The science of immortality

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Humanity has been obsessed with immortality for millennia. We’ve been so obsessed, in fact, that one of humanity’s very first pieces of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh (written in 2100 BCE), finds its hero on a search for the secret of eternal life. Flash forward to Ancient Greece around 300 CE and alchemists begin trying their luck at creating philosophers’ stones, which, in theory, could grant immortality. And we can’t forget about Ponce de León, who went sailing around what’s now Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth in 1513. (According to legend, at least.)

The search for immortality still continues. The only difference? We now use science instead of alchemy and treasure maps to figure out how we can live forever. We’ve made significant progress in solving the puzzle of aging in recent years, and might someday eliminate the aging process altogether.

Futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson argues that humanity is on the brink of overcoming aging—we’re so close, in fact, that if you (yes, you) manage to live past the year 2050, “you’re probably not going to die unless you get a nasty disease,” as Pearson told The Sun. Aging won’t be to blame. People who shed their mortal coils before 2050, on the other hand, “might be part of the last generation of humans to die of old age.”

Will Pearson’s prediction prove correct? There’s only one way to find out for sure. Keep reading for the science behind how you can optimize your chances of living until 2050 (and maybe even a heck of a lot longer).

Understanding aging

For decades, scientists have been struggling to understand why and how the process of aging occurs. Why do we develop wrinkles on our skin? And cataracts in our eyes? And aches in our joints? What’s the evolutionary advantage of having something baked into our DNA that, as we age, tells our bodies to deteriorate?

Scientists have come up with hundreds of possible reasons for aging over the past several decades, but according to Steven Austad, biogerontologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, consensus has started to form around one hypothesis in particular—one that places the “blame” for aging squarely on reproduction. As Austad explained in an interview with Popular Science:

“Basically, we age because it’s not in nature’s best interest to perfectly repair our bodies. The main thing is to keep us reproductive as long as possible, and then let our bodies deteriorate.”

So, that’s the why behind aging: after nature has accomplished its “goal” of keeping adult humans primed for baby-making for as long as possible, it reduces the amount of energy spent on keeping those humans healthy. Essentially, nature is saying, “Alright, mission accomplished. We can go ahead and start shutting everything down.”

And that brings us to the how of aging. In recent years, researchers have begun to understand aging as a series of epigenetic changes—or changes that make genes more (or less) active. As a result, those genes begin to regulate cell activity in your body differently, and, for example, repairing old and damaged cells becomes less of a priority. To quote Scientific American, “As these changes accumulate, our muscles weaken, our minds slow down and we become more vulnerable to diseases.”

Yeesh. We know, it’s not very fun to think about. But here’s the good news: In the future, we might not only be able to avoid these negative effects of aging, we might also be able to reverse them.

Reversing aging

So, we age because our cells stop behaving the way they used to. How do we reverse that?

One idea, proposed by researcher Darren Baker from the Mayo Clinic, is that we could, from time to time, remove our “misbehaving” cells. In his research, Baker focused specifically on senescent cells (known colloquially as “zombie cells”), which are older cells that have stopped dividing and tend to cluster in certain places around the body, where they cause age-related problems. Baker found that mice who underwent a regular purging of their senescent cells (compared to those who retained them) avoided many of the negative effects of aging. Overall, they had fewer wrinkles, fewer cataracts, and stronger muscles.

But here’s where things get even more exciting: even middle-aged mice who received the treatment experienced positive results. It was as if aging was stopped in its tracks.

“Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate.”Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte

Of course, stopping aging isn’t the same thing as reversing aging. Fast forward to 2016, however, and researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies were able to accomplish exactly that. Unlike Baker, who targeted cells, these later researchers targeted the underlying genes that control those cells. By tweaking these genes both in mice and in human cells (in vitro), the researchers were able to convert old cells back into more youthful or “embryonic-like” cells. They weren’t just stopping aging, they were reversing it.

Increasing longevity

There’s no denying the scientific breakthroughs in the previous section could have profound implications for the future of human mortality. Unfortunately, those treatments aren’t available to us—at least not yet. So if you wanted to live forever, is there anything you can do to help make that happen? Maybe a bit more than you might think. As science journalist Duncan Geere explained:

“There’s a common misconception that to live forever we need to somehow pause the ageing process. We don’t. We just need to increase the rate at which our lifespans are lengthening.”Duncan Geere

Since 1900, life expectancy in the U.S. has risen from 47 to 79, which is largely due to reduced infant mortality rates, vaccines, and antibiotics. For the past 200 years, life expectancy around the world has increased at a steady rate of about two years per decade. If we were able to increase that growth rate to a point where we were adding 10+ years of life expectancy per decade, we would achieve what gerontologist Aubrey de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity.”

(Disclaimer: We’re veering into the very theoretical here, so please don’t make any definite plans for the year 3000.)

Longevity escape velocity is a (hypothetical) point at which human longevity is increasing so rapidly that we effectively become immortal. According to de Grey, we’re not far off from reaching this point. In fact, he believes that the first human beings who will live to be 1,000 years old have already been born.

Interested in being one of humanity’s first 1,000-year-olds? When it comes to increasing longevity, a good place to start is by learning from cultures and communities of people who have seemingly mastered the art of reaching advanced old age. National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner calls these communities “Blue Zones,” and the original five he identified include Icaria (Greece); Okinawa (Japan); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Sardinia (Italy); and a Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda (California). Buettner found that residents of Blue Zones are more likely to live into their 100s and experience less instances of disease compared to residents of other parts of the developed world.

How is that possible? Buettner found six shared features of Blue Zone lifestyles that may shed some light on this phenomenon. Apply these tenets to your own life, and you may be able to tack some additional years onto your own lifespan.

  1. Put family first, above all other concerns.
  2. Don’t smoke.
  3. Eat an omnivorous (but plant-based) diet.
  4. Engage in constant, moderate physical activity (e.g. yoga).
  5. Be socially active and integrated into your community.
  6. Make legumes (chickpeas, lentils, peas) your new best friends.

Making these six things a priority in your life won’t guarantee that you live forever, but they definitely won’t hurt.

Of course, if you’ve tried the whole diet and exercise thing before and aren’t a big fan, don’t worry: there are other ways you can live forever… only you’ll have to get creative with your definition of “live.”

Rethinking what it means to live forever

Life and death are complicated concepts, not only in biology, but in philosophy as well. So as a parting thought experiment, consider this:

If you regularly replace your vital body organs with 3D-printed implantable versions (which are on the horizon), and replace your old cells with fresh ones, and replace your original joints with metal ones… are you still the same person? Most people would probably say yes.

But what if you were able to upload your brain to a computer and “pilot” an entirely synthetic android body? Would that still be you? According to futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson, that’s where pursuing eternal life will inevitably lead us. As he told The Sun:

“A long time before we get to fix our bodies and rejuvenate it every time we feel like, we’ll be able to link our minds to the machine world… the mind will basically be in the cloud, and be able to use any android that you feel like to inhabit the real world.”Dr. Ian Pearson

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Because once your mind is uploaded, there’s really no more need for you to exist in the physical world at all. You could live out your days in the Matrix, hanging out with a virtual Keanu Reeves, eating virtual steak, forever. As long as the power stayed on, you’d be immortal.

But would it still really be you?


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