“We should not regard aging as a fact of life”
British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey firmly believes that humans can live to be 1000 years old. He spoke with Sara Steinert about his mission to fight the aging process and the similarities between the human body and an airplane.
The European: Dr. de Grey, for many years, people thought of human aging as inevitable, as part of our biology. Is that still true?
de Grey: I would not say that it is wrong. Aging is certainly a side effect of being alive. It is the accumulation of damage that the body does to itself as a by-product of its normal operations. In that sense it is exactly the same as the aging process of a car or an airplane. So really it is not even biology, it is just physics. The big mistake that people make is not in their understanding of what aging is, but in the misunderstanding of what the diseases of old age are: things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, or cardiovascular disease.
The European: How are they mistaken?
de Grey: Most people think of those diseases as like infections – things that could be eliminated from the body using sophisticated medicine. An enormous amount of money and effort is being spent on that, although it is impossible to cure them because these things are part of aging and of being alive in the first place. The only way we can ever tackle those diseases is by tackling the whole package. By preventative maintenance against the damage of being alive.
The European: With stem cell therapies, for example?
de Grey: That is one part of it. But aging is not one single process but an accumulation of a lot of different types of damage in different organs and body parts as a result of different processes. In order to comprehensively tackle all of these types of damage, we have to do a lot of different things at the same time.
The European: Do you believe that your therapies will be able to regenerate all body parts, even brain cells?
de Grey: The single most challenging part of fighting aging is cancer. It is especially difficult because it has natural selection on its side. A cancerous tumor that is big enough to be clinically important has a trillion cells. Each of those cells is independently trying to do creative things to grow faster and escape from anything that the doctor is throwing at it. The most sophisticated and elaborate part of our work involves trying to tackle that. The difference between the brain and the rest of the body is an important difference, but it’s not as big a difference as you might think. It is true that brain cells don’t naturally regenerate very much, but there is plenty of very high-quality and advanced stem cell research going on for the brain and the rest of the body.
The European: You claimed that there is at least one person alive today that will live to be a thousand years old.
de Grey: I never said that this is certain. But yes, I think it’s very likely that the first person to live up to a thousand is already alive.
The European: What kind of person would this be?
de Grey: People who break the world record for longevity are always people who are naturally built to live a long time. Today, people occasionally live up to 110 years. It’s probably going to be someone like that. Someone who may be 50 or 60 or 70 years old today but is doing unusually well for her or his age. The applicability of any therapy will always depend on how healthy a person is. The people who will be the oldest beneficiaries will simply be the people who are aging more slowly before the therapies come along.
The European: So you don’t think it’s a certain kind of personality that is interested in extending life?
de Grey: That is a completely different and mistaken way of looking at it, because we do not make decisions about what we want on the basis of how long ago we were born. We make decisions on the basis of how we perceive the future. I don’t often meet people who want to get sick. So if you have the opportunity not to get sick you won’t get sick and probably won’t die soon.
“A 50/50 chance is enough to be worth fighting for”
The European: How would the “seasons of life” change for us if our time on earth were extended to 1000 years?
de Grey: I don’t find it very productive to think about that, because we are talking about the distant future. So many other things are going to be different in the distant future as a result of other technological breakthroughs. All I really care about is that I don’t want to get sick when I am older. I know that this is unambiguously going to be a good thing.
The European: But what decisions would we have to make? Could I choose for example to always be 20, 40, or 60 years old?
de Grey: Yes, exactly. The best way to think about it is to remember that we are talking about preventative maintenance. So, again, you can think about it in exactly the same way as you think about preventative maintenance on a car or an airplane. The state of physical and mental health will be determined by how thoroughly and how frequently we do the maintenance. So more frequent and thorough maintenance will allow you to be biologically twenty or twenty-five, while less frequent and thorough maintenance will make you a constantly middle-aged person.
The European: From what age on could these therapies be used?
de Grey: Twenty would probably be the minimum biological age that you can maintain. Because if we apply this preventative maintenance it actually rejuvenates people. It takes people back to a younger biological age than they were before the treatment. That means that you don’t have to make a decision when you are 20. You can be 50 already and you could go back to being biologically 25. That is the sensible thing to think about, because as time goes on, these therapies will be getting better. They will be getting more comprehensive, more convenient, and safer.
