Aubrey de Grey believes that, in the foreseeable future, the average healthy lifespan could well exceed 100….If we get our heads out of the sand.
De Grey is in a position to know. The Cambridge Ph.D. is Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, editor-in-chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research, and co-author of Ending Aging. The late Dr Sherwin Nuland, eminent expert on aging and longevity, called de Gray a “brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for civilization to fulfill the highest hopes he has for its future.”
I interviewed Aubrey de Grey yesterday.
Marty Nemko: You claim that the public is indifferent to, even resistant to, efforts to extend lifespan. Isn’t there strong evidence to the contrary, for example, people’s commitment to exercise and the massive dietary supplement industry?
Aubrey de Grey: The public is terminally conflicted about life extension. Yes, they desperately try to stave off the ill-health of old age by already available means but are scared by the idea that we might some day have anti-aging medicine that actually delivers. This irrationality arises from fear: fear of the unknown and of getting one’s hopes up prematurely. So they put the issue out of their mind.
MN: What about people who oppose extending longevity because they believe overpopulation is bad for the environment?
AD: That fear is based on a misconception: that the defeat of aging would occur without other progress. We are already addressing issues such as overpopulation by developing renewable energy, nuclear fusion etc. Birth rates are falling and maternal age at birth is rising as women become more educated and emancipated worldwide.
MN: You and those at your foundation and allied scientists believe there’s a 50 percent chance that your proposed strategies for repairing age-related cell damage will come to fruition within 20 to 25 years. What’s your evidence for that?
AD: It’s the same kind of evidence that any pioneering technologist has: We have a concrete idea of what real anti-aging medication would consist of plus detailed knowledge of what technology already exists that constitutes the starting-points for developing that medication. So we have a reasonable sense of how hard it is to get from here to there and thus how long it will probably take.
MN: That sounds like a blend of evidence and gut feeling.
AD: It’s a different sort of evidence than what basic scientists use to make progress in understanding nature but it’s exactly the way technologists always work in devising new ways to manipulate nature.
MN: Let’s turn to your foundation’s and allied institutions’ proposed path toward repairing aging cells. You write that there are seven foundational causes of aging. You call them, “The Seven Deadly Things.” Would you describe each and how cells afflicted by them might be repaired?
AD: The first is cell loss and atrophy. The repair technique is well known: It’s stem cell therapy.
The second is cancerous cells. Many approaches are being pursued. Ours is an elaborate one incorporating gene therapy and several stem cell therapies.
Third is death-resistant cells, which are especially damaging in the immune system. We’re interested in using a technique called suicide gene therapy to eliminate them.
Then there’s mitochondrial mutations: damage to the DNA inside the mitochondrion, the part of the cell that does the chemistry of breathing. We are working to obviate such mutations by placing backup copies of this DNA in the nucleus.
Next, there’s extracellular matrix stiffening: the accumulation of unwanted chemical bonds between proteins that make our arteries and other tissues elastic. We are seeking drugs or enzymes that can break those bonds.
Then, extracellular aggregates: molecular waste products that accumulate in the spaces between cells, such as plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. We’re trying to eliminate them by getting cells such as macrophages to engulf them, or by activating other aspects of the immune system against them.
And finally, intracellular aggregates. Here we believe it will be necessary to introduce new enzymes from other species such as bacteria that can break down the waste products. We’ve already had good success in this.
MN: For now, are there things you and I can do to reverse or at least slow progression of the Seven Deadly Things, to extend our healthy lifespan?
AD: Alas, the best advice for now is the obvious: Control stress, BMI, smoking and the like, but don’t engage in wishful thinking about how much benefit that will deliver--even if you can do it. Rather, do everything you can to hasten the development of therapies that will truly work against aging--whether that be donating to SENS, getting into the most relevant biomedical research areas, or helping others, especially opinion-formers, policy-makers, and high net-worth individuals to jettison the fear of thinking rationally about the huge tragedy of aging and how much suffering would be alleviated if we could medically postpone or eliminate it.
MN: Anything else you want to say to the readers of PsychologyToday.com?
AD: I think you pretty much covered it. The key idea here is to demystify aging--to get across the fact that we actually understand aging pretty well at this point, such that bringing it under medical control and greatly postponing and maybe even eliminating the ill-health of old age is a truly foreseeable prospect if we buckle down and really put some effort into it.
Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.