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, “which...is 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