Reaching for immortality

From msnbc:

The quest for immortality goes back to Adam and Eve, but now some smart people are getting serious about actually bringing it within their grasp. And they’re getting more attention as well.

Let’s take Aubrey de Grey, for example: The British gerontologist has been beating the drum for anti-aging therapies for years. He plays a prominent role in a recently published book on the immortality quest titled “Long for this World,” a new documentary called “To Age or Not to Age” and a just-published commentary on the science of aging.

In this week’s issue of Science Translational Medicine, de Grey and nine other co-authors urge the United States and other nations to set up a Project Apollo-scale initiative to avert the coming “global aging crisis.” The experts’ prescription includes a campaign to raise the general public’s awareness about lifestyle changes that can lead to longer and healthier lives; a lab-based effort to develop anti-aging medicines; and a push for new techniques to repair, restore or replace the cellular and molecular damage done by age.

“There is this misunderstanding that aging is something that just happens to you, like the weather, and cannot be influenced,” another co-author, Jan Vijg of Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in a news release. “The big surprise of the last decades is that, in many different animals, we can increase healthy life span in various ways.”

When it comes to translating anti-aging research into real life, however, the experts face at least three types of challenges: First, the basic lifestyle advice is pretty pedestrian: Eat wisely and exercise moderately. Some folks might wonder what the big deal is all about. “To enjoy the fantastic voyage, stay with the tried and true,” Jonathan Weiner writes in “Long for this World.”

Genetic factors also affect longevity, of course, as pointed out by a recent study (which has come under question, by the way). But it’s hard to tease out exactly how those factors interact with each other and with the lifestyle factors. There’s no magic bullet … yet.

The second challenge has to do with anti-aging therapies, which could offer a magic bullet someday. Some substances do seem to extend longevity, and caloric restriction has been found to be a life-extender as well … for worms and mice. But it’s not yet clear how these strategies will work for humans. It could well turn out that what works for mice would make humans sicker, or make life so unpleasant that it’s not worth living that much longer.

The third challenge involves the same issue that Adam and Eve faced: Reaching too hungrily for the fruit on the tree of life might make you seem presumptuous. In his reviewof “To Age or Not to Age,” New York Times film critic Stephen Holden complains that the movie “beats the drums so enthusiastically for a pharmaceutical fountain of youth that you have the uncomfortable sensation of being harangued by snake-oil salesmen.”

Like de Grey and his colleagues, futurist/inventorRay Kurzweil has been facing these challenges for years – not as an anti-aging researcher per se, but as a smart guy who has made his name by predicting trends in information technology that bring benefits on an exponential curve rather than a linear progression. He has applied the “law of accelerating returns” to the rise of artificial intelligence, predicting that A.I. will match human intelligence by 2029 and lead to a technological singularity by 2045 – beyond which predictions can’t be made.

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