A while back I read a book called Long for this world by Jonathan Weiner . It was about aging and how a lot of scientist think that here in the very near future science and technology will be able to extend life past the century mark and well beyond. There was one scientist, Aubrey DeGrey, that said he did not think it was impossible for humans to potentially live forever, he is leading the charge on human immortality. The book is a very interesting read and not too long so if you have any interest in the subject you should check it out. If nothing else it is a interesting read on how our bodies age and the science of aging itself.
The book talks about various theories about why we even age at all. Our bodies break down over time and basically become less and less efficient at repairing our own cells. So over time the accumulation of “garbage/junk” in our cells builds up, and our cells become less able to deal with this build up. The cycle is one of the reasons cancer is so prevalent in our society, among other things. This build up of junk can be battled with the help of what are called telomeres. Which are, and I am way out of my element here, basically a “nucleotide sequence” that helps protect the ends of chromosomes. When your cells replicate, from what I understand, the telomeres help protect the chromosomes from getting shorter and shorter. This can cause a problem for two reasons, if the ends of the chromosomes become frayed it can mess with the genetic information, and cause unwanted mutations, like cancer. Eventually the chromosomes in the cell will continue to get shorter and shorter, when they duplicate, until they are too short to duplicate and eventually die. So basically if you have really good telomeres you can drastically reduce your risk of cancer along with the aging process as they keep your chromosomes in the cell longer for a longer period of time. This will intern make your cells live longer, and as long as your cells are alive and continuing to function, you will do the same.
A lot of scientist and experts think this is one of the keys if not the key to living longer lives. As I stated above we know at the cellular level why we age, but the real question is will science in the future be able to either slow down that process enough, or eventually stop it all together. I say slow it enough so that science will eventually catch up and be able to keep prolonging and adding years onto your life. As far as the end of aging and death, I do not know if either of those will ever come to fruition. Honestly, I think we are at least 50 years away from where scientist will be able to say we can slow the aging process and now people can live well beyond 100. Maybe I am being too optimistic, I don’t know. There are a few animals that either do not age or are great at repairing the damage to their bodies as they go along, which is called “negligible senescence.” The Hydra, a microscopic organism has been studied very closely for this reason, it is great at repairing any damage that occurs to its tiny body. It seems to not experience the telomere shortening that humans do. One article I read also talked about how the Hydra spends almost none of its resources or energy on reproduction, but allocates all that energy on repairing. If we were able to change our programming and convert most of our energy to maintenance rather than reproduction that could also help us live longer.
The book makes another interesting point about breathing oxygen. It is the giver of life as far as we are concerned but oxygen is quite a destructive molecule. If you leave out a piece of metal exposed to the air oxygen will start to create a reddish brown crumbly material known as rust. Usually water is needed to facilitate this process but there is a small amount of water present in the air so additional water is not always needed. Oxygen is also responsible for the decay of foods left in the open. Think how quickly an apple will turn brown the next time you peel it, and then think that you are breathing in the gas that is responsible for that every second of every day. So how is it that we have evolved to breath in and survive off of such a destructive gas? Long for this World , makes a small claim that if we were able to circumvent the need to breathe oxygen we could prolong our lives. Oxygen while we need it to survive also slowly helps break down our cells, which is not a good thing.
Another article I read this morning was about a Supercentenarian (someone who is older than 110). They tested her blood and found something in it that helped replenish blood more efficiently than most people. Which would help to explain her age. In this same article they talked about taking stem cells from a new born you and injecting them in you as you age to slow the process. I think all of these factors will be able to prolong life in the near future.
So now comes the big question if in the near future scientist are able to extremely prolong your life, 100, 200, even 500 years, would you really want to live that long. My immediate answer would be a resounding yes. Why not? I would love to see the future and what it will bring. At the same time many scientist are afraid of the psychological affects prolonged life will have on humans. In Long for this World, they talk about that if you started with two elephants and one oak tree and neither the trees or the elephants could die, it would only take like 150 years for the elephants to be overpopulated and the oak trees to cover the entire earth. I am not sure of the exact numbers on that, but it was something similar and extreme. The point is would we as humans overpopulate ourselves if these medical advancements come to pass. In the book they make some interesting predictions like in today’s society it is pretty normal for most 25-30ish individuals to get married and start a family. Well if I knew I was going to live well beyond 150, I do not think I would be in a rush to do those things. The biological clock is ticking especially for women that want to start a family. So if you have an extra 60 or so years to play with you may not be in such a hurry to do some of those things. You would have more time to do well, pretty much everything before you decide to settle down. With that amount of time you would not have to sacrifice any aspect of your life.
I do not have any children of my own, but for those of you that do, is there something you wanted to do, or a dream that has either been put on hold or simply washed down the drain. I am by no means saying children are a burden, all I am saying is that unless you are extremely wealthy it is hard go and see it all and do it all before you go tits up especially with children. Like I said above if you had that extra 60 years or so you could do everything you wanted, the best of both worlds.
Another thing to think about is that if we could continuously prolong our live though science, whether through biological means or mechanical, how long could our planet support life and for that matter the universe? If we as humans, or some distant ancestor of ours, makes it to see the sun burn out what then? I would like to think that by that point technology will have enabled us to leave Earth and be on our merry way to another home. I also think that in the end biology is a dying science. It is my belief that biology will only be able to take us so far, that eventually we are going to need help from machines. In Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin he talks about how evolution has done the best it can with what it was given. When you analyze our bodies from a mechanical standpoint we are very poorly designed. In the book he goes on to name a few of the design flaws, but the a quote he said has always stuck with me. You can take a Volkswagen Beatle and add a upgraded steel frame, a new more efficient engine, new tires, updated electronics, basically a new everything, and at the end of the day you still have VW Beatle. That may not be the exact quote but it was something to that affect.
If we can keep our physical bodies alive for long enough, I believe we will eventually download our brains into a mechanical body that will be impervious to ageing, sickness, hunger, basically any and all aliments that would affect our frail biological bodies. The point will be the end of aging. If we make it to that point, and I am very skeptical, I think we will destroy ourselves way before then, the mechanical bodies will make it infinitely easier to explore and colonize the universe. There are way too many problems to overcome with taking a flesh and bone body across the galaxy.
Again let’s say we are able to leave our planet before the sun burns out and safely live somewhere else. Eventually the universe will come to an end, although we are not sure how, it will end no doubt. So basically if technology can keep us alive for that long then humans could potentially become immortal. When the universe ends I would like to think that these beings poses the technology to escape this universe and safely travel to a parallel universe and live there. If this is technology does not exist or if it is not possible then immortality is a fantasy. So just be happy with the time you have, never know when it may run out.