Will Human Beings Achieve Immortality Before The End Of The Century?
HAS THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH BEEN FOUND?
• The Secrets To A Long Life
Will Human Beings Achieve Immortality Before The End Of The Century?Oct 31
HAS THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH BEEN FOUND?
Raw food diets. Hormone injections. Chromosome-shortening microbes. Meet the people hoping to ‘cure’ old age
By Julia Llewellyn-Smith
October 25, 2011
In a corridor of a London conference centre, Dr Marios Kyriazis, chairman of the British Longevity Society, is outlining his vision of the future. “Right now there are about 10 people aged 110 in the world,” he explains in his native Cypriot accent. “Soon there will be 500 people, then 1,000. Slowly we’ll start living to 115, 120, 125. The number of these people will slowly increase and before long, it’s reasonable to say that we’ll be living for 500 years.” Five hundred years? Dr Kyriazis shrugs laconically. “People will still die from diseases, or in car crashes or being shot by a terrorist. But they will not die of old age.”
The late Steve Jobs famously described death as “very likely the single best invention of life… it clears out the old to make way for the new”. Death defines our culture. The Neanderthals decorated their graves and positioned the corpses as if for another life. All great religions have promised some form of immortality. Today, we might no longer try to confer death with spiritual significance, but we still desperately try to defer ageing. American billionaire David Murdock, 88, is planning to live to be 125 simply by drinking three smoothies a day packed with 20 fruit and vegetables, eschewing dairy and red meat, ensuring a daily dose of sun for vitamin D and an hour of exercise — all things most doctors would advocate.
His regime is positively conservative compared to the estimated 100,000 people worldwide who’ve embraced calorie restriction, cutting their daily calorific intake by up to 40 per cent, inspired by a 1934 experiment on rats which saw them live twice as long as normal on strict diets. Another 20,000 people follow the Primal Diet, that encourages them to eat raw — preferably rancid — meat in the belief it will encourage healthy intestinal bacteria — and thus extend their lifespans to the max.
But soon such sell-by-dates will cease to exist, according to Dr Kyriazis, who reluctantly tells me he is 55 (“I think all dates of birth should be abolished”), though — surprisingly — his dark-rimmed eyes and cadaverous frame make him look far older. “It’s nonsensical to believe nature, God, whatever, created life only to allow it to end after a set period of time,” he says. “A living being, once created, should be allowed to live indefinitely, or — put it another way — should not be allowed to die. Otherwise, what was the point of creating it in the first place?”
A growing number of equally creditable scientists (Kyriazis has a PhD in gerontology from King’s College, London) are convinced that humanity will achieve virtual immortality before the end of the century. We’re talking at the eighth British Anti-Ageing Conference, an annual event in which international experts gather to propagate theories and peddle wares designed to defeat all the nasties associated with old age.
“Our field is the only industry where people lie that they’re older than they actually are,” chuckles Phil Micans, the dewy-skinned 50-year-old vice-president of International Anti-Ageing Systems. Micans produces the latest wonder supplement: TA65, which has the anti-ageists all abuzz. These pills can, apparently, preserve our telomeres, the protective tips at the end of our chromosomes. Once telomeres fray, time’s up, making anything that can preserve them a holy grail. “They’re £400 for 90 capsules and you’re supposed to take two or three a day,” says Micans. “I didn’t think they’d sell at that price, but in just a month, we’ve shifted 150 units.”
But are such pills necessary? Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show we’re doing fine without them. More than a quarter of British children under 16 will live to 100. Average life expectancy rose by 44 days last year alone. Even so, our lifespans have a sell-by-date of around 120 years (the oldest recorded human being died at 122) because at this point our cell-repair mechanisms shut up shop. Micans and many of his colleagues simply want to help us see out those years in peak condition.
But others, like Kyriazis and Aubrey de Grey, the 48-year-old founder of the Methuselah Foundation, are convinced that within the next 50 years, ageing will be defeated. De Grey, an autodidact who campaigns tirelessly for research into immortality, thinks a lifespan of 1,000 is entirely possible. His hopes are pinned mainly on the recent discovery in a mass graveyard of a microorganism that composts lipofuscins, the goo that accumulates in our cells like plaque on teeth, gradually stopping them functioning. The challenge now is to insert that microorganism into the body.
“I don’t see the reason for ageing,” Dr Kyriazis continues crossly. “I don’t see why we are so intelligent and we can go to the moon but after a few years we just die and become worms’ intestines. Is that really our fate?”
But if most of us are scared of being eaten by worms, the alternative is even more terrifying. With immortality now a tangible possibility, popular culture is responding with dystopian tales reflecting the unease about the prospect of eternal life. The new novel The End Specialist, by American author Drew Magary, set in 2019, relates how “The Cure” — two sets of injections — allows everyone to become “postmortal”. Initially, the world rejoices, then resources deplete, leading to government-backed euthanasia. China has to nuke cities to keep populations under control.
Then there are the existential questions. “Death gives our life meaning,” says Magary, 34, over the phone from his home in Maine. “It’s our story arc — from humble beginnings, to a peak, to gentle retirement. Without it, ambition becomes pointless and so does marriage. If you knew you were going to spend 500 years with someone instead of 50, would you be prepared to say: ‘Until death do us part’?”
