Remember In Time? The Justin Timberlake movie delivered an interesting take on an original idea. An idea that involved humans not physically ageing after 25. One of the standout scenes from the movie involves Timberlake being introduced to a mother, wife, and a daughter – all the exact same age. How realistic can this scenario get?
The question here is can we prevent ageing? That is, can we prevent the damage of cells, tissues, macromolecules and organs? Can we make homo sapiens immortal where anything from a malignancy to a natural calamity would not stop the heart from beating?
Research in various technologies like DNA repair, energy metabolism, antioxidant defenses has lead scientists to the discovery of methods to prolong the life spans of not only human beings but also various other organisms. Humans are living longer. Between 1970 to 2008, global life expectancy has increased by 8 years, and is expected to increase further.
The Science behind Ageing Prevention
Multiple efforts to stop ageing have been suggested on a global scale – both minute and pionerring. The minute ones have led to flooding of consumer markets with products ranging from anti-ageing creams to hormonal supplements.
Diets and supplements have shown improvements in the longevity of people. Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Carnosine addition to your diet can significantly improve your life by years while conquering various diseases. The anti-ageing industry is coming up with solutions like hormonal treatment and calorie restriction. Scientists have delved into the insights deeply to discover that the hormones which are involved in simulation and regulation of various body functions change their behavior with increasing age.
At old age, the level of growth hormones decreases and hormonal supplements come into play in the form of pills, shots, gels. Many new researches have been conducted since 1980s, with the results published only recently. Calorie restriction is one method wherein unnecessary calorie intake is restricted and essential nutrients are added into our diets. This has shown an improvement of up to 40% in improving the ageing threshold, effect of disease and lifespan. Compounds such as Resveratrol and Rapamycin (mTOR) are also investigated to show that if included in diets, they can increase the average life span of a person.
Apart from hormone replacement therapies, antioxidants analysis, maximizing immune function, changes in DNA structure have helped scientists to provide effective treatment to stop aging in few cases.
In 2013, Google stepped into the health industry by announcing the inception of its company named Calico, abbreviated for “Company for Life”. Based in San Francisco to study the understanding of the ageing process and develop new technologies for it, Calico has on its team genius minds of the medical world like David Botstein, a geneticist and former Genentech VP; and Shelley Buffenstein, a physiologist working for it with a singular goal of human longevity. If Calico succeeds, it may be possible for us in the future to buy a pill right at the nearest medical shop to extend our lives.
While Calico with its celeb scientists and researchers is keeping its work tightly under wraps, nanotechnology is working differently. In Jan 2016, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences mixed iron oxide nanoparticles in the food of Drosophila (flies) and monitored the biological consequences on the animal bodies. They concluded that ironoxide nanoparticles can protect the flies from multiple stress conditions, can delay animal ageing, and neurodegeneration. The next phase is wherein scientists will be testing these on creatures similar to human beings and will see if it could be helpful in reducing neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
Futurists like Ray Kurzweil predict that by the 2040s, technology will allow us to eliminate our minds to a digital realm, eliminating the complications of a physical body and helping us control cryonics. We can freeze the damaged tissue to prevent the spreading of diseases to the rest of our bodies. Whether we will be able to achieve this or not is still a question that looms large. All these technologies may have shown positive signs in improving the life span or may do that even further in the future but everything comes at a cost and some side effects.
Hormonal therapy may not necessarily lead to a plethora of advantages. The human body maintains a delicate balance between hormonal secretions and sometimes hormonal supplements may not be able to replicate the natural processes of the body. In such cases, chances are there some unintended effects may occur. And we can’t even predict what they might be! Similarly,it is too early to make definitive conclusions and to generalize results on calorie restriction.
With anti-ageing comes a population outburst. The question here is does our planet have sufficient resources to support this increase in population and the changing patterns of human life? There is already concern about overexploitation of resources, and this is when the anti-ageing industry hasn’t even taken off yet. A situation where population is increased drastically due to longevity will pose more such problems. It will force us to live locally, consume less, dematerialize, adopt low energy lifestyles and face dreadful economic conditions.
There are potential economic problems as well. There are chances of an increase in disabled elderly peoplem who will be dependent on the government or their children. Medicare will be depleted, drained dry by the cost of taking care of chronic diseases. Increase in dependency will lead to an increase in claim of pension benefits other post retirement economic burdens on nations. There will of course, also be an increase in intergenerational imbalance.
The anti-ageing industry isn’t going to come to a halt simply because of these reasons. There isn’t likely to be much political consensus on this issue. In fact, we only managed to stop human cloning primarily because of the religious opposition it received.
The only option for now, seems to be heading out to space, as a species. But given the astronomical (pun unintended) costs of space exploration, there’s still plenty of time before space comes to our rescue.