The end of aging?


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Can the physiological processes leading to aging be regulated or controlled to prolong human life? A medical engineer named Aubrey de Grey thinks this is possible. Scientists believe that if a mouse can survive on low-calorie diet the equivalent of human 180 years as demonstrated in an experiment by an Illinois scientist, why cannot human beings survive for hundreds of years? An article by David Stipp in Fortune magazine in 2004 describes the research developments in medical science and contributions of de Grey on the subject of aging.

According to de Grey, there are seven things that cause diseases and thus limit human longevity. All seven contribute to the major killers: heart disease, stroke and cancer. The seven are 1) too few cells that have the ability to renew themselves resulting in loss of muscle mass, brain cells, and bone; 2) too many old, harmful cells that refuse to die and secrete toxic proteins causing muscles to become fatty and skin to deteriorate; 3) mutations in the cell nucleus, which underlie cancer; 4) mutations in mitochondria causing loss of vigor and underlie diseases like Parkinson’s; 5) junk within cells so they lose the ability to breakdown their wastes causing lumps in artery walls, etc.; 6) junk between cells consisting of proteins normally part of cells but break away and form globs of gunk causing Alzheimer’s and liver diseases; and 7) proteins sticking together which are structural molecules needed for artery walls, lenses of eyes, etc. causing hardening of arteries and high blood pressure.

Some of de Grey’s proposed fixes are already realized. For example, stem cells, which have powers of re-generation, are being used to rejuvenate old tissues. He proposes bioremediation programs that entail implanting in people genes of soil bacteria that metabolize insoluble gunk, injecting people with bio-engineered viruses, and inserting desired new genes into their DNA (gene therapy). He also proposes procedures to deal with free radicals that increase the cancer risk. But he finds that the toughest aging problem is cancer because the DNA of cancer cells quickly mutates and evolves resistance from drugs. Nonetheless, he offers a solution. It should, however, be noted that these proposed bio-engineering and genetic solutions have moral dimensions.

Medical solutions to the problems of aging and longevity are only part of the solution. What about the role of the environment in which we live? People are faced with all sorts of risks from natural events and from accidents stemming from human activities. The only way for people is to reduce the probability of accidents from happening and to avoid exposure to expected, disastrous natural events. This is especially true during these days of climate change when we are experiencing many extreme weather conditions.

Finally, we must ask the question whether it is desirable to live as long as possible. I am sure every senior citizen is trying to reflect on this question in the light of his personal circumstances. In the end, whatever humans will do successfully to prolong human life on earth, all are bound to die. As the Bible tells us, “the wages of sin is death.”

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