The concept of eternal life is timeless. It can be found in religious beliefs of an afterlife, mythology, as well as the works of countless writers and artists. While eternal life might be out of reach, scientists are working on ways to fight the ageing process.
Ageing as a Disease
We usually think of ageing as an inevitable, inescapable fact of life.
Like a snowball effect, as we get older the risk increases of contracting chronic diseases that can accelerate our decline.
That could be set to change though, as some scientists have shifted their view of ageing.
They argue that our acceptance of ageing as an inevitability is what holds us back from effectively countering it. They believe ageing itself should be considered a disease that may be prevented and treated.
While this viewpoint has yet to become mainstream in the scientific community, it has not deterred the founding of research centres dedicated to developing solutions to ageing.
What Causes Ageing?
Before we get into how scientists are trying to combat ageing, we should first look at what we know about ageing so far.
Ageing is a complex process which we still do not entirely understand. There are many theories about how and why it happens, with opinions divided on the issue.
Without going too in-depth, theories about what factors influence ageing can be split into two groups: programmed factors and damage-based factors.
Proponents of programmed factors suggest ageing is a predetermined biological process.
Picture having a biological clock in our genes that gradually slows down and stops.
Those that back damage-based factors suppose ageing is predominantly due to damage from internal and external sources which builds up over time.
In the same way a PC builds up wear and tear resulting in slower performance and more malfunctions, so our cells and tissues deteriorate.
The SENS Research Foundation in California focuses on methods to rejuvenate and repair damage to our cells, which they call ‘rejuvenation biotechnologies’.
Dr Aubrey De Grey, chief science officer of the foundation, claims there are seven factors responsible for the cellular and molecular damage which cause ageing.
These include cell loss, cancerous cells and mitochondrial mutations, among others.
De Grey says their goal is to develop a suite of therapies for middle-aged and older people.
These therapies would ‘genuinely turn them into, both mentally and physically, people who are in their early adulthood – 20s and 30s.’
He believes this would not be a one-time fix. Damage would continue to accumulate and the treatment would have to be repeated periodically.
The SENS Research Foundation seems confident that they have identified strategies to remove or repair damage related to the most common ageing factors.
Although there is no timeline for when the suite of treatments will become available, SENS’ research continues.
A Bloody Affair
There is, however, a treatment you can get right now – provided you have US$8,000 to spend.
For that princely sum, Ambrosia, an American medical start-up, offers its customers transfusions of blood plasma from donors between 16 and 25 years old.
The company’s founder, Jesse Karmazin, says he thinks the process actually reverses ageing. Although that remains to be seen, a clinical trial which people paid to take part in did show promising results.
It should be noted that Ambrosia has encountered criticism for their lack of a control group. It is well known that the placebo effect can change body chemistry.
Until the trial is performed with a control group, there is no way of knowing if the treatment is actually effective.
Proceed with Caution
Tempting as it is to fantasise about what the future holds in this field, there are legitimate concerns.
For a start, we have no idea how our bodies and minds would deal with living beyond a regular lifespan.
Then there is the issue of overpopulation. If we take much longer to die, or maybe never die, this presents serious problems when it comes to resources.
The vast wealth disparity in the world could mean that if or when age-reversing treatments that can significantly extend human life are developed, they will only be available to the rich.
This could create an undying top stratum of society who only get wealthier while the rest of us remain doomed to our mortal fate.
It also creates the dystopian possibility of an iron-fist dictator who could rule forever.
Perhaps these scenarios are flights of fancy, but the fact is if this kind of research does come to fruition, regular people are unlikely to see the benefits for some time.
It is probably best if we temper our expectations with caution and forethought.