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Is aging optional?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on June 11, 2009

So asks an article appearing at The Daily Galaxy. It makes for an intriguing read over all, but I was left unimpressed with the substance of it. Sure, living to be 1,000 is quite appealing to many people, yours included. Surely we should not oppose any attempts to advance the scientific knowledge to the point where this becomes reality. If it can be done, why not try to do it, right?

Yes, but saying one idea is great, is quite different from saying that it is doable. The article talks about the guy who started this thing, Aubrey De Grey and the Methuselah Foundation which he set up to work on this. Here’s a quote from De Grey:

“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.”

Which is not wrong in principle, but sound like nothing more than wishing at this point. Sure if we had the technology to live to 1,000 we would live to 1,000, but that statement is redundant and does not add anything to the debate. We could say that for anything. If we had the technology to reanimate the dead, we could reanimate them! It is precisely because these “interventions” are lacking that many people are, rightfully so, skeptical about this idea of living to 1,000, especially if the number is chosen to be so high.

Now, I am not against any research in prolonging life, in fact, based on past history, I am quite confident that we could possibly double the life span to about 200 years in the future. That is the sort of confidence I have on science and medicine. Small, progressive improvements are quite probable in my opinion, if for nothing solely because we’ve been doing it for the last couple of centuries. But a 10 fold increase in life span is a lot. That is why this guy sounds a lot like a quack, or a genius so far ahead of his peers as to appear nuts.

So the question is, is this guy a nut or a genius? Practice has shown us that most likely than not he’s just nuts and the probability of him being a genius is very very low. But let us take a look at his foundation’s website to see if they have anything more substantial than simply “I want to live to be 1,000”.

The first thing I noticed while reading the Mission Statement of the foundation is that they do not make any outlandish claims. They do not claim to have the know how to make you live longer. They simply have made it their mission to spend all their time, money and energy in advancing the science to the point where the human life span could be extended considerably. That’s a worthwhile mission I think, even if it turns out to be a fruitless one.

A question with De Grey from the Learn More section also makes me feel good about this foundation and the motivations behind it:

What is the story of your commitment to life extension?

My commitment is about prevention and curing of diseases and reversing the internal physiological conditions that allow diseases to arise in the first place. If you examine the track history of cures since the civil war in the US, you’ll find that the greatest number of true cures have come from military research. I’m not speaking of treatments or therapies – I’m speaking of cures. The reason for this in my opinion is that the resources of the military are quite large, and the mission of the military (winning and keeping veteran care costs as low as possible) is quite different from commercial concerns whose key concern is to have a product requiring chronic dosing that creates trackable earnings for Wall St and their investors. So, in short, the incentives currently in the system do not produce cures. It’s literally too expensive for a company to cure anything. The pill to cover the cost of research, development and marketing would have to cost 6 figures each if you only needed to take one – ever.

I agree. A lack of interest in immediate profit is very likely to produce big results.

They seem to have a simple strategy. Near Term – provide support for the elderly now. Medium Term – Various prizes available for achieving specific goals with research on mouse longevity and rejuvenation. Long Term – providing support for three companies working in the research and development of long term life extension solutions.

Conclusion

The first quotation that the Daily Galaxy article gave us seems to be a little out of place in light of the actual foundation’s website. We know how cherry picking goes, and we also know that sometimes people get too exited and say stuff that can come accros the wrong way. So going back to my earier comment, I think De Grey is neither a nut nor a genius. He’s just a guy who feels pationately about this issue and is willing to do whatever he can to see it come to fruition. I respect that dedication.

Nevertheless, while I don’t think that we will reach 1,000 years in the lifetime of anyone able to read this post today, I think the mission of the Foundation is worthwhile and they appear to be going about it the right way, by trying to encourage novel research and by supporting other companies working on life extension solutions. They do not appear to be a quack company. They make no outlandish claims and are not selling any products. They are simply doing whatever they can to collect donations and use that money to stimulate research in an area they think is important. I am fine with that and wish them good luck, for humanity’s sake.

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2 Responses

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  1. Ben said, on June 12, 2009 at 1:36 AM

    Aubrey De Grey is no longer officially tied to the Methuselah Foundation, so their website can tell you little (if anything) about his approach. He founded the organisation, but earlier this year left to set up his own SENS Foundation, which you can learn about at http://www.sens.org. The MFoundation continues to support his work however – it was an in no way acrimonious split.

    Contrary to what you say, Aubrey absolutely does believe he has the know how to defeat aging. In fact, he has a very detailed proposal to do just that, potentially within the next few decades. I encourage you to look into it. He’s not nuts by any stretch, and the details of his SENS strategy (as you point out – the details are what’s important) are very compelling. It’s all spelled out at the website and in his book ‘Ending Aging’ which he published in ’07.

    You might be surprised by how many people oppose this kind of work, not because they think success is unlikely, but rather because they are in favour of aging as a natural, beneficial process. I agree with Aubrey. Aging kills 100 000 people every day, many after prolonged periods of immense suffering. Society should want to do something about it, and fast. …It’s an ongoing national health emergency. The sooner we get to work, the sooner we win.

    • Skepdude said, on June 12, 2009 at 4:32 PM

      You are correct. De Grey has set up SENS. I looked at their website and I stick by what I said in my entry. They do not seem like quacks of any kind…not yet. I don’t see them trying to sell any product claiming to be able to prolong life. So far from what I can tell they are just a bunch of people investing time in looking at these different approaches, and I’m all for that. Research even in the most unbelievable areas is what moves science and our knowledge forward and it takes someone believing in the unbelievable to make that leap. Contrary to what many people may think, we the skeptics are not against that sort of research at all. We are against unsubstantiated claims not against a desire to research the amazing and unbelievable stuff.


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