It's called "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence", and its goal is nothing short of rewriting the last chapter of human existence:

The traditional gerontological approach to life extension is to try to slow down [the] accumulation of damage. This is a misguided strategy, firstly because it requires us to improve biological processes that we do not adequately understand, and secondly because it can even in principle only retard aging rather than reverse it. An even more short-termist alternative is the geriatric approach, which is to try to stave off pathology in the face of accumulating damage; this is a losing battle because the continuing accumulation of damage makes pathology more and more inescapable.

Instead, the engineering (SENS) strategy is not to interfere with metabolism per se, but to repair or obviate the accumulating damage and thereby indefinitely postpone the age at which it reaches pathogenic levels. This is practical because it avoids both of the problems with the other approaches: it sidesteps our ignorance of metabolism (because it does not attempt to interfere with metabolic processes and their production of side-effects) but also it pre-empts the chaos of pathology (because it repairs the precursors of pathology, rather than addressing the pathology head-on).

A tall order indeed. And this mass of semi-technical terms is actually understating the case. Cambridge University biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey says that aging can be, literally, "cured":

At the moment, a 50-year-old has roughly a 10% greater chance of dying within the next year than a 49-year-old, and a 51-year-old has a 10% greater chance than a 50-year-old, and so on up to at least 85 to 90 (after which more complicated things happen). But medical progress means that those actual probabilities are coming down with time. So, since we're 50 only a year after being 49, and so on, each of us has less than a 10% greater chance of dying at 50 than at 49 it's 10% minus the amount that medical progress has achieved for 50-year-olds in the year that we were 49. Thus, if we get to the point where we're bringing down the risk of death at each age faster than 10% per year, people will be enjoying a progressively diminishing risk of death in the next year (or, equivalently, a progressively increasing remaining life expectancy) as time passes. That's what I call "escape velocity", and I think it's fair to call it the point where aging is effectively cured.

I'm fifty-two, so naturally I'm interested in this sort of thing, and inevitably I must wonder whether I have the twenty or thirty years left that de Grey says it will take to reach "escape velocity" at the current rate of advancement. I have to admit, I have my doubts: my father is not yet 80, and he's in an advanced state of deterioration, and to the extent that his characteristics are becoming my characteristics, I rather expect to be in a sad state myself thirty years from now, assuming I'm not already dead and buried.

And I've always felt that this was the proper order of things, that we do our time and then vacate the premises: we "fill a slot for a time and then move out," as John Updike's Harry Angstrom once said. But I need hardly point out that I'm not looking forward to the move.

Still, I have to wonder if there aren't going to be problems, massive problems, connected with a sudden upward lurch in human longevity. My concerns, however, presumably do not impress de Grey:

[M]y universal response to all the arguments against curing is simple: don't tell me it'll cause us problems, tell me that it'll cause us problems so severe that it's preferable to sit back and send 100,000 people to their deaths every single day, forever. If you can't make a case that the problems outweigh 100,000 deaths a day, don't waste my time.

Of course, we're all still going to die, right?

People sometimes say no, this is not saving lives, it's extending lives, but when I ask what the difference is, exactly, no one has yet been able to tell me. Saying that extending old people's lives is not so important as extending young people's lives may be justified today, when older people have less potential life to live (in terms of both quantity and quality) than younger people, but when that difference is seen to be removable (by curing aging), one would have to argue that older people matter less because they have a longer past, even though their potential future is no different from that of younger people.

And I suspect that at least part of the objection to the "curing" process lies in the idea that it would prolong the existence of the hated baby boomers, Generation Ecch, the same people who have already managed to stretch their adolescence from the 1960s all the way into the twenty-first century without necessarily ever growing up. Still, the first of the bunch is now sixtysomething: their numbers have already diminished somewhat, and obviously not all of them will live long enough to take the "cure." Maybe I won't. On the other hand, all I can ask for is what Woody Allen asked for: "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens." To the extent that I can disconnect myself from the whole idea and to the extent that I can remind myself of the instances where I thought I was done for and yet somehow walked away perhaps I can get myself in the proper frame of mind for stretching my time to sixty, seventy, a hundred years.

Whether I actually live another forty-eight years, or, for that matter, whether I actually write forty-eight more Vents for each of those years, remains to be seen.

The Vent

  24 July 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill