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How to live forever

BBC Future How to live forever


But why do we age at all? “Every day we suffer damage and don’t perfectly repair it,” explains Vaupel, “and this accumulation of unrepaired damage is what causes age-related disease.” It’s not a trait that is shared by all living organisms. Hydra for example – a group of simple, jellyfish-like creatures – are able to repair almost all the damage they suffer, and readily slough cells that are too injured to heal. In humans, it’s damaged cells like these that can give rise to cancerous tumours.

“Hydras allocate resources primarily toward repair, rather than reproduction,” says Vaupel. “Humans, by contrast, primarily direct resources toward reproduction, it’s a different survival strategy at a species level.” Humans may live fast and die young, but our prodigious fertility allows us to overcome these high mortality rates. Now that infant mortality is so low, there’s really no need to channel so many resources into reproduction, says Vaupel. “The trick is to up-regulate repair instead of diverting that energy into getting fat. In theory that should be possible, though nobody has any idea about how to do it.” If the steady accretion of damage to our cells can be arrested – so-called negligible senescence – then perhaps we won’t have an upper age limit. If that’s the case, there isn’t any reason why we should have to die at all.

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What was true in 1797 still applies today:

On the Art of Prolonging Life was penned by a Dr Huseland (“one of the soundest minds in Germany”) in 1797, concluding eight years of study on the topic. He identified among the many factors associated with long life: a moderate diet that was rich in vegetables and short on meat and sweetened pastries; an active lifestyle; good care of your teeth; weekly bathing in lukewarm water with soap; good sleep; clean air; and being born to parents who themselves lived long lives. Toward the end of his essay, translated for the American Review, the doctor wistfully speculated that “human life may be prolonged to double the extent of what is supposed to be its present limits, without losing activity and usefulness.”

To that we add: FLOSS and WEAR SUNSCREEN.

The key to living longer is to have parents who live longer. And medicine. And money.

Worldwide, the number of centenarians – people over the age of 100 – is predicted to increase 10-fold between 2010 and 2050. As Huseland testified, a strong component in whether you’ll live to see this milestone lies in the age of your parents; that is, there is a genetic component to long life. But the rise in centenarians can’t be explained by genetics alone, which clearly haven’t changed much in the last couple of centuries. Rather, it’s a host of improvements to our lives that cumulatively improve our chances of living longer and stronger, many of which echo the factors identified by Huseland. The reasons include better healthcare, improving medical treatments, public health measures like cleaner water and air, better education, and improved standards of living such as houses that are warm and dry. “Mostly it’s down to having more medicine and money,” says Vaupel.

Related to the Singularity are telomeres and negligible senescence:

One focus for technological intervention are telomeres. These caps on chromosomes shorten every time your cells divide, putting a hard limit on the number of times your cells can reproduce themselves. Not all animals experience this telomere shortening, the hydra being one of them. However, there are good reasons to have these limitations in place. Occasional mutations can allow cells to divide without shortening their telomeres, giving rise to “immortal” cell lines. However, in an uncontrolled situation, these immortal cells would be very bad news for the person they are in, bloating into cancerous tumours.

“One hundred and fifty thousand people in the world die each day, two thirds of those die from causes related to senescence,” Stolyarov tells me. “So even if we can hasten the arrival of these technologies to achieve negligible senescence by one day, we will have saved a hundred thousand lives.” The author quotes geronotology theoretician Aubrey de Grey – something of a celebrity in the world of life extension – as stating that there is a 50% chance of achieving negligible senescence in the next 25 years. “There’s a good chance that it will happen in our lifetimes, before we experience the most deleterious effects of senescence,” says Stolyarov.

“Achieving negligible human senescence in 25 years is possible,” says Vaupel, “but highly unlikely.” He concedes that it might be possible to rapidly accelerate life expectancy through medical breakthroughs. But he warns that equally, there may be difficulties in the future that we don’t anticipate. “Disease, economic crisis, and climate change might cause increases in mortality,” he says.

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