Back to Methuselah

This is an excerpt from The New Old: How the Boomers Are Changing Everything… Again (ECW Press 2008) by David Cravit.

As with so many other phases of their lives, Baby Boomers — or what we call Zoomers — have once again struck it lucky. Their mental attitude was always that the music must never stop, and now, just in time for it to matter, along comes longevity that previous generations couldn’t have imagined.

In Canada, the USA and the UK , life expectancy at birth was under 50 in 1900; a century later, it was about 80. So life expectancy at birth jumped almost 60 per cent in the 20th century — an incredible advance never seen before.

But life expectancy at birth is only part of the story. The average is dragged down, obviously, by all the people who die young. What’s the outlook if you make it to 65?

In 1900, those over the age of 65 represented just 4.1 per cent of the US population, and could look forward to an average of 12 more years. In 2000, they represented 12.4 per cent of the US population, and could look forward to 18 more years, on average — a 50 per cent increase from 1900.

Similar patterns apply in Canada and the UK — 11 more years of life for a 65 year old in 1900; about 18 more years today… and rising fast.

And all these numbers, of course, are averages. A significant number of people will exceed those averages. For a married couple who are both 65 today, there’s a 50 per cent chance that one of them will reach the age of 92.

Why are we living longer?

There are solid reasons for the increased longevity in the USA , Canada and most of Western Europe — reasons that go deeper than the “forever young” attitude of Zoomers.

As the Centers for Disease Control has documented, the 20th century saw steady decreases in the number of deaths from stroke and heart attacks, particularly after World War II. The dramatic improvements were due to many factors, including:

— Successful public health campaigns to reduce smoking

— A decrease in mean blood pressures, and an increase in the number of people with hypertension who had the condition treated and controlled

— Improvements in diet, including decreases in the consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol

— Continuing improvements in medical care, including advances in diagnosis and treatment of heart disease and stroke, better medications, improved emergency room services, more coronary care units.

The same observations could be made about cancer — healthier habits, better diagnosis, improved medical care and, in particular, breakthroughs in drug therapy, have all contributed to a consistent lowering of the death rates

So even if Zoomers weren’t obsessed with staying young, the overall “health environment” is giving them more years. And the rate of that increase shows no signs of slowing down, especially given the potential of gene therapy and other medical breakthroughs of which there seem to be a never-ending supply.


Longevity — or immortality?

But of course, being Zoomers, they can’t just leave it at that.

They have to push — and are pushing — for even more. Longevity? Why stop there? How about immortality ?

Consider the work of The Methuselah Institute, a foundation that claims we are on the threshold of increasing the human life span by centuries.

The chairman, Aubrey D. N. J. de Grey, holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge and works in the university’s Department of Genetics, while also writing, lecturing, and serving on the scientific advisory boards of numerous organizations whose names are unambiguous, to say the least: Supercenternarian Research Foundation, Maximum Life Foundation, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Immortality Institute, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Foresight Institute…you get the idea.

In his online bio, Dr. de Grey states very straightforwardly, “The central goal of my work is to expedite the development of a true cure for human aging.”

Dr. de Grey has pioneered a program called SENS — Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Here’s the description:

SENS is a detailed plan for curing human aging. SENS is an engineering project, recognizing that aging is a medical condition and that medicine is a branch of engineering. Aging is a set of progressive changes in body composition, at the molecular and cellular level, which are side-effects of essential metabolic processes. Many of these changes are eventually bad for us — they are an accumulation of damage, which becomes pathogenic above a certain threshold of abundance

The traditional gerontological approach to life extension is to try to slow down this accumulation of damage. This is a misguided strategy… An even more short-termist alternative is the geriatric approach, which is to try to stave off pathology in the face of accumulating damage; this is a losing battle because the continuing accumulation of damage makes pathology more and more inescapable

Instead, the engineering (SENS) strategy is not to interfere with the metabolism per se, but to repair or obviate the accumulating damage and thereby indefinitely postpone the age at which it reaches pathogenic levels…

The “cure” for aging?

According to the web site, components of the SENS strategy are “likely to be feasible in mice within a decade (presuming adequate funding), and may be translatable to humans within a decade or two thereafter.

To facilitate funding, the Methuselah organization has taken a very creative step. They’re offering a prize — The Mouse Prize — to the researchers who develop the longest-living mus musculus, the breed of mouse most commonly used in research. Thus far, the Foundation has raised millions of dollars toward the cause.

For more information on The New Old: How the Boomers Are Changing Everything… Again or to purchase a copy, click here and here.

Photo © Martina Ebel