The European: Who would be able to afford these therapies?
de Grey: That’s a good question. These therapies will not be expensive. They will be made available to everybody who needs them. Because unlike today’s high-tech medicine which is very expensive, these therapies will pay for themselves. They will save us all of the money we are currently spending trying to keep people alive with medicine that doesn’t work. This will also have an enormous number of very effective indirect economic benefits. One is that the children of the elderly will be more productive because they won’t have to spend any time looking after their sick parents. The older but healthy people themselves will be continuing to contribute wealth to society instead of just consuming wealth. Any way you look at it, it would be economically suicidal at the national level for any country not to make these therapies available for everyone who is old enough to need them.
The European: How soon could these therapies be made available?
de Grey: In 2004, I first started making predictions about how quickly we would develop them. Back then, I said it would probably take around 25 years. But it was simply a 50/50 probability. I always acknowledged that there is at least a 10% chance that we won’t get them ready for another hundred years in case we found new problems. But a 50/50 chance is enough to be worth fighting for. But what it really depends on is funding. At the earlier stages of the research, the funding is of course the most difficult to obtain, because people are not yet convinced that the research will eventually succeed. So over the past ten years, during which I would have hoped that we would have gotten to obtain a really decisive dramatic result, we only made about three years of progress. But that’s about the amount of progress that I would have expected to make with the amount of money that we have actually received. So I think I got it about right (laughs).
“The whole point of medicine is tinkering with the way the body works”
The European: Many people and organizations should be interested in investing in something so crucial. So why is there still a lack of financing?
de Grey: There are many reasons for that. One is that the private sector is mostly interested in making quick money, and another is that governments are mainly interested in getting re-elected. What they do therefore depends on what the public wants them to do. That is why it’s so important to get the word out and get people to understand that they should not regard aging as a fact of life but as something that they might be able to avoid. Since those two sources of funding are so difficult, I and some other researchers founded the SENSResearch Foundation as a charity, which is supported by philanthropists through donations. Like this, people who have money don’t need to get anyone else’s permission to spend it. But, of course, we still need to persuade more people that this is the world’s most important problem.
The European: How about the pharmaceutical and medical industry?
de Grey: They also essentially just follow the money. They have to do what the costumer is willing to pay for. At the moment, the general public is focused on having medical care when they are already sick. So companies invest in treatment much more than in prevention. Things will only change when the public begins to appreciate the value of preventative maintenance.
The European: Maybe they don’t appreciate it because they are scared to intervene so drastically in evolution?
de Grey: Why should it be scary? The whole point of medicine is tinkering with the way the body works so as to make it work better. So these therapies should not be any scarier than any other medical treatment. But when we talk about evolution, nobody really pays attention to the fact that humanity has already had massive effects on the way that evolution works. The reason, for example, why we have weaker immune systems now and more allergies is basically because we can. Historically speaking, people with weak immune systems used to have a high chance of dying of infections before they had any kids. And now people with weak immune systems can survive because our medicine is good enough.
The European: Is there a risk of overpopulation? If people don’t make space on this planet for a thousand years it could get quite crowded here.
de Grey: If we look at the recent history of humanity, we see that that is not a problem. Whenever any nation reaches a certain level of female education, emancipation, and prosperity, birth rates go down really rapidly because women just don’t choose to have so many kids on average. They are also having them later, so we can expect them to have them much later when they don’t have menopause any more. But the most important thing of all is that the carrying capacity of the planet, the number of people that we can support without an unacceptable environmental impact, is not a fixed number. That number increases as technology improves. As we make better use of renewable energy and develop nuclear fusion, we will diminish our bad effects on the climate. And that is just one example. These things will happen in a relatively short time frame, whereas the demographic changes that may occur as a result of bringing aging under control will only happen very slowly. We are not going to have any 200-year-old people for at least another 100 years – regardless of what happens.
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