The possibility of treating aging is not just an idle fantasy. By altering the genes of the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans, one can slow their aging. The result is that the worms live much longer and they remain youthful and healthy longer. The current record for enhancing C. elegans longevity is an astonishing tenfold increase in lifespan.
Dr. David Gems
I am at that age where age ceases to remain graffitied in the fine print of consciousness and assumes the graphic clamor of 24 point boldfaced Verdana. Any articles I happen upon that treat the topic of biogerontology—the science of aging—exert an irresistible allure, even ones that deal with lowly nematodes like C. elegans. It’s not that I fear aging, or suffer debilitating anxiety about it; rather, it angers me. I don’t like it. I consider senescence a corporeal insult and betrayal. I remain as I always have been: enchanted by the abracadabra of life, of living in the kinesthetic world of unending experiences, of sights and sounds, of savors and tangs that touch us into being. And while those experiences can abrade, they can more often rub us the right way. The Hayflick limit, that built-in restriction on the number of times a normal cell divides before it stops, strikes me as abjectly cruel. Quite simply, I resent that my body, the body that embodies experience, gradually and inexorably dysfunctions and deteriorates all the way down to the cellular and molecular levels. I take umbrage at the body’s truculence, its maddening disregard for what I want, its crassly insistent bullying to keep me trussed up within it. I take offense at its methodical unkiltering, its havocing declension.
I am not alone in this. Most of us, I suspect, are Ponce de Leoned. Myths from every culture have featured anti-aging stories of immortality, and most every religion has offered, and continues to offer, a vision of and a process for achieving it. One of the oldest written literary works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written more than 4,500 years ago, narrates on twelve cuneiform tablets a search for immortality. Poetic treatments of the afflictions of aging abound: William Butler Yeats does not fancy being “old and gray and full of sleep,/ And nodding by the fire,” nor does Mathew Arnold “It is to spend long days / And not once feel that we were ever young,” or Billy Collins “No wonder the moon in the window seems to have/ drifted/ out of a love poem that you used to know by/ heart.” William Wordsworth notes that nature “takes away/ Our playthings one by one.” Dylan Thomas counsels his father that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Donald Hall, with bitter irony, affirms “that it is fitting/and delicious to lose everything.” A lamenting Robert Frost observes that he “craved strong sweets, . . ./ when I was young;/ . . .Now no joy but lacks salt,/ That is not dashed with pain /And weariness and fault.”
The possibility of treating aging is not just an idle fantasy. By identifying genes that control aging rates, we can also learn about the underlying biology of aging. We can explore the aging-related processes that the genes influence. Many aging genes are associated with a nutrient-sensitive signalling network. Dampening the signals that this network transmits slows growth, increases resistance to stress and increases lifespan.
So, when a biogerontologist like David Gems offers scientific support suggesting that senescence is a treatable disease, I pay attention. I want my golden years to be aurific, to carbon-copy the “Late Ripeness” that Czeslaw Milosz experiences as he approaches 90: "I felt a door opening in me and I entered the clarity of early morning." I want to stand on the prow of the ship, arms open wide, and, even if I cannot proclaim myself “king of the world,” embrace the horizon.
Of course, I know full well that the jagged jostle of an iceberg will, eventually, breech the hull. I want that “eventually” to be more eventually than the current term limit, which the Bible sets at three score plus seven and attributes to a bit of Divine jealousy tempered with irony. After noting that Adam and Eve have “become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” God shows them the Garden door, convinced that humans will poach “from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” Still, Adam lived to be 930; his son Seth, 912; Seth’s son Enos, 905; and the record-setting Mathusale, 969. I do not wish to live that long. Just longer, a good bit longer, than three score and seven, and in good health, for the story of the unfortunate Trojan royal, Tithonus, lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn, depicts a ghastly denouement. Unaccountably, especially for a goddess, Eos neglects to include eternal youth as part of a packaged deal when she asks Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life. The dark and chilling result of that bit of absentmindedness surpasses even H. P. Lovecraft’s most morbid nightmare: "but when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all.”
No, I do not want arrested aging. I want decelerated aging. I want aging that exits the autobahn and hits a school zone. So it is that I read with avid interest about
Resveratrol: a substance found in the skin of red grapes, it has received much press for its anti-aging effects, which are controversial in animal studies and lack scientific validation in human studies. I’m inclined to think the high speed pursuit of resveratrol as an anti-aging elixir is being conducted in a clown car. Red wine sales, however, are booming.