In The End Specialist, the Pope excommunicates all postmortals. But immortality advocates like de Grey insist that their goals are completely ethical. “It’s not remotely difficult to justify our aims morally,” he snaps. “What we want to do is keep people healthy and we have to do this as quickly as possible, and the longevity is purely a side effect. It is clearly our obligation to society to let humanity use these theories if they want to. You can’t say: ‘But then a dictator might live forever,’ because imposing our values and assumptions on humanity in the future is not moral.”
De Grey acknowledges immortality would have unimaginable repercussions on society. “But there are an enormous amount of variables,” he warns. “It’s quite probable future technology would reduce our ecological footprint.” As for overpopulation, de Grey, who is childless, thinks the threat is exaggerated. “Women are already having fewer children and later in life, so the result of longevity might mean they delay having children even longer.” I disagree. With 960 fertile years left, I’d have dozens of children. But Dr Kyriazis — also childless — thinks such an attitude preposterous. “Children are useless in nature!” he exclaims. “You have to waste 10 years teaching them things. Why don’t you learn it yourself? It’s what nature intended. Why have children?”
Because I love them, I suggest. Dr Kyriazis snorts. “I love my dogs. Look, already nature is telling us we don’t need to have so many children. We should achieve intelligence and complexity through ourselves, rather than through our offspring, otherwise we’re bypassing natural laws. It’s one theory why we’ve seen such an emergence of homosexuality in recent years, because nature knows that we no longer need to populate the planet. Children are a drain on resources, but soon we won’t have to rely on our children being more intelligent than us.” My six year-old certainly showed more intelligence than me when I told her what I was writing about. “But then you’d have to do your job forever, Mummy. Wouldn’t you get bored and tired?”
Well, quite. My grandmother just died aged 105, her mother lived to be 101 and her mother 100 — meaning the genetic odds of my living to at least the eve of AD3000 are exceptionally good. I worry incessantly about how I’m going to fund another 60 years of life; the prospect of having to find the cash for another 800 is intolerable.
“We wouldn’t retire, but we would change careers,” rejoinders Dr Kyriazis. “We’d take big chunks of time off, we’d learn to do things like play the piano.” And how would we fund this time off? “A manual labourer could start a restaurant or a bed and breakfast. He could sell oranges in the marketplace. The point is, people won’t be stuck building walls or digging up the street until they’re 50 and retire.”
With the baby boomers now flexing bus passes, a lot of consumers would like to believe Dr Kyriazis. In the United States, in the past 10 years the anti-ageing industry has grown from virtually nothing to one estimated to be worth $88 billion. “Longevity Clinics” are franchising busily, designing tailor-made “youth” regimes for the ultra-rich.
The industry’s poster boy is Dr Jeffry Life, whose startling image — a head of a white-haired septuagenarian seemingly Photoshopped onto the frame of a 20-year-old bodybuilder — has been used for years to advertise his rejuvenation plan. Aged 72, Dr Life (he swears this is his real name) was until 13 years ago a “typical out-of-shape middle-aged doctor”. He began watching his diet, exercising regularly and — more controversially — regularly injecting himself with testosterone and human growth hormones (HGH).
“I’m not against ageing,” he tells me in a strikingly deep voice from Las Vegas, where his lucrative practice is based. “I’m against getting old.” Those of us who can’t book an appointment can read his book, The Life Plan, which advocates these injections — at a cost of around $1,000 a month. What about the fact many doctors warn they might cause tumours, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer?
“There’s a vast amount of literature on the subject that shows hormone therapy, if practised when necessary, under medical supervision, is perfectly safe,” Dr Life retorts.
That’s what the public wants to hear, meaning the use of hormone injections is soaring. Heather Bird, one of the conference’s organisers, and the MD of HB Health, which offers everything from cosmetic surgery to hormone therapy, is 41 but — in these bizarre surroundings — could be any age from 25 to 50. US-born Bird admits regular Botox helps the Dorian-Grey appearance but that occasional HGH doses can be very handy. “I’ve used them twice,” she says, then tries and fails to frown. “The problem with you Brits is you still haven’t realised prevention is better than cure. I was shocked when I first came to this country and people said to me; ‘I want to party all night but still look 20, can you help?’ But now I’ve decided it’s up to them if they want to live life that way.” Murdock, the smoothie advocate, is a sworn enemy of injections or medicines of any kind (he won’t even take aspirin), and has spent $500 million on a research centre dedicated to unlocking the life-enhancing benefits of, say, blueberries and apple skins. But at the anti-ageing conference, hormone injection fans are ubiquitous.
“If you use hormones like athletes, of course you’re going to get into trouble,” says Dr Richard Lippman (“I’m 67, but you gotta agree I look 40”). “If you use them to maintain your hormones at the same level they were in your twenties, then you can stay young until you die.”
Who wouldn’t be tempted by such a prospect? And who, if the fountain of youth is invented in our lifetimes, will be noble enough to refuse to drink from it? For all my terror of living to be 125, when it came to the crunch, perhaps the prospect of death would terrify me more. As Drew Magary says: “I’ve painted a very negative picture of a world without ageing. But if there was a cure, would I take it? Hell, yeah.”
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