Thursday, 19 July 2012

Want to be forever young? or maybe immortal? According to The Economist (!) getting old is no longer compulsory...

Economist, July 2010: Why do we grow old? And is ageing really compulsory?

"FOR as long as people have been growing old, they’ve been wishing they didn’t have to. The “Epic of Gilgamesh”, one of the most ancient works of literature, chronicles the eponymous hero’s quest for eternal life. Most religions offer an attenuated version of immortality in which some fuzzily defined soul endures even after the body has died. Medieval alchemists hunted in vain for the rejuvenating Philosopher’s Stone; industrial-age quacks got rich off their patent elixirs. Today, cosmetics companies dance around truth-in-advertising laws to imply that their creams and lotions can keep the years at bay.

Yet for all the gloomy fascination that surrounds ageing, precious little research has been done into its causes. The question of why we grow old and die still divides evolutionary biologists. Strictly speaking, ageing does not seem to be inevitable. After all, both cancer cells and some very simple forms of life appear highly resistant to the passage of time. And while we know plenty about the consequences of ageing, we know much less about the exact biological processes involved. The little interest shown was until recently limited to quacks and cranks, leavened with the occasional iconoclastic scientist (such as Peter Medawar, a brilliant British zoologist) with a reputation strong enough to survive developing an interest in a thoroughly disreputable field.

In the past couple of decades that has begun to change. Improvements in technology, particularly the ability to sequence DNA quickly, have made the serious study of ageing possible. [...] Plenty of progress has already been made. Genes have been found that boost the lifespans of laboratory animals by 30% or more, and research into the mechanisms of ageing has fingered some tantalising leads: ageing seems to be associated with a low-level, chronic inflammation of many of the body’s tissues, for instance. Insulin, a hormone that regulates the metabolism of glucose, also crops up.

Most intriguing of all is something that scientists have known for decades: feeding near-starvation diets to laboratory animals such as mice and fruit flies can extend their lifespans by 40% or more, and improve health along the way. If those results translated directly to humans (and there is some preliminary evidence that fasting may confer benefits in people), then the human lifespan could reach 150 years. Many explanations have been offered and discarded to explain the power of dieting: that it reduces production of the harmful chemicals that are a side-effect of respiration, for instance, or that it lowers blood-sugar levels, which seems to have a variety of health benefits. Proponents of this theory are searching for drugs, so-called “calorie-restriction mimetics”, that can produce these effects without requiring aspiring centenarians to endure 100 years of non-stop dieting. Several firms have been set up to capitalise on the findings, in the hope of developing and selling pills that grant longer, healthier lives." For more, read:

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