Telomerase: an enzyme that reconstructs telomeres, a sheath at the end of DNA thought to be involved in cellular aging. Each time a cell divides, the telomere shortens, eventually disappears, and the cell, unable to divide, dies. If telomerase had a “like” button, it would be getting repeated clicks.
SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence): research into regenerative medical procedures to repair the damage caused by age-related diseases in the human body. Kind of like a periodic checking-under-the-hood body tune-up.
Cryonics: low-temperature preservation, irreversible at present but assumed to be possible in the future when medical advances will have discovered cures for currently incurable diseases. Ted Williams is cryonically preserved. In the movie “Forever Young” (1992), Mel Gibson was successfully revived. Perhaps, given his recent escapades, he needs a recooling.
Nanorobotics: the use of tiny medical robots injected into the bloodstream for search and destroy missions targeting life-threatening organisms. A health enforcement squad, discreetly undercover, rooting out the impediments to indefinite youthfulness.
And having broached the topic of medical machinery, special mention must be made of a version of transhumanism, which predicts that, due to exponential growth in computing power, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence around 2045, at which point it will be possible to transfer human consciousness into these HAL-ed up computers and live, forever and a day, in a virtual environment. Could there be a more viscerally appalling instance of Thoreau’s concern that we are becoming the tools of our tools? Beyond the moral and ethical issues such an upload would raise lies what looks to me to be a profound category mistake: transhumanists, in thrall to the quantitative, technical wonders of computer processing, do not appear to fully understand that the very thing we cherish in ourselves and others is the qualitative, the personal idiosyncracies and particularities, the singular and irreducibly unique individualizations that lattice our identities, the feelings and faults and needs and gratifications and graces and ingenuities and plunging sadnesses and seizing joys and exuberant ricochets of creative thinking that define us. The transhumanist idolatry of the machine is, for me anyway, haywired: it pulps, pauperizes, and degrades.
One aim of aging research is to develop drugs that can reproduce the effects of dietary restriction and also of genetic alterations that slow aging. One approach could be to use drug therapy to target the nutrient-sensitive pathways that regulate aging and that seem to mediate the effects of dietary restriction on aging. The ultimate goal would be a pill that one could take regularly from midlife onward.
Though scientific data has yet to confirm its ability to extend human life, calorie restriction (CR) has proven successful in rodent and nonhuman primate studies, in some instances extending life span by 40 %. Certainly, the 2000 members of the Calorie Restriction Society, who reduce their caloric intake anywhere from 25% to 40% of bodily requirements, believe in its promise. And because a CR diet consists mostly of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, it does have some healthful secondary benefits. CR does exact a price, however; its adherents lose their libido, are perpetually cold, and they look, well, cadaverous. It impresses me as an overly punitive way to live, exhausting in its continual self-policing vigilance and colossal denial of hunger, self-punishing in its implacable refusal of the unsayable but richly delightful yesness of anything sweet or buttery or rich, anything taste-bud dizzying, dazzling, dallying. If John Calvin, that steeping tea of admonishment, were a foodie, a CR diet would be the grim and gloomy result. Why, I wonder, purposefully, willfully, carry a dietary November in our hearts? How is it that a superimposed layer of calculability wholly displaces those moments of appetitive spontaneity and impulse that round out the fully-inhabited integrity of our selves, that give our lives a melody as well as a song, an accent as well as a language? How is it that we are willing to trade in our culinary party clothes for sackcloth and ashes?
So, yes, a pill to do the distasteful, untasteful, business of CR seems to me the best of all possible worlds. And in the meantime that stretches between now and that panglossian future, those beset by longevity concerns might do well to follow the common sense (CS) plan: eat genuine, and genuinely healthy food; get some regular exercise, no matter what as long as it gets and keeps you moving; set goals, ambitious ones, be conscientious in working toward them, and, when they are achieved, make them the means of further goals; love well, and immerse yourself in a variety of communities. The CS plan is not new, is decidedly unsexy, scientifically speaking, but it does declaw the galling scratch of age. It’s a sensible plan to adopt, until the nanobots are ready to roll.