'Second Wind.' For those who haven't read it, he divides old people into three groups - the Denialists, the Realists and the Enthusiasts. An anti-aging pill is, of course, the Denialists' wet dream. (And Big Pharma's also!!)

I'm in favor of easing the aging process, though not necessarily the life span beyond 100. I share the same concerns of Ronni and Cathy about cluttering up the earth even further. As it stands at the moment, earth's future is not too rosy, and I for one would not want to be around in a world ravaged by climate change, with its subsequent famines, floods, and wars.

I'm thinking this will be available only to the very very wealthy - and won't they be in for a rude awakening as the planet continues to suffer and die...

I'm always amazed at the headlines and research regarding the future as if the world as it currently exists will continue to exist as is. The weather patterns we're seeing in this century are very different than just 20 years ago...

I would have exactly the same questions and hesitations. There is simply no way the planet can accommodate hundreds of thousands or millions more people living into their 100s+. And how would these millions support themselves (or be supported)? If humans could remain relatively healthy into normal old age, now THAT would be a breakthrough. My dream is to enjoy decent health until I suddenly drop dead sometime in my 90s.

Simultaneously with opposing right-to-die legislation, the ultra-conservative Religious Right is making every effort to ensure that women are returned to the barefoot-and-pregnant days of yore by attacking and closing down Planned Parenthood clinics wherever they can. Millions of dollars are spent to "save" the unborn. (Unfortunately, the RR's "compassion" does not extend to the millions of existing children living in poverty.) Additional millions are spent on heroic medical measures to save extremely premature babies, most of whom will be profoundly disabled for life. Meanwhile. . .

I agree with Susan about changing weather patterns over the past 20 years. Accelerating climate change may well render any longevity "breakthroughs" totally irrelevant, and there does not seem to be the political will anywhere on the globe to address this looming worldwide catastrophe. Again, many thanks to the RR, in our country anyway--many are climate change deniers.

The Republicans are already using the fact (?) that we are living longer to create a bogyman about the viability of Social Security. I would guess that Social Security would be on the chopping block if the elders were living longer.

With the advances in technology, jobs are scarce now for the people who made their living in the machine age. Where would those healthy elders find work? It is a nightmare and a disaster waiting to happen.

Maybe by destroying the planet while increasing the population we are creating our own doom. Remember what Pogo said.

I'd barely begun reading before I started thinking that I'd first want my remaining years to be healthier. I'd want not more years, but better health throughout my allotted years. Quality of life more than quantity of life. Then, in considering more years, my thought was "but how would I afford to live that much longer?" We'd need to be allowed to work longer, to earn more benefits that would sustain us, and to be considered "old" not at 55 or 65 but at 75 or 80 or later. Science can make its advances, but they can't come in a vacuum. Society will have to advance, too.

Oh man! I see visions of Soylent Green in our future if this discovery becomes a reality.

Google's formation of a company (Calico) to take on the question of longevity and aging shows how serious people are about this. I do hope that Google, and all the others that are researching the problem will consider the sociological effects of a world filled with very old individuals. How can this be successful without having some method of population control (i.e. China's one child policy) which doesn't always work out. Sometimes it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

I'm on my way to Dunkin' Donuts to interact with the environment.

What Darlene said..... This Crabby Old Skeptic sees a group fishing for TV $ and making Big Pharma salivate. Sure, I'd like to dump all the s*** I've collected as I approach 80 but who will step aside for my grands and great grands so they can work? And will there be a world worth living in for them? Will they want to pay taxes to keep a bunch of old people going? Ha! We don't need this kind of research, when the benefits of which, if any, will only come to the 1%. We need to figure out how to stop CO2's accumulation and how to get people to stop having so many babies. (Full disclosure: I have 4 kids and 14 grands. Sorry World. Catholic once.). Lots o' luck, World. And hang in there FDA, I say.

Fascinating topic...those of us with long-lived parents (father lived to 94 but with some dementia at age 92) can assume we have 'good' genes for living into old age - but even more important is diet and exercise. We are not our genes...I am always amazed to read the obits and find people younger than I am listed there.

Did Pogo say, "I have met the enemy, and he is us" ? I remember my mother quoting this, but even though I was an avid reader of the comic strips, I do not think I would remember if not for mother's interest - and I am soon to be 76.

Maybe I'm a denialist; but I think is great news, and am rooting for these scientists. I think we are smart enuf. to accommodate more older people, and besides, things ARE being done to curb future growth. The developed nations in Europe, as well as Japan, are not producing enuf people to replace their populations; and the U. S. wouldn't be either were it not for immigration. Sure there are some issues, such as agism, but over time people do change their attitudes and their prejudices.

Tom I hate to disagree - but I will - we are definitely NOT smart enough - although some areas of the world have diminishing populations that is actually a small proportion of the world population.
The ethical questions are enormous - sure we would all like to live a healthier old age - no aches and pains would be such a blessing - but - and there is always a but - these buts are almost endless.

"Is a Breakthrough in Longevity at Hand?"

Not for me and probably not for thee, Ronni.

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