May 16, 2010

UK: Ageing is good for us

LONDON, England / The Sunday Times / Comment / Columnists / May 16, 2010

How long do you want to live? Does the standard three score years and ten seem a bit mean? Would 80 be good, or 90? What about 100?

Or why not do a Methuselah and live for 969 years (you remember Methuselah, son of Enoch, grandfather of Noah; one of those mega-old codgers from the Old Testament). Maybe he was on something.

I know the idea that we could finally grasp dominion over death runs counter to the basic tenets of what it means to be human, but it may happen sooner than we think. Such life-prolonging power — okay, I admit, not as long as Methuselah — is now well within the bounds of scientific possibility.

Last week the world’s top ageing experts held a two-day conference at the Royal Society in London. The papers were pretty technical; insulin/IGF-1 signalling, rapamycin and ribosomal S6 kinase pathways, anyone? But beyond the baffling jargon lay a number of breakthroughs showing that the lifespan of many animals — from worms to mice — can be radically extended by making minute changes in single genes.

 “Slowing ageing might seem like an overwhelming challenge as the decline is so pervasive,” says Cynthia J. Kenyon of the University of California. “But when we extend the lifespans of laboratory animals, we do not have to combat individually all the problems of age, such as the declining muscles, the wrinkled skin and the mutant mitochondria. Instead, we just tweak a regulatory gene and the animal does the rest. In other words, animals have the latent potential to live much longer than they normally do.” And humans are no different.

In one amazing series of pictures, Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, shows how some people age much more slowly than others. At more than 100 years old, these genetic winners are playing bridge, driving cars, uncorking the wine, dating, even running companies. One slide showing a man and his son was particularly striking: they look about 70 and 45 respectively; but the older man is more than 100 and his son is 70. It reminded me of Aragorn, the hunky dark hero in The Lord of the Rings, who looks about 30 but turns out to be 88. (His gorgeous girlfriend, Arwen, is 2,700.) What is going on? Well, only 1 in 10,000 individuals lives to 100 in developed nations but there is a “remarkable family history of exceptional longevity in parents, siblings and offspring of centenarians” says Barzilai. This led him to start looking for “inherited protective factors that can assure a human’s longevity”.

The professor and his team have identified a number of genes in the group of super-oldies and their offspring that delay the onset of the diseases of old age: two of the genes cause the body to increase its production of cholesterol, the stuff that protects us from heart disease and strokes. The other gene controls insulin, which is linked to diabetes. Together these genes seem to be able to turn off the body’s ageing mechanism.

“When they eventually die, they die of the same things that people die of in their seventies or eighties. It’s just that they die 30 years later,” Barzilai says. Soon the rest of us might be able to join them. His team is already developing drugs that mimic the effect of the centenarians’ super genes; testing on humans could begin in 2012. He reckons that within five or 10 years people will take these pills at around 40 “and their lives will be longer”.

Is that really what we want? Cautionary tales about man’s quest for immortality are as old as humanity. Remember Eos, the rosy-fingered goddess of the dawn, with her unquenchable desire for handsome young mortal chaps. Her favourite was Tithonos, a Trojan prince, who became her consort and whom Eos loved so dearly that she beseeched Zeus, the king of the gods, to make him immortal. The wish was granted but Eos forgot to ask for Tithonos to be eternally youthful. Her lover became so shrivelled by old age that he turned into a grasshopper. I wouldn’t want to join him.

Yet Barzilai argues that his drugs would let us escape that fate. If you delay ageing itself, he explains, you also put off into the future age-related disease. If you can live to 100 in the body of a healthy 70-year-old, then why not? Age itself is the disease that must be treated, he argues. If ageing is reclassified as a disease then more drugs can be developed, like his, which will treat not just the symptoms of old age but also the actual process of ageing itself.

Do we really want to abolish old age scientifically? Being old in Britain can often be lonely and grim and, as my granny says, old age isn’t for sissies. But isn’t that kind of the point? Isn’t getting old and frail a fundamental part of the human experience, one of the great levellers, the touchstones that make us who we are? If, for those who can afford the new drugs, that slow decline to death can be eradicated, wouldn’t that fundamentally change what it means to be human?

Francis Fukuyama argued in his book Our Posthuman Future that biotechnology requires regulation because of its threat to alter human nature fundamentally, thereby undermining the ties of natural equality which define and bind us all. We already live in a world where life expectancy is massively influenced by the surroundings of our birth, where the rich eat better, live more healthily, have more effective medicine and therefore survive longer. Drugs like those Barzilai is developing might help some of us in the rich West to stay fit and active until we are well over 100.

I can hear all you baby boomers popping the champagne. Just imagine it: the golf course can beckon for the next 30 years. The Rolling Stones can go on wrinkly rocking until they are 105. Add a bit of Viagra to your death-defying super-pill and the party will never end.

Spare a thought for the rest of us. While I can see that a super-long, super-fit old age rounds off the gilded lives of that generation very nicely thank you, I can’t help thinking that those magic pills will only exacerbate the chronic inter-generational problems that are looming. The oldies are already bed-blocking the housing market and spending the kids’ inheritance — now they’ll be hanging on to their interesting jobs until they are 90 as well.

Today these developments still sound like the Brave New World of science fiction, but a decade hence they will be upon us and so will the problems that they spawn. [rc]

Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.