British aging researcher David Gems says the aging process can be hugely mitigated. He also recognizes that there are ethical dilemmas in further extending life.
By **Russ Baker**
By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.Com.
I’m no scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I do know an intriguing report when I see one.
Such is the following, from David Gems, a British biogerontologist and Deputy Director of the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London.
In an article for the magazine American Scientist, Gems notes that as the global population ages, we are likely to see a growing percentage of humanity living long enough to be afflicted with illnesses related to old age. He then raises the question:
Should we attack the underlying cause of this suffering? Should we try to “cure”
the prospect of treating aging is extraordinary in terms of the potential impact
on the human condition. So, would it be ethical to try to treat it?
Gems says it may indeed be possible to “treat” aging. He knows because he’s personally involved with cutting edge research in the area.
It is possible to slow aging in laboratory animals. In fact, it is easy.
Work in my own lab focuses on the tiny nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans,
which is widely used in genetic studies. Even under optimal culture conditions, these
creatures age and die within two to three weeks. In the early 1980s the American
geneticist Michael Klass first discovered that by altering their genes, one can slow
aging in C. elegans. The result is that the worms live much longer and they remain
youthful and healthy longer. The current record for enhancing C. elegans longevity
is an astonishing tenfold increase in lifespan, produced by a group at the University
of Arkansas. It has now been shown that genes that influence aging in the worms
also influence aging in mammals (in mice, to be precise). Humans also carry
He floats several theories on what causes aging. (You might say “going to the office” or “having kids,” but Dr. Gems is a bit more precise):
One theory attributes it to an accumulation of molecular damage. Another points
to excess biosynthesis; many genes and pathways that influence aging are
associated with control of biosynthesis and growth. Yet the truth remains unclear.
Should we alleviate suffering on a large scale and accept life extension? Or should we allow an immensity of avoidable suffering in order to avoid extending life?
Gems notes that restricting caloric intake makes a huge difference in the lifespan of mammals.I can attest to this. One friend, in her mid-nineties and still quite vigorous and vital, eats almost nothing at all, maybe a boiled potato—though she does like a gin-and-tonic in the evening.
One aim of aging research is to develop drugs that can reproduce the effects of
dietary restriction and also of genetic alterations that slow aging The ultimate
goal would be a pill that one could take regularly from midlife onward.
This pill would theoretically slow aging with minimal side effects. Its
predicted impact would be to reduce the incidence of aging-related
disease at all ages—although not to remove them altogether. This would lengthen
good health later into life and extend our lifespan—possibly without expanding
periods of disability and dependency.
Gems considers the medical specializations that treat the diseases of aging, from Alzheimer’s to macular degeneration (vision deterioration) and the advances in these areas.
Yet in the long run a more powerful way to protect against age-related disease
would be to intervene in the aging process itself. This would provide protection
against the full spectrum of age-related illnesses.
Gems’ article is nuanced and complex, with enough angst to appear truly conflicted:
…But is this a type of medicine that humanity should pursue? As I see it,
decelerating human aging would have two outcomes in ethical terms. On the one
hand, it would reduce disease on an enormous scale. This would be a great good.
On the other hand, it would lead to life extension, perhaps eventually of a large
magnitude. This second outcome is controversial. Surveys of public opinion, for
example by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2009,
suggest that most people would favor this outcome, but not all. There have been
some vocal opponents. Yet, given the great benefit of decelerated aging in
terms of reduced suffering, I feel we must pursue this approach, despite
He ends with this:
So it is that decelerated aging would force a dilemma upon us. Should we
alleviate suffering on a large scale and accept life extension? Or should we allow an
immensity of avoidable suffering in order to avoid extending life? To my mind, the
only reasonable course is the first. In fact, we should pursue it energetically, and
begin to prevent illness as soon as is feasible. If not, we risk the fury of future
generations for dithering. As for life extension, we will just have to take that
on the chin. If we can prepare for it socially, politically and
institutionally, and if we keep birth rates low, we should be able to
ensure long, healthier, happier lives for our children and for our
This is a fascinating topic. Due to researchers like Gems, it is no longer an abstraction.
Copyright 2011 Russ Baker
By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.Com.