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The Death of Old Age

Here’s a cheery question: what medical condition claims more lives than any other? The answer might surprise you. It’s not cancer, heart disease or strokes. It’s old age.

That may sound a bit ridiculous – old age isn’t a disease, it’s just a fact of life. Right? But what if old age isn’t as inevitable as we think?

Recent advances in medical science might help us to push back old age and even bring the idea of 'eternal youth’ out of the realm of fantasy and into the real world.

Sounds too good to be true? Watch my short explainer video…

Have we finally found the cure for old age?

The quest for immortality is almost as old as civilisation itself. For millennia, we humans have entertained ourselves with stories of mythical fountains, fruits and islands that will bestow us with eternal youth.

And we have made some impressive progress. Through a combination of healthier lifestyles and medical advances, we can today expect to live twice as long as people did 200 years ago.

Could humankind now be on the verge of the biggest breakthrough of all – the ability to turn back the clock on the ageing process itself? Andrew Steele, author of the 2020 book Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, believes there is good reason to think so:

“This isn’t some wild, sci-fi pipe dream: we now have dozens of ways to slow and perhaps even reverse the ageing process in the lab: some of these are just proof-of-concept experiments, others are already in human trials. The first anti-ageing drugs could be with us within the decade, and a cavalcade of other therapies will be following close behind.”

So what are these potentially revolutionary treatments?

In the video, I focused predominantly on the very modern science of stem cell therapies. But there are many other branches of medical science being mined to help us turn the tide on old age. Some of them have a much longer, and more macabre, history.

Young blood: miracle cure or witchcraft?

It’s a centuries-old superstition — the blood of young people holds the key to eternal youth. Suffice to say, it has led to some pretty horrific outcomes. Take the notorious 17th century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory. It is alleged that she tortured and murdered hundreds of girls and then bathed in their blood.

Fast forward 300 years and Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian polymath and science fiction writer, took the theory a stage further. In the 1920s he carried out a series of experiments where he exchanged blood with young students. The initial results were, apparently, promising. After the first round of transfusions, it was said that his eyesight improved, he stopped balding and his friends told him he looked 10 years younger. It didn’t end well though. He died, aged 54, after suffering complications during his final experiment.

So is there anything more to this than witchcraft and wacky pseudo-science?

A landmark study at Harvard University in 2014 suggested that there might be – at least for mice. As Discover magazine reported:

“…researchers isolated a specific protein, GDF-11, found at higher levels in the blood of young mice. They then injected this protein into older mice each day for four weeks. After the treatment, the older mice did better in endurance exercise tests. Ageing cells in their muscles also showed signs of returning to a healthier state.”

The results caused a stir in Silicon Valley, where tech billionaires have spent huge sums of money trying to find a breakthrough that defeats ageing.

The California start-up Ambrosia gained notoriety when it started selling ‘one litre of youthful plasma’ to customers for $8,000, with the promise of potential immortality. However they soon ran into trouble. The Harvard study may have shown some promise for treatment on mice, but we are still a long way from showing that it can be effective for humans.

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that these types of blood exchange schemes endangered health, abused trust and were unsubstantiated by medical science. Ambrosia stopped trading shortly afterwards.

As Peter Ward, author of The Price of Immortality: The Race to Live Forever, summarises:

“Young blood transfusions, despite apparently finding a consumer base in Silicon Valley, remain on the fringes of longevity offerings, and as of now can be safely considered similar to snake oil.”

A cartoon of an elderly man with a walking stick being presented with a diagnosis of "ageing."

Who wants to live forever?

As we get closer to answering the question of how to turn the clock back on old age, we face another dilemma that might be just as difficult: should we?

Ezekiel Emanuel is a leading oncologist and one of America’s most influential voices on healthcare (he was a key adviser to President Obama’s administration). In an essay entitled Why I Hope to Die at 75, he argued that families and society as a whole would benefit from letting nature take its course swiftly. Emanuel, now 65, will refuse all life-extending medical interventions once he has marked his 75th birthday. No cancer treatments, no antibiotics. He won’t even have a flu jab:

“By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy.”

