The curious case of ageing: why would we want to live forever?
Sarah Berry | AAP | May 2 2017
We're living twice as long as we were a century ago, but for many it's not enough. Quite a few of us wouldn't mind tacking on a couple more decades to hit our own century. Quite a few more wouldn't mind batting a couple of centuries into the ball park of life or, to end ageing forever.
Those of us who don't aspire to live to 100, like Dr Ezekiel Emanuel who wrote that he hopes to die at 75, are considered insane and ungrateful by some.
Ageing is a curious thing and our desire to beat it – and death – is set to become a $190 billion dollar industry.
None perhaps find it more curious than Dr Leonard Hayflick, the renowned microbiologist who discovered the "Hayflick limit" and who was a founding member of the National Institute of Ageing in the United States. Hayflick, who was in Australia last week to speak at a conference on the biology of ageing at the University of Sydney. "The interest has developed from the mid-1960s until today for reasons that are rather obscure."
Despite the huge investment into funding research, ageing too remains somewhat obscure, although there are certain things researchers do understand.
They know that women tend to have longer life-spans, living on average six years longer than men.
"We don't really know the reason for that, although the speculation centres around the idea that women are more capable of surviving or handling pathology than men," Hayflick explains from his Sydney hotel room. "For virtually every pathology the effects are greater on men than they are on women."
Some suggest that women's immune systems benefit from their tendency to prioritise and nurture social connections, but Hayflick says the explanation is unclear.
Researchers also know, to an extent, what causes ageing.
"I got into this field by accident – literally screaming and yelling," Hayflick recalls. "I overturned a belief that was held in biology for 60 years – that was that when you put cells in culture they will continue to divide forever. I discovered that was wrong – that cells that are capable of dividing forever are cancer cells and that normal human cells have a limited replicative ability.
"It's since turned out that my phenomenological finding [the "Hayflick limit"], in which I also found that older people's cells divided a fewer number of times than those of younger people ... [is explained by] the observation that telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes, become shorter and shorter at each division and when they reach a sufficiently short length the signal sent to the rest of the chromosome tells the cells to stop dividing."
To an extent, we can slow the shortening of the telomeres through nutrition, exercise, good sleep and even meditation and marriage. But, we cannot stop the ageing process.
And researchers are yet to answer the ultimate question of ageing, which according to Hayflick, is "why do things ultimately go to pieces"?
In his opinion, part of the reason we don't yet have an answer is because many researchers are looking in the wrong place.
"There's a serious problem among decision-makers in my country believing that the resolution of age-associated disease will tell us something fundamental about the ageing process and that's completely wrong," Hayflick argues.
"For example, when we eliminated diseases of childhood ... it did not give us any insight into childhood development. In the same way, the wrong idea that the resolution of age-associated disease like cardiovascular disease and stroke will tell us something about ageing is nonsense. It will not and it has not.
"If you waved a magic wand and eliminated the major causes of death in this country the increase in life expectation – which is about 82 – the maximum that could be achieved is about 92. Even resolution of the major causes of death on death certificates in this country would not result in an understanding of ageing. It would simply allow for the expression of ageing to continue – just as someone who suffers from cancer or cardiovascular disease in mid-life, in their 40s and 50s, the ageing process is not affected – it continues."
Instead of focusing solely on age-related disease, he believes homing in on a molecular level may provide more answers.
"We need to ask questions like this: why are old cells more likely to age than a young cell? What's the difference between a young and an old cell?"
And whether we want to stop the ageing process altogether is another question to which there does not appear to be a clear answer.
Earlier this year, researchers from Harvard and the University of NSW took a step towards developing an anti-ageing drug that, they say, could help astronauts make it to Mars. Others plan on freezing themselves along with instructions to reawaken them when (and if) the science of immortality is understood.
"The quest to live forever, or to live for great expanses of time, has always been part of the human spirit," Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Centre for Ethics told TIME recently. "The thing that is most difficult and inscrutable to us as mortal beings is the fact of our own death. We don't understand it, we don't get it, and as meaning-laden beings, we can't fathom what it means to not exist."
For his part, Dr Emanuel has peace with his mortality.
"I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive," he wrote, adding that people may live more years, but fewer free of disease. "Health care hasn't slowed the ageing process so much as the dying process ... Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime."
There are also ethical arguments against tampering with the ageing process, Hayflick says.
"For example if you were able to stop the ageing process, prevent it from occurring, slowing it down, the likelihood that you would have a pill that would do that – the probability is high that the people that would be first to benefit from that would be the rich and the famous and the powerful and, I don't know about your view of life, but my view of life is that that wouldn't be of any benefit," he says.
"Especially because it could involve increasing the life of tyrants, of antisocial people – many of whom could afford the treatment which is likely to be very costly at first – rather than people who are less wealthy. That is one argument against it.
"And also the probability of being able to tamper with the ageing process is, in my judgment and I'm not alone in believing this, is next to zero. It is doubtful that we would be able to interfere with that process."
But, as curious as ageing and the desire to live forever may be, the human spirit is more curious still, for Hayflick – among many others – still want to understand its secrets.