Will It Ever Be Possible To Live Forever?

By on September 1, 2011

By Barbara Hannah Grufferman –

“On Borrowed Time” is a movie that left an indelible impression on me. I was seven years old when I watched it the first time. The premise is simple: Death (in the form of Mr. Brink) is stuck in an apple tree by wheelchair-bound Gramps, whom Mr. Brink has come for.

Not yet ready to die, Gramps (whose main concern is his orphaned grandson, Pud) fools Death into going into the tree, where he must stay until Gramps says it’s okay to come down. Eventually Gramps realizes that the world needs Death as much as it needs life, and lets Mr. Brink out of the apple tree. I’m sure you can figure out what happens next in this 1939 “tear-jerker fable with a social message.”

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The movie popped into my head this morning while reading a front page story in The New York Times about a new drug that can “substantially extend the average life span of obese mice” and which has interesting and very real applications for humans.

The article — Longer Lives for Obese Mice, With Hope for Humans of All Sizes” — states:

  • The drug, SRT-1720, protects the mice from the usual diseases of obesity by reducing the amount of fat in the liver and increasing sensitivity to insulin. These and other positive health effects enable the obese mice to live 44 percent longer, on average, than obese mice that did not receive the drug, according to a team of researchers led by Rafael de Cabo, a gerontologist at the National Institute on Aging.

Dr. de Cabo and his team aren’t the only scientists trying to figure out how to dramatically extend human life. In fact, it’s big business. Cambridge University researcher Aubrey de Grey, who is a darling of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, wrote last year:

  • It’s a repair and maintenance approach to extending the functional life span of a human body. It’s just like maintaining the functional life span of a classic car, or a house. We know — because people do it — that there is no limit to how long you can do that. Once you have a sufficiently comprehensive panel of interventions to get rid of damage and maintain these things, then, they can last indefinitely. The only reason we don’t see that in the human body now is that the panel of interventions we have available to us today is not sufficiently comprehensive.

De Grey, who started his career in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, is hard at work trying to discover the fountain of youth that will extend our lives. There are even indications that future research will wield drugs that might allow us to live centuries longer, possibly forever. Many well-known entrepreneurs have already invested in him and his research, even though, in the words of Nathan Myhrvold:

  • This is not to say that de Grey has proven his case. He hasn’t — and admits that upfront. All of science rests on ideas that were either unproven hypotheses or crazy speculations at one point. The sad reality is that most crazy speculations fail. We do not know today how to be forever young for 1,000 years, and I am deeply skeptical that we will figure it out in time for me!

But, all through the history of ideas and inventions, most have started out being considered “crazy” and from the minds of “mad scientists.”

The real question is not if, but when. With the advancements in molecular biology — which seems to be where the true key lies — and biotechnology, it is clearly inevitable.

De Grey’s version of the future is where everyone can stay perpetually healthy and young through a combination of innovative longevity sciences, which he believes could be a more affordable alternative to caring for those who are elderly, sick and frail. He has nothing against elderly people. He just thinks people should have the option to avoid aging and death if they want to.

He even thought through the career implications of substantial life extension:

  • Another thing that’s going to have to change completely is retirement. For the moment, when you retire, you retire forever. We’re sorry for old people because they’re going downhill. There will be no real moral or sociological requirement to do that. Sure, there is going to be a need for Social Security as a safety net just as there is now. But retirement will be a periodic thing. You’ll be a journalist for 40 years or whatever and then you’ll be sick of it and you’ll retire on your savings or on a state pension, depending on what the system is. So after 20 years, golf will have lost its novelty value, and you’ll want to do something else with your life. You’ll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on.

Sounds good. I think.

There’s a flip side to the debate, however. In Oscar Wilde’s cautionary tale, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the main character barters his soul for eternal youth but becomes wicked and immoral in the process.

University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, a longtime critic of life-extension research and cloning, believes humanity risks striking a similar Faustian bargain if it pursues technology that extends life spans beyond what is natural.

Kass believes that if our species ever does unlock the secrets of aging and learns to live forever, we might not lose our souls, but, like Dorian, we might no longer be human either. For Kass, to argue that life is better without death is to argue “that human life would be better being something other than human.

There are many other opponents to life extension but who believe that Kass goes too far with his views, feeling that even if we were to live double, triple or longer a typical life span, we would still be human.

The real key to all of this is funding. Many experts argue that aging must be viewed as a disease, not just a process. If aging is seen as a disease, it changes how we respond to it. For example, it becomes the duty of doctors to treat it,” said David Gems, a biogerontologist who spoke at a conference on aging in London last year.

Apparently in the world of pharmaceuticals, funding for developing new drugs is more easily acquired if it’s tied to specific diseases, not to something as general as aging. So, it makes sense that researchers, in order to get necessary funding, are working very hard to convince us that aging is, in fact, a disease — a disease that needs to be cured.

The prospect of living longer is, of course, intriguing. But, there are so many moral, ethical and social issues that beg to be considered, starting with: would everyone have access to this magic drug, or would we be creating an entirely new class system based on the game of “who can live longer?” And if our economy is already financially strapped to the point where our government is cutting back social services across the board, will we able to support a population that is growing and living longer?

Until this is all a reality, I’ll keep doing exactly what I have been doing to make sure I age with grace, dignity and health, which includes moving my body every day, eating well and not too much, keeping connected to friends and family, staying engaged with the world and having a good laugh at least once a day. And, I’ll take the advice from Facebook friend, Julianne Franklin Tutko, who shared her thoughts with me:

I think the fear of aging is the disease which needs the cure.

There’s a scene in “On Borrowed Time” where Mr. Brink is up in the apple tree, unable to come down until Gramps says he can. Far from evil, Mr. Brink delivers his most memorable lines, filled with wisdom we can all learn from. Enjoy …

(Add Video here, code:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=k191m7jrmOQ)

About Barbara Hannah Grufferman

Barbara Hannah Grufferman is a writer, speaker, and author of The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money and More, the best-selling resource book for women in midlife and beyond. Barbara appears frequently on national television, and has a weekly column on the Huffington Post, focusing on women’s issues. To learn more, please go to http://bestofeverythingafter50.com/.

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Will It Ever Be Possible To Live Forever?