Emanuel’s position may be an extreme one, but it is not especially out-of-step with public opinion. Only one-in-three people in the UK would want to live to be 100 years old, according to recent polling from Ipsos.

One big concern is that the cost of living a longer life may be additional years spent struggling in poor health.

This is an area of contention between the age-reversal evangelists and the sceptics. Emanuel concedes that while senior citizens of today are healthier than they were 50 years ago, there are now greater numbers of people spending an increased number of years living with disabilities in their old age.

But those working in biogerontology (the field of modern ageing research) reject this pessimistic view. Ultimately, they say, with every extension of human lifespans we’ve also extended healthspans – the number of years of good health we’re able to enjoy. And if we are able to tackle the ageing process itself, this should drastically reduce our likelihood of suffering debilitating illnesses in later life.

Overpopulation and health inequalities

There are other, some more philosophical, concerns about the potential end of ageing. Might the planet become increasingly over-populated? Could younger generations suffer? Do we risk a dystopian future where only the rich defy ageing? Would life become meaningless if it didn’t have to end?

These important questions could also applied to most forms of medical science. If we treat other diseases, why would we make an exception for old age?

Andrew Steele, the Ageless author, writes:

“Whether it’s Alzheimer’s research or finding new ways to combat malaria, most biomedical science aims to make people healthier, usually with the side effect of longer lives. The goals of biogerontology are no different – and yet no one asks cancer researchers at dinner parties whether their new way to treat childhood leukaemia might lead to overpopulation. Curing ageing sounds weird at first, but we’re already living longer, healthier lives thanks to improving lifestyles and advances in medicine – anti-ageing treatments would just be an extension of progress already underway.”

The circle of life

Perhaps some of our squeamishness about anti-ageing technology might be cultural?

From classical mythology to the bible, to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, we’ve been brought up on stories which teach us that death is part of the ‘circle of life’. Those who try to resist this natural order will usually get their comeuppance. In Greek mythology, when the gods grant a wish of immortality to Tithonos, they also condemn him to spend eternity locked away as a senile old man.

However, science has now shown us that old age – as experienced by humans – is not an inevitability in all life forms. Some species of shark, jellyfish, tortoise, and pine tree, among others, reach maturity and then just… carry on. They can still be killed, but they don’t seem to go into irreversible decline at some arbitrary point.

An image of Turritopsis dohrnii AKA "The Immortal Jellyfish"

Might it be time to rethink death and old age altogether? The philosopher Ingemar Patrick Linden believes so:

“Thankfully, we find ourselves at a turning point in history where the old stories in praise of human mortality are beginning to lose their grip. We are less willing to see death as a just divine punishment, less certain of an afterlife, less inclined to accept that everything that happens by nature is thereby good, and we are no longer certain that nothing can be done about death. We are beginning to allow ourselves to openly admit what our actions already say: namely, that we want youth and life and that we hate ageing and death. A rebellion against death is brewing.”

It’s worth noting that even lifeforms which can turn back the clock on ageing – and are theoretically invincible – tend to die eventually. Rather than cheating death altogether, the promise of this area of medical science is likely to be the potential for us all to live longer lives in good health.

If you consider that life expectancy in the UK shot up by over 50% in the 20th century, then it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that big birthday celebrations for healthy and energetic 100-year-olds might soon become a lot more common.

Recommended further reading

  • Andrew Steele’s 2020 book Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. Read a free bonus chapter, on the ethics of ageing, here.

  • A Philosopher's Case Against Death (The MIT Press Reader) Patrick Ingmar Linden argues that we should overthrow the idea of death which is deeply embedded in our culture.

  • The Longevity Gap (Aeon) Will new drugs mean that the rich live to 120 and the poor die at 60? Linda Marsa make the case against longevity inequality.

  • The Price of Silicon Valley’s Obsession with Immortality (Big Think) “Despite bold claims from immortalists, they’ve yet to produce concrete evidence that humanity can someday engineer death into becoming optional,” argues Peter Ward, author of The Price of Immortality: The Race to Live Forever.


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