The cracks in time are getting wider.

Just before a heroic task, Valeria says to Conan, “Do you want to live forever?”

Valeria in Conan the Barbarian
Valeria in Conan the Barbarian

In the midst of the battle of Belleau Wood, June 6, 1918, Sergeant Major Dan Daly admonished his cowering troops, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” (Rosofsky)

Well, my Mayan calendar developed a number of cracks over the holidays and steam is issuing forth from them but we are still here. Oh, right, the world does not end until December 21, 2012. So, we have an opportunity to reflect on the time we have left.

What are our expectations for life? Do we fear dying? Do we want to live forever?

Well, here is one viewpoint. “Aubrey de Grey, British researcher on aging, claims he has drawn a roadmap to defeat biological aging. He provocatively proposes that the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born. … de Grey challenges the most basic assumption underlying the human condition — that aging is inevitable. He argues instead that aging is a disease — one that can be cured if it’s approached as ‘an engineering problem.'” (TED)

“He has ‘seven deadly things’ that erode the body’s youthfulness at the cellular level, eventually leading to death by old age.

  1. Cell death and atrophy: Treatable with exercise, stem cells, and chemicals which stimulate cell division.
  2. Cancerous cells: Theoretically treatable with a type of gene therapy being developed, called Whole-body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres (WILT).
  3. Mutant mitochondria: Mutated DNA in the mitochondria causes a number of diseases. These can be prevented by moving the mitochondrial DNA into the cell nucleus, where the rest of the DNA resides.
  4. Cell senescence (unwanted cells): Fat cells and other unwanted cruft can be removed surgically, or by stimulating the immune system to attack unwanted cells.
  5. Extracellular crosslinks (loss of elasticity): Certain proteins, such as those in cells making up the arteries, become too rigid over time because they bond to each other. These bonds can be broken with certain chemicals (some in clinical trials even today).
  6. Extracellular junk: ‘Plaque’ which collects between cells can be eliminated by stimulating the immune system, and/or by using peptides called ‘beta-breakers.’
  7. Intracellular junk: Molecular garbage can be prevented from overwhelming certain cells by introducing enzymes which are known to be effective against such molecules.” (Bellows)

The ideas presented by de Grey are controversial and unproven however they have generated lively discussion and “… we might charitably say that de Grey’s proposals exist in a kind of antechamber of science, where they wait (possibly in vain) for independent verification.” (Pontin)

There are tricky aspects to living longer. When you change one thing something else is also affected. Aging researcher, Steven Austad says, “The longest-lived mice are dwarf mice that live 75 percent longer when given a calorie-restricted diet in a controlled environment. If you put those same mice out in the fields around my building, they wouldn’t last a day. In laboratory conditions, they live longer, but in the real world, they wouldn’t stand a chance. All the life extending genes investigated in detail have turned out to manifest side effects. As we move toward the development of interventions in the aging process in the not-too-distant future, we must not forget this.” (Rosofsky)

Rosofsky goes on to say, “All this reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun in which we enter Solaria, a society where humans live for centuries. But they are so paranoically self-protective they are all recluses surrounded only by subservient robots. The idea of ‘seeing’ someone in the flesh rather than simply ‘viewing’ them on a video screen fills them with dread. They are quite unable to survive contact with others outside of their protective cocoons.”

Ah well. Perhaps living forever won’t work out. Still, would we want to live forever? Maybe we don’t get a choice? That Mayan calendar seems to be puffing black smoke now and there is a faint glow in the cracks.

References and Resources

Bellows, A. Do You Want to Live Forever? Damn Interesting Blog, October 2005.

Conan the Barbarian, Universal Pictures, 1982.

Pontin, J. Is Defeating Aging Only a Dream? Technology Review, July 2006.

Rosofsky, I. Adventures in Old Age: Do You Want To Live Forever? Psychology Today, 1-28-2009

TED Speakers – Aubrey de Grey: Seeker of Immortality. TED, Octover 2006.